On avoiding sound-bite theology

‘What do you think about the situation up in Sheffield then Father?’

A funny question to be asked at the petrol pump at Cherwell Edge Services!

My questioner was a late middle-aged man.  I replied with some caution: ‘well, ultimately it is up to the Sheffield Diocese working alongside the Crown Nominations Committee.’ My inquisitor looked at me blankly. It became clear as we talked for just a few minutes that he was a church goer but, that he wasn’t really up on church polity. Why should he be? I asked him what he thought and he said that he didn’t really understand what the bishop (Philip North) thought was ‘wrong with women.’ He nodded at me politely and we both went on our way.

Reflecting on our conversation I have been struck by the thought that my friendly inquisitor was asking me a perfectly valid theological question. And it is a question that needs answering; theologically.

Now I am aware of the Five Guiding Principles, the first of which insists the church recognizes that women are truly ordained not just lawfully, & the declaration proposed by the bishops, and accepted by synod in 2014, which states that a diocesan bishop may be someone who either does, or does not, ordain women. However, I do wonder whether there is an inherent and currently unresolved tension between the first principle and, the declaration?

Surely, if A.N. Bishop accepts that someone is really (and not just legally or canonically) able to be ordained then it must follow that A.N. Bishop should be prepared to ordain that person into that (sacramental) reality?

And, if the Diocesan Bishop cannot accept the sacramental validity of his female clergy, surely it follows that he also cannot accept the validity of the Eucharists at which his female clergy preside, and this would appear to this simple soul to be a fairly fundamental problem given that the Eucharist is supposed to be celebrated in each and every parish or benefice every Sunday.  Or am I over complicating things?

I know the declaration says that each diocese must have a bishop who does ordain women to the priesthood but, surely it is the diocesan who is ultimately responsible for the sacramental vitality and reality in his, or her, diocese?

Like my friend at the petrol pump Martyn Percy has been seeking to raise and address some fairly fundamental theological questions. He has made it very clear that he is not attacking Philip North but that he is critiquing a situation and seeking explanation.

Analysis, critique and, the search for explanation through the asking of questions is surely, in part, the theologians stock in trade? So to suggest that the Dean of Christ Church shouldn’t ask the hard questions and, shouldn’t focus on the inherent tensions between say the Five Guiding Principles and the Declaration is a rejection of not just a particular theologian (who is very probably not flavor of the month in the higher echelons of the C of E) but, of theology itself.

I believe that ultimately the decision as to whether Philip North should be the Bishop of Sheffield is a matter for the Sheffield Diocese, working in partnership with the C.N.C.  However, I also believe that the institution should take Martyn’s critique seriously.

The validity of the critique has been rejected by two means:

First, by the institution through the official releases and responses issued ‘post Percy.’ These refer to the Five Guiding Principles (note guiding and principles  not rules, regulations or even answers) and the Declaration and, seem to suggest that these two documents are perfectly, infallibly, formulated, with no internal contradictions or tensions. It is as though are deemed to be beyond critique. Surely if we have learnt one thing over the last few months it is that official reports are never beyond critique (even when ratified or noted by synod)?

Secondly, various bishops and other clergy have issued personal missives suggesting that it has been a pleasure to minister alongside the Bishop of Sheffield designate and that he is deeply committed to the Church of England and her mission. Others have said that he affirms women’s ministry. Many have said that they feel  inspired by Bishop Philip (and I too find him truly inspirational in many ways.)

I have no doubt that these statements, and the feelings that they invoke, are true in the sense that they are personal reflections based on experience. But, they are not theological responses and explanations. They don’t answer the questions raised. For instance they don’t address what affirmation means separate from ordination. Surely the laying on of hands by a diocesan bishop at ordination is the most visible and tangible manifestation of affirmation and, welcome? It is a very visible sign of commitment to a mutually shared and sacramental ministry. What can fully affirming mean separate from ordination? This is a question that needs clarifying and answering, by the bishops.

The Bishops, I think, need to be very careful to  avoid any tendency to act in a patriarchal fashion by suggesting that Philip North should be a diocesan bishop because he is one of us; admired by us, liked by us and, respected by us.

Knowing him, believing in him, liking him, respecting and being inspired by him (not least for his repeated call that the church must always stand in solidarity with the poor and marginalized & his pastoral work), are necessary but, in and of themselves, insufficient reasons for justifying his, or indeed anyone’s, episcopacy. Episcopacy needs its theology.

Finally I think that the Church of England needs to be very careful in making sure that it doesn’t do theology by sound-bite.

Phrases like ‘mutual flourishing,’ and ‘radical new inclusivity,’ will end up going the same way as ‘changes in tone and culture,’ unless they are underpinned by real theological substance. The search for theological substance is the remit of the theologian. Phrases like mutual flourishing’ and ‘radical new inclusivity,’ need real (and very possibly bounded) theological content, otherwise they will become either politicized and transactional or, hollow and, vacuous. The way to avoid such terms becoming platitudes is to ask challenging  questions and demand rigor in response.

I think it was the Lutheran bishop-theologian Anders Nygren who suggested that  real and living motifs should be characterized by their internal characteristics and, external manifestations. If ‘mutual flourishing’ (and radical new inclusivity) are to be guiding motifs the church needs to work very hard on establishing the content of these terms. In a nutshell what Martyn is asking: ‘what is the content?’ Without content all that is left is the politicized and emotive rhetoric of the sound-bite.

The Church of England needs her theologians to ask difficult and uncomfortable questions and it needs her bishops to give thought through and considered responses.

6 thoughts on “On avoiding sound-bite theology

  1. I think the person to ask the important questions shouldn’t be ‘theologians’ (much as I respect theology being a B.D. Hons) BUT your anonymous middle aged man. He of the pew or not of the pew.

  2. The important question is whether the newly-appointed Bishop will be a “Bishop for all” and he has said that he will be. His word could be trusted. Is it emotive to praise someone for their good qualities? Do we all have to agree about theology? I’d rather have a pastor who is a “pastor for all”.

  3. Thank you very much for this, both in raising theological issues and defending Marty Percy. I am struck by the number of people who seem to question Marty Percy’s right to raise questions and the appropriateness of so doing. As you rightly say, the Five Guiding Principles are just that.

  4. The hounding of Philip North and the unwillingness to trust undermines the claims of those proponents of women bishops and same sex marriage who relentlessly campaign for revision based upon trust.

    • Thanks for this but for me its not simply about trust – it is about the entirety of our C of E theology around episcopacy and sacramentality. The C of E has managed to create a very tight Gordian knot which hopefully it can unpick.

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