mitre and fudge

This is the second of three blog posts responding to the appointment of Philip North, an opponent of women priests, as Bishop of Sheffield.

In the first I described Martyn Percy’s argument that the appointment should not proceed as long as Philip rejects the priesthood of the women priests in Sheffield Diocese, because it would put the women priests in Sheffield in an impossible position.

Martyn’s case has attracted the attention of the national press. Others have written in support: Women and the Church, Giles Fraser, Andrew Lightbown, Malcolm Grundy and perhaps most significant of all, Sue Hammersley one of the affected vicars in Sheffield. Sue writes:

But, those of us who have taken the risk of speaking out, want the Church of England to hear that this particular nomination cuts to the heart of what we understand by “mutual flourishing”. Mutuality surely has to take account of the balance of power. When one person’s “flourishing” depends upon another person’s permission, this is not mutual.

The reference to ‘mutual flourishing’ comes from the Church of England’s Five Guiding Principles on the matter. The Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, has as we would expect defended the appointment. Arun Aurora and Ian Paul have likewise leapt to its defence. The main argument of all three is that the appointment fits the Five Guiding Principles. Thus Ian Paul writes:

If ‘liberals’ feel happy to question and undermine both the agreement and those affected by it, it seems as though the widespread agreement reached has no standing and commands no respect.

So what are these ‘Guiding Principles’? They tell us that

the Church of England is fully and unequivocally committed to all orders of ministry being open equally to all, without reference to gender, and holds that those whom it 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.

On the other hand it then states that

Since those within the Church of England who, on grounds of theological conviction, are unable to receive the ministry of women bishops or priests continue to be within the spectrum of teaching and tradition of the Anglican Communion, the Church of England remains committed to enabling them to flourish within its life and structures.


Pastoral and sacramental provision for the minority within the Church of England will be made without specifying a limit of time and in a way that maintains the highest possible degree of communion and contributes to mutual flourishing across the whole Church of England.

Thus they do not make any attempt to resolve the disagreements; they simply tell us we have to live with each other. My guess is that an appointment like Philip’s was part of the backstage deal agreed to get women bishops through General Synod a few years ago. So if they had not now appointed him they would have appointed someone else; and if not to Sheffield, to some other hapless diocese.

There is nothing unusual about this. Major changes often get agreed through fudges, leaving inconsistencies to be sorted out later. If we think of it like this the Diocese of Sheffield is now paying the price for women bishops. Even for women priests in Sheffield, it may seem that the price was worth paying.

However, fudge it remains. Critics argue that the appointment does not make sense, and often add that the Five Guiding Principles do not make sense either. In the long term we shall have to find something that does make sense, but for now all we get is a decree from on high about what we are to do. That this decree can be accepted so meekly, despite being just a quick fix to keep both sides together, leaves us wondering whether the Church is now dominated by political fixers with little interest in Christian theology.

The trend is echoed elsewhere. My earlier post received a number of helpful comments on the clatworthy site, and I am particularly grateful to Matthew Duckett for his review of Anglican Catholic thinking on why women can’t be priests. The ‘ontological’ argument – that there is something about priesthood and women which makes them incompatible – is rarely defended. The dominant argument today is that we should not accept women priests without the agreement of the whole Church, including Roman Catholics and the Orthodox.

What strikes me is how similar this is to the Five Guiding Principles. Both positions appeal to the authority of ecclesiastical hierarchies as justification for ignoring the theological questions. Neither addresses what priesthood is and whether women can have it. Appeal to authority is all we get.

I fear this may be a long-term trend. As a baby-boomer I benefited greatly from the British Welfare State. At school I was encouraged in critical thinking. Questioning authority was normal. My generation of clergy expected to run their parishes with minimal interference from bishops and archdeacons. Now the mood has changed. Younger Christians are suspicious of ‘Enlightenment reason’. A bishop I was talking to not long ago explained that in his experience most parish clergy want to be told what to do.

This, of course, echoes the way society is changing. As we become more unequal and hierarchical, more and more decisions get taken at the top and imposed on everyone else. People learn to accept that they must do what they are told, not think things through in their local patch. So the decrees of pope, patriarch and House of Bishops become absolutes, to be accepted as they are.

To preserve the unity of the Church, political and managerial fixes can only be short-term. We have to talk to each other about what our Christianity means to us and why we understand it the way we do. The issue of women priests will not go away unless we re-engage in honest, open and respectful debate about exactly what faculties distinguish priests from laypeople, and whether women can have them as well as men.

It is time to climb the ladder, fetch our theological beliefs down from the top shelf, throw out the ones that have passed their Eat Before date, and celebrate the ones that are still wholesome. No doubt we shall still disagree; but with a clearer idea of what we believe and why we believe it, we will be more likely to to celebrate together without the differences getting in the way.