Oxford, Sheffield, Llandaff etc

Appointing bishops used to be a relatively straightforward matter, but no longer it seems.

Oxford had to have two goes whilst Sheffield and Llandaff remain ‘work in progress.’ Fortunately at the second attempt Oxford was able to appoint a bishop who has been welcomed, even affirmed, by the diocese as a whole. And, this is an important point for mutuality, or mutual flourishing, presumably goes both ways?

The bishop affirms the ministry  of their flock and, the flock affirms the ministry of their bishop. The ordinal makes this pretty clear! (Please Church of England can we get back to a situation where our guiding motifs are always liturgically verified?) If one party can’t fully affirm the other it hard to see how mutual flourishing really works. Mutual flourishing should never be reduced to the accommodation or toleration of difference for that would represent a very thinned out notion of both mutuality and flourishing.

Looking at  Oxford, Sheffield and Llandaff raises the question of whether the very different debacles are simply individual cases of failure, or whether there is something systemically faulty in how the Anglican churches in these lands do episcopacy. Is there something wrong in how we identify and appoint bishops? I think that there is.

The problem is systemic and is based on an outdated and paternalistic way of thinking and behaving. The process lacks transparency and accountability and fails to give sufficient weight to the demands of the local communities for which the bishop will have responsibility. In governance terms the methods the churches use for identifying and appointing bishops is antiquated. We can and should do better. We need a radical rethink.

So, whilst it is entirely correct for the Archbishops to ask Sir Philip Mawer to review the Sheffield debacle I would also like to see the church getting to grips with the theology of episcopacy more generally because what we actually have is a systemic problem brought to the fore by three different presenting issues, which has, to date, reared its head in three different locations.

‘Our’ real problems are ecclesial and episcopal in nature. And, you can’t solve theological problems through managerial and political processes.  Solutions which are cobbled together tend to crumble and fall. Yes, Archbishops, review the process but go much, much, further and address the real questions (questions which have been asked), not simply the presenting issues. My fear is that if the real theological,and I would include good governance as a sub set of  ecclesial theology,  issues are not addressed there will be a whole string of etc’s to add to Oxford, Sheffield and Llandaff.

If we desire a church which is at peace with itself we must address the ‘theological deficit’; wishing, praying, politicizing our problems away, simply won’t work. Management courses and leadership training, necessary as they are, cannot of themselves make everything better.  As a church we have to look the really difficulty and knotty problems in the eye and start addressing, or unpicking, them.

Robust theology will not, of course, guarantee peace, but without robust theology there can be no longer-term sustainable peace. Without robust ecclesial and episcopal theology things will continue to go wrong and the blame game will continue. Scapegoats will be sought out, named and shamed (illiberal liberals, hectoring bullies) and the truth will be kept hidden under a bushel. Each time something goes wrong another group will be sought out and identified for blame and the church will never flourish.

If we are serious about notions such as mutual flourishing and radical new inclusivity we need address the tough ecclesial and subsequent episcopal questions and, we need to do so theologically . If these are to be our guiding motifs they need content. A motif without theological content can only ever be a sugary soundbite, capable of providing a short-term fix but not longer-term satisfaction.

How can we address the theological deficit, for address it we must. I would want to suggest that we need a ‘radical new solution.’ The Five Guiding Principles, Bishop’s Declaration and Report on Sexuality and Marriage have all failed to stand up to scrutiny. Is this evidence of a systemic failure in ‘our’ ability to do theology? Again, I think so. The alternative is to play the blame game suggesting that each failure is the fault of a particular awkward squad. Surely this can’t be the case? A few weeks ago I suggested that the Church of England could consecrate a small group of bishop-theologians to help address our most difficult and potentially divisive issues; the issues we need to address if mutual flourishing and radical new inclusivity are to have any currency. The suggestion garnered a fair bit of interest. However, several respondents suggested that more specialist bishops might not be the best route. One academic theologian thought that some form of expansion in the role of canon theologians might be the answer. This may work, but here is another suggestion:

How about establishing a group of Lambeth Theologians? This group could comprise both academic and priest theologians. It could include specialists in areas such as biblical scholarship, liturgy, ethics, church history and ecclesiology. It could also include interdisciplinary experts such as those whose interest is the relationship between science and theology and economics and theology. It could even include a sociologist or two! What it couldn’t be is a collage of different factions dressed up as a reflection group; that’s the approach that gave rise to the (in) famous bishop’s  report on sexuality.

It would be a holistic group capable of addressing the issues that confront us theologically and from multiple perspectives. The group would be asked to undertake research both individually and on a collective basis. The groups client would be the church.  Members of the group could sponsor and supervise students studying for Lambeth degrees.

It’s a thought! It’s one way we could begin to address the undoubted ‘theological deficit,’ that will further undermine the Church of England, to the long-term detriment of our mission and evangelism, if left unattended.

 Robust theology will not, of course, guarantee peace, but without robust theology there can be no longer-term sustainable peace.






A young queer Christians response to the situation in Llandaff

A guest piece from a sixth form student who was intrigued by the situation in Llandaff, views entirely her own.

 Sat in the common room of my Sixth Form College, I picked up a copy of The Guardian, in a search for some interesting news stories to reflect on and, debate. I found that far from being drawn to issues relating to the triggering of article 50, or the Trump presidency, what grabbed my attention above all else was a decision made by the bishops of the Church in Wales. I am referring to the article entitled ‘Dean denied post of bishop accuses Church in Wales of homophobia.’ As a queer member of the Christian community, I take significant personal interest in the issues surrounding identity within the Church and have recently I have been proud to note signs of changing perceptions towards sexuality and gender across the churches of the Anglican Communion.

