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



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

  1. I think the question about the theology of the episcopacy is important and I think Martyn Percy has gone some way to explaining it. I think the analogy of a restaurant where the new owner now tells the majority of customers what they can eat is wrong, though. That is not what is happening. The new owner isn’t imposing himself at all in that way. He’s saying: There will still be fish on the menu, although I personally won’t touch it, but there is an assistant chef who will cook it for all diners and I’m ok with that.

    And (ignoring theological nonsense of having a Diocesan who is not in communion with his own priests) it goes to the heart of the dispute. The practical question is: Can we live with a vegan restaurant manager in a steakhouse provided he ensures that the majority of diners get the same steak they always ate there.
    And it’s not obvious to me why it should be theologically self-evident that we can’t.

  2. For this appointment to work, episcopacy is apparently being redrawn as collegial, not particular, ie. episcopacy can be vested in the body of the church, not in one’s particular bishop (whose license one holds). Hence one can under this arrangement (remarkable though it sounds) be out of communion with one’s bishop. Unpalatable though this may be to many, it may at least be advantageous for our ecumenical relations. Because, in abandoning “particular” episcopacy, we can return to conversations with the Methodist Church, confident that, in practice, the C of E’s understanding of episcopacy has shifted markedly toward a Methodist notion of shared, collegial episkope.

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  4. Thank you for asking Martyn Percy to write this and thank you to him for writing it. I found the idea of ‘abstinence’ an illuminating way of looking at the Sheffield situation. The point that Bishop North’s abstinence has negative implications for other people is well taken.

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