Wall painting of Paul and Thecla

Widespread horror has greeted the news of the bizarre arrangements for consecrating the new bishop of Burnley.

On Wednesday I put up a post describing the arrangements agreed between the candidate, Philip North, who opposes the ordination of women, and the Archbishop of York. Normal procedure is to be abandoned so that the key actions, laying hands on the candidate and presiding at the Communion Service, will only be performed by bishops who also reject the ordination of women.

Many others have commented as well. Thinking Anglicans provides quite a list. Internet concern has been massive. The number of people viewing my own post far exceeds anything else I have written.

Meanwhile John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York, has bent over backwards to accept responsibility for the arrangements and exonerate Philip. There is a freely available Church Times description of his position.

It is ironic that this same archbishop is also the one who has just published On Rock or Sand? , a response to British poverty which will attract people to join the Church for positive reasons.

Regrettably Sentamu suggests that ‘these new arrangements could shape the custom of future consecrations’. I argued in my previous post that this is indeed likely to be the long-term result of the Burnley arrangements, but would leave us with two kinds of bishop. The majority would accept the ministry of the minority, but the minority would reject the ministry of the majority.

The responses that have come my way are of three types. Nearly all disapprove of the arrangements. A few are along the lines of ‘That’s Christianity for you – I’ll have none of it’. Thirdly there are the ones by the people who agree with Philip’s position. Whenever I come across this third type, I ask questions in the hope of understanding their position better. So far I have been disappointed.

It was not always thus. My father was a member of Forward in Faith, and I often heard him explain why women cannot be priests. Jesus had not called women apostles. Women priests should only be introduced with the agreement of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches. The ordination of priests and bishops involved the gift, by the Holy Spirit, of a real grace to do the job, a grace not available to laypeople or women. I seem to remember that such discussions were widely aired in 1992 when General Synod voted in favour of women priests.

I disagree with these arguments but they were real points expressing real reasons. It is possible to have a rational discussion about whether, and how, they lead to the conclusion that no woman should or can be a priest.

Today we rarely hear them. More often, opponents of women priests present their opposition as a surd given, an unchangeable fact. It is expressed in the language of ‘… cannot in all conscience…’, as though our opinions came out of the Ark with Noah and we cannot learn from each other. So the ‘fact’ that they cannot accept women priests is no longer a matter for theological debate with fellow-Anglicans and a search for a common mind. Instead it is a political demand, a negotiating position against the other side within the Church of England.

It is as though, at the level of theological communication, the Church of England has been two distinct churches for some time now. The proposed plans for Burnley will make it clear that each of them has its own bishops, and will thereby harden the separation.

Some people will no doubt feel that the Burnley arrangement will enable them to stay in the Church. Far greater numbers are leaving in disgust, and greater numbers still are being reassured that they were right to abandon such a misogynist institution.

How then should they consecrate Philip North? There was a better option. The consecration of every bishop in the Church should be an event which clearly indicates, in its words and actions, that the new candidate is joining a group of people who respect and affirm each other as they share the work of episcopal ministry. If Philip finds that unacceptable, perhaps he should belong to a different church.

Every bishop must be expected to work with, and accept the ministry of, the other priests and bishops. Including the women.