Growth of acceptance and understanding is something I believe the Church should prioritise. My sense of pride in being able to identify with a liberal and welcoming Church was knocked back as I read about the refusal to appoint the Very Rev’d Dr. Jeffrey John as Bishop of Llandaff. In a spirit of open inquiry and equity I did not allow myself to become outraged over one article in one newspaper, and resolved to investigate further to see if there were any important facts that I was missing. I did so through the lens of ‘secular publications’ (the Guardian and BBC) as well religious web sites (Thinking Anglican and Christian Today). I also read Dr. John’s Open Letter. The more I read the more resigned I became, losing hope that it was all a misunderstanding, and that the Church could not be accused of blatant homophobia.

My shock increased when I discovered that this was not the first time Dr. John had been passed over for promotion. He was asked to withdraw from his appointment as Bishop of Reading by Rowan Williams (the then Archbishop of Canterbury) in 2003, as some ‘traditionalists’ supposedly threatened to leave the Church. 2003, in terms of gay rights history, is essentially a lifetime ago and, barely in my living memory. My expectation was that real progress might have been made over the last fourteen years and that notions of equality, justice and love would be firmly established within the ordinary life of the church, and what could be more ordinary than the appointment of bishops? However, I cannot assure myself that any substantive progress has been made. In this case it appears that the Welsh bishops, like others before them, have bowed down to pressure from a minority, damaging the well being of the church overall. The church cannot thrive when fear holds sway, and when one group essentially seeks to hold the wider church to ransom. It may sound harsh but what I would like to say to those who exercise stewardship over the various churches is stop trying to appease the traditionalists and, if the traditionalists can’t accept progress ‘let them leave’. As a body of faith do we wish to be associated with homophobia? Is tolerance, inclusivity, unconditional love or, exclusivity and discrimination the message we, the church, wish to convey? I appreciate that to lose any member of the Church, let alone several Church leaders and presumably some of their followers would be devastating, but it may well be for the best and, necessary if we are to realise our mandate to pursue all that leads to love and justice.

I also agree with Dr. John’s argument that to discriminate against him on the grounds of his homosexuality is to argue without any ‘moral or legal basis’. To argue in such a way is theologically incoherent and cannot reflect a Church which exists to promote and reflect the image of an all loving Christ. What of ‘though we are many, we are one body, because we all share in one bread’ and how can we propose to live out our liturgy of grace, mercy, peace and unity if we explicitly deny one of our body the opportunity to become a bishop based on his sexuality?

Part of the incoherence of this situation is that Dr. John is in a celibate homosexual relationship, and therefore is living within the scope of permissions granted to Anglican priests. He is living within the doctrine of the Church. Dr John is correct therefore in suggesting in his open letter that the Welsh bishops can be regarded as acting hypocritically and with scant regard for truth. The very integrity of the church is therefore under scrutiny. My personal belief, irrespective of Church policy, is that whether or not a relationship is celibate does not weigh on the ability to practice and teach the Word of God. I none the less affirm Dr. John and his partner’s integrity in choosing to remain celibate. The Very Rev’d Dr. John has stressed that the bishops’ decision not to appoint him was based on the feeling that they were ‘just too exhausted’ to deal with potential backlash of such an appointment, presumably similar to that faced in 2003. This is an entirely unacceptable stance. The bishops only concern should be with doing right.

In response to the situation in Wales I am calling for the examination of the process for appointing Bishops, sanctions against all acts of institutionalised homophobia, a revised statement of purpose relating to the appointment of LGBTQ+ clergy and, an official apology to be made to the Very Rev’d Dr. John. I long for the day when I can begin to feel proud in the church, as a queer Christian.

Elizabeth Lightbown

Becoming the best church we can be

It is not often that I come from a diocesan synod meeting feeling energized and enthused, but last Saturday I did. Bishop Steven (Oxford) challenged us to become the best church we can be. In fact he presented it as a moral imperative in a world where so many people are so wounded. Bishop Steven’s chosen text was Jeremiah 8, 11:

“They have treated the wounds of my people carelessly, saying “Peace, peace” where there is no peace.” 

Bishop Steven suggested that healing the wounds of ‘his’ people requires us to be a contemplative, compassionate and courageous church. Just three words, but three words that could make all the difference to our life and witness.

As I have been reflecting (doing the first of the 3 c’s) over the course of the last week I have also found myself drawn into the idea of ‘being the best church we can be.’ I think there is something both realistic and humane in being the best we can be.  It’s simultaneously  realistic and humane because it accepts that we will never be perfect. Sometimes, normally, all we can be is the best we can be and, as someone once said, ‘perfect is the enemy of good.’ 

Being the best we can be is realistic because it accepts that there are competing notions in the church over what being ‘the best’ actually means. The best that ‘I’ can be is not necessarily the same as the best that ‘we’ can be, and if we are serious about unity the best that ‘we’ can be must be the priority.

Let me give two competing versions of what it means to be ‘the best.’ One version, and the one that I am more naturally sympathetic towards, would want to stress that until we have full equality (where I am the arbiter of equality!) in the church then we can never be the best. Other’s would, and do, argue that until the church stops seeking to adopt the standards of secular culture then the church simply cannot be the best it can be.

