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.’








3 thoughts on “Sheffield’s very own gordian knot

  1. It is a knotty problem, I concede. I would guess that for many people in the pews theology is something the pastor knows about. I’m interested in it because I love God, unworthy as I am. For the church hierarchy, the questions you’ve posed, Andrew, have real weight and the church’s discipline does depend on such.

    Now a quote from Shakespeare about love: From women’s eyes, this doctrine I derive: They are the ground, the books, the academes, From whence doth spring the true Promethean fire.
    (Love’s Labour’s Lost).

  2. Thanks for helping us to think things through. A few quick comments.

    A traditionalist bishop could think a woman priest’s orders were, or probably were, valid but decline to confer them himself because he believed that the lack of ecumenical consent would make such ordinations an uncatholic act (ie an act which deepened Christian disunity because such ordinations have been disapproved of by both the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches.)

    No CofE Diocesan Bishop can be a true focus of unity due to the state of impaired communion within the CofE as a result of the ordination of women without prior ecumenical consent.Just because the Bishop would be willing to liturgically affirm the sacramental ministry of each and every minister regardless of gender he or she would not be able to do so in practice because some ordinands (as permitted in the CofE as part of the package which was necessary to allow the various Ordination of Women Measures to pass in General Synod) would request to receive ordination from a bishop whose practice of ordination was consistent with that of Roman Catholicism , some other provinces of the Anglican Communion and Orthodoxy.

    A traditionalist bishop can send a female candidate to BAP if he believes that the rightness or otherwise of the Ordination of Women is an open question that can only be definitively settled by the Church meeting in Ecumenical Council . This is really an approach based upon the Gamaliel Principle.

  3. Pingback: Summing up the weekend: 6 March – SAME

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