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?






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