In terms of Sheffield’s clergy, much of the brunt of the public airing of concerns and responding to Philip North’s nomination has fallen on the women priests of the Diocese so far. That’s both right and inevitable: it’s the priesthood of women that is in question, and it’s the women clergy that have met with the prospective Bishop (and are still awaiting responses to the many questions and issues raised).
It’s important however that the rest of us don’t collude in further marginalising their priesthood by allowing this to be seen as solely about the ministry of women. It’s the ministry and mission of the whole church – female and male, ordained and lay – that is at stake here, as well as its reputation and claim to respect in the eyes of those outside it. It’s vital that we all air our concerns if we are to do justice to a body in which equality and fairness are not just claimed but fully embodied.
The fact is that we have a situation which has raised issues that were not foreseen. The potential implications of a provision intended to ensure the integrity of a “traditionalist” minority, when applied to a Diocesan Bishop’s role in a Diocese where the vast majority do not share his understanding of priesthood and episcopacy, are only now emerging.
For that reason it is not enough to assert that due process and the five guiding principles have been observed. If they have produced a situation that causes distress and concern on a wide scale then they need to be reviewed and the concerns talked through and taken seriously.
This is not a personal issue about the merits or otherwise of any one Bishop. If the issue isn’t dealt with here it will happen elsewhere, and in the meantime no one will flourish, mutually or individually.
That’s why it’s vital that our questions are answered – most importantly those that focus on the potential for divisiveness in a scenario where parishes and clergy registered with “The Society”, in which Bishop Philip plays a leadership role, cannot regard themselves as in “Full Communion” with those not sharing their sacramental position (see http://www.sswsh.com/uploads/Communion_and_Full_Communion.pdf). Such parishes and clergy see themselves as being simply in diminished communion with the rest of us – a situation defined as being possible through “love (charity)”: the first time I have seen love / charity as being secondary to sacramental purity.
Many within the church struggle to see how it will work. It won’t without further dialogue.
The vast majority of those outside see it as another nail in the coffin of the Church’s relevance to them. In our parish we are in touch with many community groups whose members have heard the radio and read the “The Star”. The “person on the Sheffield tram” can’t believe we’re in this position in the 21st Century. That’s the biggest worry.
Rev Ian Owers
( retired priest & third sector consultant, Sheffield Manor parish)