But, maybe these are two ‘I’ statements? Perhaps being the ‘best that we can be,’ invites us to step beyond our own preferences, maybe even beyond our own cherished theologies, and ask what, despite our differences can we realistically become? I would suggest that ‘becoming the best we can be,’ is a rejection of winner takes all mindset. Perhaps it invites us to recognise that in the great game of church politics we are all going to have to make significant compromises?  Perhaps, it invites us to recognise the danger in holding onto to our cherished theologies too tightly less they become idols? Or maybe I am just going soft!? So, ‘becoming the best we can be,’ is a call to both humility and, to a certain quality of letting go, or laying down. Being the best we can be doesn’t happen on the cheap.

Being ‘the best we can be,’ is not just about reaching some form of internal settlement on issues which potentially divide us (although we do need to do this) it is about providing us with a platform so that we can truly go out into the world with compassion and courage  and, make a real difference. ‘Being the best we be’ might not render us perfect but it should, if we are prepared to give it a go, bring us back to the fact that we are brothers and sisters by baptism and create the conditions where we can speak of peace with integrity because we are a church at peace with itself. Until we are at peace with ourselves it is hard to understand how we can speak of peace with integrity to others.

If we are at peace then maybe, just maybe, we can treat the wounds of the world with care simply because we have been able to treat our own wounds with care?



Neither guides nor principles in the blame game

When things go wrong we often seek to blame others. In a way  its natural (not necessarily graceful but, natural). Of course where we sit in relation to any given issue will depend on who we blame. Blame is perfectly capable of being shared. However blame, in the hands of power, can also be unevenly distributed; targeted at one particular group, or even person.  Blame is a useful tool for deflecting away from the real issue. Blame is perfectly comfortable dressing up as truth.

In ‘Church of England Land’ plenty of blame is being chucked around at present. It’s all a bit graceless. One of my more liberal friends who backed the appointment of Philip North has been called, in private, some pretty vile stuff. Conservative friends, who felt that Philip North could not, with integrity, become the next Bishop of Sheffield have also been criticized. I have received some interesting ‘feedback.’ +Philip, who of course is most personally and directly effected, has received some very nasty and graceless attacks on his character.

Martyn Percy (who has also received his unfair share of vitriol) has been blamed for  the way in which the whole sorry saga has unfolded, being depicted as Warleggan to the Poldark like Philip North (and through his insistence that the Church of England should always care for the poor Philip shares some of the characteristics of Ross Poldark).

So what is clear, at least to me, is that despite the responses on social media, including from various bishops and, the slightly more guarded official responses from the C of E communications department (or at least the Head of Communications) as well as from various men in mitres, blame cannot be laid fairly and squarely at the feet of so-called liberals.  To do so is to develop and uncritically appropriate a gross caricature in the blame game.

It needs to be stressed time and again that many so-called liberals would have been content, for various reasons, for the consecration of +Philip to have proceeded with some more conservatively orientated thinkers being deeply unhappy with the notion that a non ordaining bishop should be appointed to a diocesan role.

Over the last few days one thought has come back to me time and time again:were the five guiding principles and bishop’s declaration sufficiently robust to stand up when placed under real scrutiny?’

I stress real because decisions taken in all sorts of legislatures only really get tested when the consequences of those decisions begin to be felt, experienced, and perceived in context.

In various missives issued via the C of E communications department and, by bishops (and even an archbishop) it was repeatedly stressed that the C of E remains committed to the Five Guiding Principles. The  suggestion was repeatedly made that Philip North’s decision to withdraw represented in some way a breach of these principles. In many ways this is true. But, principles need to be built on strong and robust foundations in order to stand firm under scrutiny. Maybe part of the problem was that the principles were built not on rock but upon sand?  Perhaps, the consequence of the Five Guiding Principles was to tie an ecclesial and episcopal Gordian Knot (which now needs unpicking), as I have already suggested.

So here it should be obvious that I too am getting into the blame game ! But, I do think  the notion that because synod has spoken the debate should end is truly bizarre. Synod, just like any legislature, is perfectly capable of introducing both strong and weak legislation. Synod, just like government, will from time to time introduce legislation and policies  that evoke a strong and negative reaction in the country at large, when tested in context.

Dissent must always be allowed, even in many ways encouraged.   Were those who campaigned against the Poll Tax out-of-order? What of those who demonstrated against the Iraq War, were they hectoring bullies? Or, those who participated in the Countryside Alliance marches?  What of the campaign to undermine the governments well-intentioned but ill thought through decision to increase NI contributions from the self-employed?  Were the members of these lobbying groups wrong in seeking to expose the effect of decisions made in the legislature? Were members of these groups hectoring bullies?

I ask because it feels as though the ‘institution’ has decided to characterize all who raised questions and concerns over the last few weeks  as hectoring bullies, rendering them solely responsible for +Philip’s decision to withdraw.  The ‘institution’ seems to have forgotten that the asking of critical questions, and disagreeing with those in positions of authority, is part of the Church of England’s long and noble history of loyal dissent. In many ways it is far easier to create a scapegoat (and even give it a value laden name – bullies) than it is do undertake the painful work of self-reflective analysis. But, if the Church of England is serious about flourishing it needs to undertake such self-reflective work.

Of course, it is absolutely true that any future deliberations leading to possible changes in legislation and policy should be debated in synod (which is why I never suggested that +Philip should stand aside, for as things stand he was entitled to become the next Bishop of Sheffield), but is also true that in the heat of the moment the principles did not stand up to scrutiny and were ineffective as guides; unless, that is, the rules of the blame game hold sway.

The guiding principles need to come back to synod in due course to be critically reviewed and, they need to be  reviewed theologically. The fact that they didn’t stand up to scrutiny indicates  that they weren’t sufficiently robust. If they were they could not have been undermined and ‘bullied away.’ (As an aside am I being ever so slightly oversensitive in feeling a sense of irony in the notion that some folk are accusing others of hectoring and bullying?)

