John Sentamu and Philip North

Outcry all round. Philip North, the suffragan Bishop of Burnley who opposes the ordination of women, is to become the next Bishop of Sheffield. This is the first of three posts on the subject.

It is a diocesan post, so he will have oversight of all the priests in his diocese. A third of them are women.

Philip is a leading member of the Society of St Wilfrid and St Hilda, which states in its journal New Directions that, with regard to women priests and bishops, and even male priests ordained by women bishops,

We can’t receive their ministry.

So members of that society are invited to

sign a Declaration that commits them to what The Society stands for. Priests and deacons submit their letters of orders to prove they were ordained by a bishop whose orders we can recognize. The relevant Society bishop sends them a Welcome Letter, so they can prove that they are clergy of The Society; and we have begun to issue identity cards to priests.

Martyn Percy, the Dean of Christchurch, Oxford, quotes this text in a substantial article arguing that the situation is untenable. Modern Church has published a shorter summary. Similarly a couple of years ago, when Philip was consecrated Bishop of Burnley, I argued that it wouldn’t work. That, though, was only a suffragan post. This one is diocesan. Percy explains the difference:

As the diocesan bishop, the ‘cure of souls’ is legally and sacramentally shared with all clergy-colleagues. So, the Bishop needs to be fully confident that the priests they share in this ministry with are pastorally competent, theologically sound, and crucially, that their ordination is valid and affirmed, such that their sacramental ministry (again, shared), is efficacious…
Bishop Philip was clear that the women are, if so ordained, legally and canonically priests or bishops. But the crucial question is, what does Bishop Philip think is happening at the altar, when a woman is presiding at the Eucharist. I don’t know. And so far, Bishop Philip has tended to be ambiguous in his statements on this matter. But this issue cannot now be fudged. Any answer that sidestepped the question as to whether such a sacramental offering is valid or efficacious would be pastorally and personally undermining of women clergy…


The Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, has defended the appointment:

Bishop Philip has assured women clergy in the diocese that he is in favour of women’s leadership and would actively promote it. I know he will do so. Women clergy in the Diocese of Sheffield will not only be accepted, but will be encouraged, inspired, and furthered in their ministry by their new Diocesan Bishop.

Percy replies:

For a passionate-moderate like myself, let me state clearly that not all views are of equal worth on race or gender. Some are wrong and harmful. Being tolerant - and I do believe in a tolerant, mild, open church - also means that, sometimes, views that are manifestly intolerant have to be named and resisted. Moderates have backbones too.

Ian Paul, in an attempt to defend the appointment, proposes to turn Martyn Percy’s liberalism on its head:

It is quite striking how illiberal Percy’s liberalism is; anyone who is not as tolerant as him simply will not be tolerated: ‘Tolerating intolerance is not virtuous practice!’ The obvious response to that is that we should not tolerate Percy’s intolerance in turn, highlighting the incoherence of this position.


it is becoming more and more clear that those who want to see change in the Church’s teaching are not, in fact, seeking to ‘agree to disagree’.

However, Martyn Percy is right. Toleration does not mean allowing everyone to do whatever they want, however intolerant they are of other people. It often means protecting the weak against the strong, even when the strong complain that they are being discriminated against, or not being tolerated.

So in order to protect a policy of toleration, we need to be aware of the power relations. Who has power? Who is threatening the freedom of whom? Whose desire for freedom adds up to a desire to restrict the freedom of others?

Because of the way the Church of England works, Philip North, whatever his other qualities, will be in a position of power over the women priests in his diocese. Nobody is denying his personal right to reject women’s priesthood. The point is that the post of diocesan bishop, in a diocese with many women priests, needs someone who affirms it. Otherwise the priesthood of Sheffield women is undermined.

Speaking personally…

Both sides in this debate have been keen to stress that Philip North has great talents which the Church should use to maximum effect. Both sides accept that while in Burnley he has been conscientious in caring for the women priests there. The most common observation is that he has campaigned for the Church not to withdraw from the most deprived areas of the country. Some say he has been an outstanding witness for the poor. Unfortunately, however outstanding he has been in this respect, the issue of his regard for the priestly ministry of women is not affected.

Still, let us put it into perspective. Suppose you are a non-stipendiary woman priest in Sheffield. You have worked as a priest for decades, it is how you get your personal affirmation and your sense of self-worth. But your income is from state benefits, which have been sanctioned. You have no money to feed yourself or your children. Which is going to upset you more, your lack of money or the fact that your new bishop doesn’t believe you can be a priest?

The answer is obvious. Some things matter more than others. If you can’t eat, not being able to conduct services pales into insignificance.

Since 2010, the numbers of people driven to starvation and homelessness has shot up as a result of benefit cuts, benefit sanctions and the Bedroom Tax. This should be recognised as the scandal of the decade, far more important than Brexit. Yet the affluent chattering classes are not interested, so it rarely gets mentioned in newspapers or on television. I know from my own records that when I blog on this matter I get far fewer readers than I get for my blogs on church politics.

If we ask who does address this dramatically-increased extreme poverty, the most important answer, by far, is local churches. This is where people run food banks, this is where people donate food and money.

All the more reason why somebody like Philip North, who is genuinely concerned for the issue, should be given a senior post in the Church to campaign for a more caring, more Christian society. But he should not be a diocesan bishop. If there aren’t any other senior posts, create some.