On Friday 24th February Martyn Percy wrote an article questioning the nomination of Philip North, Bishop of Blackburn, to the see of Sheffield.

How, he asked, could someone who believed that women clergy and those ordained by them were not real clergy serve as bishop in a ‘woman-friendly’ diocese where women make up a third of the clergy? You could do one or the other but not both.

In the debate that has unfolded on social media since then, no-one has answered this challenge – not even Philip North himself. The evasions reveal a Church in retreat from serious theological reflection.

‘Personal attacks’

The initial tactic of Bishop North’s defenders was to praise him for his personal qualities and attack critics of his appointment for theirs. The Church of England’s large PR team set the tone by asking women clergy in the diocese of Blackburn where North is currently a bishop to sign a letter saying how nice and ‘inclusive’ they had found him. Bishop Pete Broadbent followed up by tweeting about ‘intolerant exclusive “inclusives”’, a phrase which quickly turned into a meme for conservatives.

In response, clergymen and clergywomen in Sheffield started a website to raise their concerns. They repeated Percy’s challenge. A Sheffield MP took up their concerns.

When, on Thursday 9th March, Philip North announced was declining the nomination, the hope that this was in response to the challenge were dashed by his letter of resignation. It cited ‘highly individualized… attacks upon me’ which have been ‘hard to bear’ and which created level of opposition which would make mission in South Yorkshire difficult. A pragmatic decision then, not a theological one.

The ‘Five Guiding Principles’

By this point a second line of defence had gained momentum amongst North’s supporters: appeal to ‘the Five Guiding Principles’. The vast majority of people, including Anglicans, had never heard of them.

A well-intentioned piece of church-speak, they turned out to have been drafted by a subcommittee in the heat of the desperate attempt to get women bishops approved by Synod in 2014; the failure of the previous attempt under Rowan Williams had caused such public outrage that even Prime Minister David Cameron was moved to tell the Church of England to ‘get with the programme’.

The first two principles say that

‘all] those whom [the Church] has duly ordained and appointed to office are true and lawful holders of the office which they occupy and thus deserve due respect and canonical obedience’

and

‘that the Church of England has reached a clear decision on the matter.’

But the fourth principle says that those who don’t recognise women bishops or priests

‘continue to be within the spectrum of teaching and tradition of the Anglican Communion’

and must therefore be allowed to flourish.

In other words, rather than resolving the contradiction Percy had put his finger on, the Five Guiding Principles just restate it.

It’s fine to discriminate

The ‘Archbishop Cranmer’ website offered one of the few attempts to answer to Percy’s challenge. It defended discrimination.

It offered two examples: paraplegics not being offered a job with the Fire Service and ‘Oxbridge’ accepting only the intellectually elite. Percy was condemned as a trendy relativist and discrimination against women clergy was upheld as properly Christian discrimination.

The general point about discrimination is a good one: discrimination lies at the heart of perception, judgement and even ‘feelings’ (as the philosophers Martha Nussbaum and Robert Solomon have shown us). It can indeed be good or bad, true or false. But no-one, least of all Percy, seemed to be disputing this. The pinch comes in deciding what, in practical circumstances, counts as good or bad discrimination.

Even the examples given are not straightforward. A firefighter crippled by an injury in service could nonetheless proceed to lead the fire service; in Oxbridge the bar is set at excellence. Universities strive to take the best qualified irrespective of gender, disability and so on.

In relation to women priests it is the kind of discrimination practised that is under challenge, not discrimination per se. Philip North and the ‘Society’ to which he belongs want to reserve the highest power in the Church for men even if women candidates have superior gifts and competencies – but they won’t explain why. They are unable to justify their discriminatory principles.

‘Separate integrities’

Press on any of these defences too hard and they send you down the chute which leads to the decision made in 1992 to protect opponents of women’s ordination by allowing ‘separate integrities’ in the Church of England. Another well-intentioned piece of legislation, it protected opponents of by creating what was in effect a church within the Church with its own ‘flying bishops’ and ‘alternative oversight’.

The most credible defence of North’s appointment isn’t a theological one but a secular one: the liberal principle which says that people should be free to hold whatever view they like so long as no-one is harmed. Elaine Storkey took this line when she argued that North could easily have

‘put all the structures in place necessary for him to be a focus of unity’.

The rejoinder, however, was more powerful. People asked how North could claim to be in communion with the third his clergy who are women and how he could sponsor women for ordination training to a ministry which, however much he might like and affirm the individuals, he doesn’t actually regard as ordination to a ministry of sacrament. And Jeremy Pemberton asked how he could be a pastor to his whole diocese when he would have to appoint clergy to parishes to dispense sacraments when he has no confidence that they are real sacraments. No answers have been given.

Back to theology

So the theological, moral and pastoral challenges keep popping back up however much North and his supporters try to beat them down. The reason is simple. Those in power in the Church of England decided to ordain women not because they had a late-onset conversion to feminism, nor because they were forced to do so, but because they conceded the theological argument. As Archbishop William Temple had admitted over half a century before:

‘if we could find any shadow of theological ground for the non-ordination of women I should be immensely comforted, but such arguments as I have heard on that line seem quite desperately futile.’

It’s become fashionable for ‘traditionalists’ to say that the wide support for women priests amongst Anglicans and the population in general has nothing to say to the church. They are wrong. A wider moral shift in society helped Christians to see the implications of their own orthodoxy more clearly than they had before.

From the serious theological explorations which took place over several decades we learned many things. We learned that God has no gender and that feminine language for God is no more inappropriate than masculine. We learned that women played a more central role in early Christianity than Church history had let on, and that what the CofE means by priesthood does not derive directly from the New Testament. We realised that the priest who represents Jesus at the altar and says the words of the Eucharistic Prayer over the bread and wine represents Christ in Christ’s humanity, not in Christ’s gender. And we discovered that there is therefore no reason why a woman may not preside at Communion: when she does so, she represents Jesus, our human High Priest.

The irony which the Philip North controversy has exposed is that it is the so-called liberals who are the ones clinging to orthodoxy and tradition, and the so-called traditionalists who are appealing to liberal principles of freedom, toleration, and equal respect. Lacking a strong theological basis for their position, the defenders of North are behaving like relativists who believe their position must be upheld not because it is true but just because it is their identity.

The traditionalists lost the argument about God, gender and priesthood a long time ago, and now find themselves unable to offer a theological rationale for ‘separate provision’ or a bishop who doesn’t recognize the orders of an ever-expanding proportion of his own clergy.

The reason the appointment of Philip North collapsed so swiftly was not that its opponents were particularly nasty but that its supporters have been unable to address the challenges they raised.