One of the biggest lessons from this whole sorry saga should be  that a theological conundrum can not be solved via a political solution; however well-intentioned.

So, yes I  am critical of the Communications Department and various episcopal responses. Clearly, the Communications Department and  individual bishops cannot be held responsible for the decisions taken at Synod back in 2014 but they are responsible for the quality of their responses. They are responsible for choosing not to answer the very real questions that all manner of people, both inside and outside the church, have raised and  for using strap lines and slogans to deflect from the real issues.

‘Affirming female leadership,’ is, perhaps, the most obvious slogan used in defense of the decision to appoint Fr. Philip, but the questions raised were nothing to do with ‘leadership,’ and its affirmation. Reading the official responses was a bit like watching politicians on Question Time and yelling at the TV,‘will you please just answer the question.’ 

The fact that affirming female leadership was used (repeatedly) as slogan and as well as  a defense tactic is interesting. Was it used because the Church of England has in fact veered off in a direction where the concept leadership is, in reality, prized over and above priesthood, ontology and sacramentality? If so this should concern all who hold a candle for catholicity.  Or, was it used politically because the respondents know that the Five Guiding Principles don’t stand up to real world scrutiny?

Questions were also asked about the nature of delegation. These question were simply ignored. As an episcopal church we do need to answer the hard question as to whether it is realistic for a bishop, as the ‘holder,’ of ordinations to delegate away that which they could otherwise ordinarily perform. Being the ‘holder,’ presumably doesn’t simply mean being the event manager, or coordinator?

Delegation is an act of moral agency where the sponsor, holder or guarantor of an action positively affirms that action through the agency of another person. Delegation, in the moral sense, is seldom, if ever, used to avoid performing an action that an individual would ordinarily undertake. We delegate that which we believe in, will and wish to affirm. Delegation does not depersonalize decisions.

In governance terms I can’t think of a single example where the act of delegation is used so that an executive can avoid doing something for which they have responsibility.  The Five Guiding Principles in a very real sense sought to change the nature of delegation. They very probably did so unwittingly, and for all the right reasons, but the suggestion that the  ordination can be delegated away changes the highly personal nature of the relationship between priest and (diocesan) bishop. We can’t, and shouldn’t pretend, otherwise.

What of the Crown Nominations Committee, should they, in this case, shoulder any responsibility? Well, by raising the question the answer is that I obviously think they should! They should have been more aware that Sheffield is a city with a long and radical tradition in relation to women’s equality. They could and should have been aware of a host of other issues. They should consider whether, irrespective of the behaviour of the supposed ‘hectoring bullies,’ they set +Philip up to fail. I hope that the C of E spends some time reflecting on the work of the C.N.C. and how it can be improved. I would like to see more transparency and less secrecy in its processes.

One way that the C.N.C. could be more transparent is by holding a public meeting at which the diocesan profile and the qualities that the diocese is looking for in a bishop is presented. Public meetings are now held to present the Parish Profile when a parish is in interregnum; why not extend this to a diocese when it  is in interregnum? If the C.N.C. had heard a wider range of voices prior to the process of discernment starting who knows what the outcome may have been?

The situation in Sheffield has been an almighty and painful mess. The easiest thing to do is to look for individuals, or groups, to stigmatize, name and blame (the bullies). But, if we are serious, over the longer-term, about the nature of mutual flourishing, we need to stop looking for easy targets to name and blame. We need to look the real theological issues in the eye. We need to answer the tough questions and, we need to accept that theological problems cannot be resolved through political means.

Part of the real problem is that we need a robust twenty-first century theology of episcopacy. The reality is that we haven’t got one. We failed to recognise that when we accepted a new reality, namely that women could be ordained  as both priests and bishops. At this stage we  also needed to consider the theology of episcopacy and we didn’t; at least not theologically.

So, one final suggestion:

Several commentators have lamented the lack of theologians in the House of Bishops. I would share this lament. The consequence of the lack of theologians in the upper echelons of the Church of England  is an over reliance on  political rhetoric and sound-bites as responses to real theological problems.

So, why not establish and consecrate a small group of Bishop-theologians who would be tasked with thinking through the difficult issues which threaten to divide the church such as those which relate to gender, sexuality and the nature of episcopacy? We already have special purpose or ‘project’ bishops (such as a bishop for Church Planting), so why not a cadre of bishop-theologians?

If we are serious about mutual flourishing surely some of our best brains should be asked to start unpicking the Gordian Knot (or knots) which over the last few years the Church of England has unwittingly tied?





Episcopacy, sacramentality & identity

When I was training for ordination the college I attended offered seminars on a Wednesday afternoon on ‘Anglican Identity.’ Now I can’t pretend that Wednesday afternoons were necessarily, always, the most riveting part of the week, but, looking back, the seminars were extremely useful.

Of course for some, perhaps even many, developing a sense of Anglican identity isn’t that important and we shouldn’t kid ourselves that each and every member of our congregations attend their parish church because they have spent hours and hours navel gazing and, working out which denomination best fits their theology.

However, over time, many of those who stick around come to love and appreciate ‘their’ distinctive Anglican Church. I say ‘their; because we are, famously, a broad church. But, how can broad can we go without becoming just a tad to flabby and unhealthy is an interesting question.

What I would like to suggest is that, even though we are a broad church, there are key theological words and phrases that define our Anglican identity and are non negotiables. Such words include: episcopal, sacramental, apostolic, national, established (in relation to the C of E), reformed, catholic (or even reformed-catholic.)

