Response to the letter from Blackburn

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Below is a response to the letter from clergy in Blackburn Diocese. The Blackburn letter was written following a request from “Church House” but with contents based on what the Womens’ Ministry Advisor for Blackburn had said a week before (which was explained in the Church Times report we discussed yesterday). First, though, some explanation of the Blackburn letter.

The Church Times published this letter (behind a paywall) from 32 clergy in Blackburn Diocese, who are female, about the Bishop of Burnley, Philip North, who has been nominated to become the next Bishop of Sheffield—after his election planned for 25th April 2017. The signatories of the letter:

view the recent debate over his appointment as Bishop of Sheffield with a mixture of understanding and sadness.

They also speak of the positive experience of serving with Bishop Philip and their regret at his departure. They also offer prayer for Sheffield. They go on to say:

Of course we come from a different place from Bishop Philip, both theologically and in our own experience, but we have also seen him go the extra mile with the women clergy of our diocese, affirming and sharing in their ministry.

His passion for the poor, especially those in the outer estates, has been an inspiration to many, as has his leadership, teaching, and deep spirituality.

This one theological difference aside, he has created a real buzz about the diocese, and we view the prospect of his departure with sadness, but will keep him and all the people of Sheffield in our prayers.

There is ‘understanding’ in this letter of what has arisen for us in Sheffield and sadness; it really matters for those of us serving in ministry in Sheffield to be understood so we welcome the letter for starting there. In Sheffield we see ministry equality as an issue that goes way beyond gender. Here it is not what our gender identity is, alone, which is determining the level of distress and anxiety.

We are glad that clergy who are women in Blackburn have enjoyed working with Bishop Philip despite their different views to him. There are many views here, as there will be in Blackburn; the difference is not just about whether the nominee is well known or well liked, it’s also the difference between being a suffragan and a Diocesan bishop.

It’s also a difference between the flavour of the dioceses; Bishop Philip has clearly improved the experience of clergy who are female in Blackburn. Here in the Diocese of Sheffield—that stretches from Goole (before the Humber), up the river Don and through Doncaster to Sheffield—women already have a high level of expectation and a history of being treated as equals in the church. Being treated equally is not guaranteed of course, since sexism and other inequalities are embedded in the national church and here too. Then, when gender identity intersects with other equalities issues, it tends to get doubly hard—and some!

That’s why, here in the Diocese of Sheffield some of us have been pushing hard, across all boundaries of gender, class, race and ethnicity, sexuality, age and disability for even greater equality in ministry.

The City of Sheffield—as part of the Diocese—has 200 years of history of pushing for female emancipation, which we are celebrating this month. Sheffield also has a track record as a City of Sanctuary; we want the Church to keep up or even get ahead on these vital topics of social inclusion. We want any, newly arriving, to hear that in our actions and to join in.

Jeremy Clines: 4th March

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