I am sure there are other words and phrases too. The point is that all of these words have real (yes, sometimes disputed, but real) meaning and, as such comprise our Anglican identity. Change the meaning any of these words and we change the shape of our identity; which is of course perfectly permissible, but not always desirable.

The understanding of apostolic was, for instance, changed when the Church of England made the decision to ordain women as priests and, the definition of episcopacy was extended when it was agreed that women could also be consecrated as bishops. Changing our core identity is not only to be allowed, but in many ways encouraged. Doctrine is not necessarily static, it can also be progressive. But, what it can’t be is simultaneously static and progressive; at least not when what we are talking about is relational theology, such as the theology that binds priest and bishop together in a shared and mutual undertaking of sacramental ministry.

For mutuality to apply both parties have to either progress and develop, or the status quo has to be retained. When the decision was taken to ordain women priests it became necessary to simultaneously extend the theology of episcopacy. Priesthood and episcopacy only make sense in relation to the other and, where one affirms the (sacramental) reality of the  other. Where one party cannot fully affirm the reality of the other the relationship can only ever be partial and, never entirely wholesome.

Mutuality, let alone ‘mutual flourishing’ cannot be about the out-working of personal preferences, the simple accommodation of difference,  or even deeply held theologies. Mutuality stresses that ‘there is no me without you, no I without the other,’ (Ubuntu). Bishops exist to animate this sense of mutuality and shared sacramental ministry. It is a very basic point but if a bishop cannot accept the legitimate and real sacramental ministry of a particular group of people then it can’t be shared! Zero is not divisible!

And it matters not a jot whether a particular diocesan bishop delegates ordinations to an ‘affirming bishop,’ for this does nothing to affirm the the mutuality of the relationship between the (diocesan) bishop and his or her priests. We must also be careful not to diminish the word ‘delegate.’ Delegation is not about avoidance or abstinence. Delegation is practical but not political. Delegation is effective when we delegate that which we believe in and wish to affirm; delegation is not an avoidance tactic.

When an act is delegated the person carrying out the act is the agent of another person who remains the sponsor, holder and advocate for the act being carried out. An example would be the investiture of honors or the conferring of degrees. When Prince William invests a person he does so on behalf of the queen, not instead of the queen. The person presenting degree certificates does it on behalf of the university or college, not instead of the university or college. Delegation and moral agency are inextricably bound up, except as things stand, in relation to this issue, in the Church of England. This is somewhat paradoxical given that the established church, over and above other institutions, really should ‘get’ the concept of delegated moral agency!

If I was to select one word that best summed up Anglican identity it would be liturgical. It is through our liturgy that we, as Anglicans, affirm our core beliefs. The only way, for instance, that we affirm our belief in the reality of ministerial priesthood is through the liturgy of ordination. We have no other real means of verification.

As a church we seem to have forgotten that this most basic of principles that doctrine and belief is enacted, in the Church of England, through liturgy. Phrases like ‘mutual flourishing,’ ‘affirmation,’ and even ‘radical new inclusivity,’ can only have real meaning when liturgically verified. To suggest otherwise is to radically change our Anglican identity. To use words such as ‘leadership’ over and above priesthood also potentially changes our identity.

I am sure that non ordaining bishops are able to affirm the leadership of women but this is not the same thing as recognizing and sharing in the sacramental priesthood of women. Ministry in the C of E is a shared phenomenon and surely this is central to all notions of mutual flourishing? The relationship between the bishop and priest must be one of mutual sacramental recognition; without mutual sacramental recognition there can be no real affirmation, and of course it is through the liturgy of ordination that the sacramental relationship is truly affirmed.

No amount of slogans, strap lines, or mere rhetoric can change this Anglican fact. A bishop who is not content to ordain cannot be said to be truly affirming, or at least not unless we, as a church, are prepared to accept that sacramentality is incidental to our identity. This would of course be a mega change in our understanding of the theology of both priesthood and episcopacy.

So as the C of E we need to get back to the job of doing theology and, doing it properly, and this is largely the job of our bishops. The bishops must take a theological lead. They must, and should, confront and unpack areas of tension and conflict. They must always favour theological over and above managerial and political modes of thinking. They must always seek to make sure that the terms and phrases we use have real, theological, content.




Abstaining: A Lenten Reflection (on Sheffield), by Martyn Percy.

Introductory words

The situation surrounding the Bishop of Burnley’s appointment as Bishop of Sheffield has of course been hugely controversial and, in many ways provides the Church of England with the opportunity to descend into name calling and, possibly even schism. What has distressed me is my perception of a real unwillingness to consider the theology of episcopacy. Are we in danger of discarding the theology which underpins our very notion of what it means to be a diocese where all remain in full communion with each other? This was a question I put to Martyn. I accept that many will disagree with his thoughts. All I would ask is an acceptance that they are considered and offered because Martyn, like the vast majority of ordained academics, cares deeply about the future of the Church of England. He cares for the flourishing of both the Diocese of  Sheffield, in all its variety and dynamism, and its Bishop Designate, Philip North.

The essay  below was written by Martyn Percy

Abstaining: A Lenten Reflection

Lent is traditionally the season of self-denial and abstinence. We refuse comforts, luxuries and essentials, so we might accompany Christ on his road to Calvary. We deny ourselves so we can take up our cross. We set aside those things that inhibit us from running the race set before us (Hebrews 12: 1-2).

The word ‘abstain’ comes from the Old French words abstainer or abstenir (14c.), and the earlier astenir (13c.), meaning to “hold (oneself) back, refrain voluntarily, abstain (from what satisfies our desires), practice abstinence”, and from the Latin abstinere or abstenere, with connotations of “withholding, keeping back, keeping off”. The word ab-stain means, literally, to let go; to not hold; or to withhold (oneself).

So as we are in the early days of Lent, let me say something about abstinence as a moral virtue in ecclesial life. After all, the New Testament is packed with issues and problems on this very subject. Should gentiles be circumcised, or should Jewish converts withhold their desire to see believers marked by this sign of the covenant? The New testament Church answered this clearly (see: Acts 15:24, 1 Corinthians 7:18-19 and Galatians 5:2-4).

Should Christians abstain from eating meat offered to idols? It was a regular custom of the near east for retailers to charge more for quality meat offered at a shrine or altar dedicated to a god, demi-god or idol. Paul counsels caution. He does not believe such gods really exist, so ontologically, the meat does not have more nutritional or sacred value than normal meat. But nonetheless, he counsels (1 Corinthians 8: 1-13) us to be mindful of ‘weaker brethren’ who might struggle with Christians eating any and every food, irrespective of origin. But actually, they did. Can Christians drink wine? Moderately, it would seem (see: 1 Tim 5:23); but not to excess (see: 1 Corinthians 6: 10; Romans 13:13).

Food was a battleground for the early church. It symbolised much for the first Christians, and their permissive eating habits would have been remarked upon and critiqued by those of other faiths, and none. Jesus allegedly ate and drank with tax collectors and sinners (Matthew 11: 19). He was accused by some of being a drunkard and a glutton. Yet the church went on to feed the poor, widows and orphans (Acts 6: 1-7; I Timothy 5: 1-16).

The Kingdom of God that Christ proclaimed, and was to come, would be an inclusive banquet. The early Christians broke bread together, and did so inclusively and equally as a sign of God’s abiding regard for all. There was no distinction in Christ. All were one: ‘neither male nor female, Jew or Greek, slave or free…’. All are one in Jesus Christ: united, equal (see: Galatians 3: 28). Bishops, as a sign of their leadership and service in that kingdom, like Christ, share in the one bread, as a sign of being one body (1 Corinthians 10: 17).

Because food was so important to the peoples and church of the New Testament, and abstaining and self-denial of food in Lent is still (rightly) so prevalent today, I offer one food-related analogy here to help illuminate the current issues in Sheffield Diocese. The analogy is simple.

A diocese is like a family restaurant. It caters for many different tastes in food. It caters for all manner of special diets too; even specialist religious diets. So there remains a way of eating in this restaurant that respects every kind of proclivity, within reason, that could conceivably be catered for. Indeed, for those who want all their food cooked separately from others to avoid taint, and even prefer to eat only with those who share such proclivities, they can eat in a separate room within the restaurant. This restaurant even allows you to bring in your own chef, if required; and it has a separate kitchen in the building to enable a variety of taint-free provisions.

So far, so good. Now, here are some things that would be reasonable and unreasonable to accept or expect. It would be reasonable to go to a family restaurant and only order and eat vegetarian food. But it would be unreasonable to complain about the other diners who were eating meat or fish. It is reasonable to request a vegetarian option at a steakhouse; and no good steakhouse would be without such choices on the menu. It would be unreasonable and rude to go a vegetarian restaurant and request a rare-cooked steak. It would be reasonable to take over the restaurant and run as it was. But less reasonable for the new owner to refuse to offer certain things that were once on the menu, because they troubled his or her own conscience. It would not be reasonable to differentiate between the diners, dividing the vegetarians from the meat eaters at tables. Or for that matter, to exalt those on special diets, and at the expense of the majority of the other customers.

There is something here are about power-relations, and what one person’s choice of abstention means for everyone else. Bishop Philip North is an abstainer. He is entitled to be so. He abstains from ordaining women. He abstains from recognising and affirming their full and equal sacramental ordination, (NB: but not lawful, although this is still against Principle One of the ‘Five Guiding Principles’). He abstains from clarifying his views on what happens when a woman priest celebrates the Eucharist at an altar in Pitsmoor or on the Manor Estate – or any other parish of the Diocese. He abstains from recognising the sacramental efficacy of men ordained by women bishops. He abstains from full participation in a Eucharist and Consecration, unless they are male-only affairs, and the sacramental ‘integrity’ of the event is guaranteed.

All this abstinence is entirely a matter for the liberty of his conscience, and let me say clearly and unequivocally, that the Church of England, in all its breadth and charity, should permit such liberties. And let me repeat that Bishop Philip is, undoubtedly, a gifted priest and minister, and a fine Bishop of Burnley.

But as the Diocesan Bishop of Sheffield, all of his choices – his chosen ranges of abstinence – are no longer about his liberty of conscience as an individual. They are now imposed on others, and moreover, on those who do not share his liberty of conscience. Indeed, many, if not most in the Diocese, want to affirm those things from which he chooses to abstain. But as Bishop of a Diocese, all are forced to accept a culture and polity formed around his abstentions, and his individual liberty of conscience. This is unreasonable.

In terms of our restaurant analogy, the new owner will now effectively be telling all the diners what can and can’t be eaten; what choices are no longer available; what food, if eaten, has more value than other choices; which diners are recognised as real, valid customers; and which ones, though affirmed and supported as valued, are in fact not as real and valid as the others. One person’s self-denial now becomes forced on all the other diners. One person’s abstention becomes a universal imposition. The only way to get through this debacle would be for the new owner to either give up on owning and running the restaurant – self-denial and abstention. Or, to be able to say, unequivocally, that all meals offered here were and are good, and will be served and affirmed as nourishing food, and as part of a flourishing restaurant.

To put this analogy to work in terms of any ecclesial polity, it seems to me that the following are reasonable. That those who cannot, in conscience, receive the ministry of women, be allowed to ‘self-cater’ so to speak, and eat separately if they wish, in this restaurant. That those who wish to only eat vegetarian, or who never eat fish, be able to enjoy their food with other diners – so ecclesial tastes across the spectra are respected and catered for.

What would be unreasonable would be the following. To expect, under the ‘Five Guiding Principles’, a woman bishop to be able to celebrate the Eucharist for a major festival at the Shrine of Walsingham. That would be like asking for steak at a vegetarian restaurant: a potentially offensive request. Equally, what is also unacceptable is to expect diners who are used to a wide variety of tastes being respected and catered for, including specialist diets, to be told it is ‘unreasonable’ of them to complain about the new owner restricting their choices, and by implication, querying the value of their everyday food.

I can’t speak for Philip North here. I know that his ministry in Blackburn Diocese was experienced as positive and pastoral by the women clergy there. But that ministry was received in a Diocese where, historically, it had been difficult for women clergy to be regarded and well respected. Sheffield is not Blackburn. Sheffield is a Diocese where women clergy are well-used to equality – full, unambiguous and clear for two decades now – and it can only be a step backwards for them to have a Bishop who, due to his own liberty of conscience, regards them differently from male priests. By ‘differently’, I mean that he abstains: from saying what they are when ordained; what actually happens when they celebrate the Eucharist; and what happens when a woman bishop ordains a man (nothing, presumably?). Bishop North abstains from commenting on these concerns.

The problem here is that abstention has two qualities. Self-denial as a spiritual discipline is all well and good. But abstention, as a political act, is not neutral. It means either ‘no’; or; ‘I am not sure, and don’t support you’. Abstention is something that is potentially negative. Applied to others, politically, abstention denies others their rights and equality: it robs them of a crucial decision, or of affirmation in a meeting. Abstention means ‘no’. And this is what Bishop Philip needs to grasp. His ambiguity and abstention on women clergy is a ‘no’ to them; not a ‘maybe’; and certainly not a ‘yes’.

Yes, I know that over thirty women from Blackburn Diocese wrote in to The Church Times to say that Bishop Philip was supportive of them, and a very good bishop in his own right. I am sure that’s true. But it is not, with respect, the issue. Bishop Philip is not at the centre of some popularity contest. Finding a hundred more women to agree with the women of Blackburn would add nothing to this debate. Because the issue is not popularity; it is integrity. Does he think these women clergy are fully and unequivocally valid: sacramentally, not just lawfully? If the answer is ‘no’, then he cannot fully affirm them in their ministry. At some deep level, he will not believe their ordination to be ‘true’.

This all matters much more in a place like Sheffield – and for a Diocesan Bishop – than it might have mattered in Burnley. Because Sheffield is a city that is accustomed to equality in its fine universities, new cutting-edge industries, the NHS, the police, social services, local government, schools, as well as its gritty estates and tough neighbourhoods. Inequality has no place there. If the leaders of these institutions had been asked by the Archbishops’ Secretary, directly, whether they could work with a bishop in public ministry who felt discrimination against women was theologically legitimate, I doubt any could have replied in the affirmative. The Bishop of Sheffield is a public figure, not just a church leader. So someone who embodies the public face and ministry of the established church will need to work with this public, shared commitment to equality; indeed, help to lead it. Philip North’s stance on his own women clergy would make this implausible, and potentially disingenuous.

Further afield in the Diocese, we perhaps forget, all-too-easily, that the legacy of the Rotherham Enquiry on the sustained culture of abuse of young people (between 1997-2013), most of it sexual, mostly against girls and young women, identified inequality as a major underlying issue. Simon Danczuk, the Labour MP for Rochdale where similar cases were prosecuted, observed that “a very small minority of people in the…community have a very unhealthy view of women…it’s a complex jigsaw, and ethnicity is just one of the pieces. Class (was) a major factor, (as were working conditions)…”.

What places like Rotherham will need from the next Bishop of Sheffield is someone who believes in the equality of women and men, boys and girls alike, and has an uncompromising unequivocal regard for their full dignity and total parity. This is utterly and totally essential.

Women are not some ‘theological issue’ on which to have a view, and shape an ecclesial polity. They are equally and fully created in the image of God; half of the world’s population. It will not do, in public ministry, to be a church that treats women differently – regarding them as unequal, and able, by virtue of their gender, to be treated in a way that is discriminatory.

The map in this debate badly needs redrawing. The Church of England is not “balanced” when, after acquiring ten women bishops, it decides to even things up with the preferment of a traditionalist diocesan bishop that won’t recognise those women bishops. Balance would be 50% of our bishops as women. Balance would be 50% of our priests as women. Balance would be something that reflected our congregations and parishes up and down the country. Traditionalists are a tiny, tiny percentage of our worshippers. We have created imbalance here, and in our attempt as a church to staunch the furious hurt of a few, have actually offended and alienated a great many more. And especially the wider public, who look on agog at our sacralised sexism.

In the name of balance, then, abstention is the main issue to dwell on in this season of Lent. It is surely time for the Church to realise that it is profoundly unwise for the wishes of a small minority to dictate terms to the vast majority. The integrity of the restaurant can remain intact and still serve minorities. But the restaurant is virtually bound to fail in serving the wider public, and the whole church, if the chosen abstentions of one person are now to be imposed upon the many in Sheffield Diocese.

The early Christians knew that food was integral to the life of the church. They broke bread together; they shared common meals; they fed the poor and the hungry; they treated everyone as being made equally in the image of God, and as full citizens of heaven. There was one body – and so only one bread. What Sheffield Diocese needs is a Bishop who can inhabit all of this, and with full confidence and complete integrity. The New Testament has made very little room for selective abstentions.

The Very Revd Professor Martyn Percy is Dean of Christ Church, Oxford


Sheffield’s very own gordian knot

I really do hope that the situation in Sheffield diocese gets sorted out and, that both the diocese and its bishop designate go on to flourish either together, or apart.

However it strikes me that some very real problems need to be addressed. The theology of episcopacy needs to be re-considered in the light of the debate about Philip North’s suitability for the role.

Now I have no doubt that Fr. Philip has very many of the characteristics that make him right for the role. He is inspirational, he is pastoral (and these two alone mark him out as different in an era where the bishops are frequently criticized for being too bland,) he is a really gifted preacher and, he is determined to make sure that the Church of England always stands in solidarity with the poor and, marginalized. He is a prophetic voice in a world which needs its prophets; big time. He is also a physical manifestation of all that is good in the catholic and sacramental tradition. So far so good. And, in fact he is so impressive in these respects that for many his theology of ‘sacramental priesthood,’ is not of primary concern.

But for others his ‘sacramental theology,’ is the primary concern. How they ask can he truly and legally (for he is bound to do both) affirm the ministry of women, when he cannot, in all conscience, ordain women? The follow-up from this is how can he be content that the Eucharist is truly celebrated in  every parish / benefice each Sunday, given that 1/3 of his clergy are female? If he is able to affirm that the Eucharist is truly celebrated each week, even when the president is female then, what critics may ask, is the logic for declining to ordain women?

For the critics the characteristics that mark him out are of secondary importance when it comes to considering his suitability for the episcopacy. Just to be clear these concerns would apply to any diocesan bishop designate and not just Philip North. However, Bishop Philip should, I think, be very clear in articulating his own theo-logic and the tensions and problems this creates for him as a diocesan bishop designate. These problems can’t be ignored nor do I think can they be explained away through reference to the Five Guiding Principles or Bishop’s Declaration.

So it seems we have one part of the church saying:

‘In order for mutual flourishing to be real and effective what is of primary importance is the personal qualities of the bishop or bishop-designate, and in Philip North we have seen or experienced sufficient evidence of these to override any other (secondary) considerations.’ This is if you like the hypothesis.

We then have another part of the church saying:

‘In order for mutual flourishing to be real and effective what is of primary importance is that the bishop (liturgically) affirms the sacramental ministry of each and every minister (regardless of gender) in the diocese and that all personal qualities of the bishop are of secondary importance.’ This is the null hypothesis.(NB:  secondary does not mean unimportant).

What is to be hoped, of course, is that the majority of bishops possess  both positive personal qualities (embodied Godliness) and, a real commitment to participatory sacramentality. The two are not mutually exclusive. Where they are exclusive (either in reality or perception) what we are left with is a very tightly configured gordian knot. The job of theology is to unpick the knot. Can this be done? I would suggest only if:

a) it is acknowledged that the C of E, despite its best intentions, has tied itself in knots.

b) it is acknowledged that this a real theological problem and one that in reality has little to  do with whether protagonists are perceived to be either conservative or liberal, traditionalists or revisionists, low church or high church and so forth. The central concern is only this: the theology of episcopacy. 

So where do I stand? Well, I would want to very cautiously suggest that because the Church of England is a liturgical and sacramental church this is the base-line recognition from which we must start.

For me, words and phrases like ‘fully affirming,’ ‘mutual flourishing,’ (and even in time ‘radical new inclusivity’ ) only really carry meaning when they are liturgically (and sacramentally) brought to life. If we believe that such phrases carry meaning separate from our rites and sacraments my worry is that far from encouraging  mutual flourishing  on a sustainable basis what we (the C of E) will have instead done is to allow ourselves, for a brief time, to be flattered by a sound-bite, which ultimately has no real meaning. We would also stand charged of re-defining Anglicanism, because in Anglicanism doctrine and belief is expressed and affirmed through liturgy. Doctrine and belief are not abstract intellectual  issues they are also deeply personal issues; issues that effect, affirm, include or exclude real people. In many ways the doctrinal, affirmational, liturgical and, pastoral stand on, and derive from, the same, (liturgical) ground; hitherto this has been the genius of Anglicanism. It is a genius that should not be dismissed lightly, even if in the short-term it causes  real pain and discomfort.

My other worry is that the bishop is not simply the pastor to those already ordained but, the sponsor of those yet to be ordained (ordinands). When a candidate for training for ordination is sent to a Bishops Advisory Panel they go with the goodwill of their bishop, in the bishop’s role as sponsor. It is a very personal form of sponsorship. The bishop in sending a candidate to a bishop’s panel needs to be completely happy that, the candidate has genuinely (or really) experienced a sense of calling, from God, to share in the ministry of both word and sacrament in the Church of England. So, how can a bishop sponsor a candidate for such a ministry when he doesn’t believe that a female is really able to fulfill a sacramental ministry? It’s a knotty problem.

I have no idea how the situation in Sheffield will turn out. I hope it works out well for all concerned so that all may flourish. But, I also hope that the C of E will release its finest theologians to spend time in trying to unpick a gordian knot of its own making so that what we end up with is a robust theology of episcopacy; one that straightens out what is meant by ‘mutual flourishing.’