No, sex and women priests are not the same thing.

In the continuing debate over the Bishop of Sheffield, liberals are often accused of saying one thing about women priests and the opposite about same-sex partnerships. I am grateful to a number of correspondents, including Tiffer Robinson and David Emmott, for helping me understand the point. Still, I think it is mistaken, and this post explains my reasons.

Recriminations over Sheffield

At Sheffield, diocesan representatives were as usual invited to submit requests about what kind of bishop they would like. As I understand it they did not request a supporter of women priests. This was not because they did not mind, but because they took it for granted that nobody would consider an opponent of women priests suitable for a diocese already containing a large number of them.

News of the appointment caused outrage, North withdrew, and the recriminations began.

An alliance had already been established between erstwhile opponents: the church hierarchy, ‘conservative’ Evangelicals and ‘traditionalist’ Catholics. They had already joined forces to oppose Government legislation on civil partnerships, same-sex marriage and assisted dying. On women priests they share a concern to protect opponents.

The narrative of the recriminations runs something like this. North was subjected to so much ‘appalling hounding, vilification and name-calling’, as Elaine Storkey put it, from ‘intolerant exclusive “inclusives”‘, as the Bishop of Willesden put it, that he felt he had to withdraw.

In these days of Twitter, Facebook and unmoderated comments on websites, highly abusive language is common. It has given the alliance the opportunity to direct its ire against liberals for making North’s life such a misery, thus ignoring the real case against his appointment. That case stands on its merits, and I am inclined to suspect that North could see it more clearly than some of his current defenders do.

The accusation of inconsistency

In support of the meme of ‘illiberal liberals’ what seems to have emerged as the most popular argument is a contrast with that other topic of endless ecclesiastical debate, same-sex partnerships.

The accounts I have read accuse liberals of wanting to dissent from the Church’s official teaching on sexual ethics, while denying opponents of women priests the right to dissent from the Church’s decision to have them. Thus Ian Paul writes:

Suppose two dioceses were to take a different view on the recognition of women’s ministry. You would, at the border, then have two parishes adjacent to one another, where in one an ordained woman’s ministry was recognised, welcomed and celebrated, and in the other it simply was not recognised. That situation would be difficult and indeed painful, but it is possible to imagine. But suppose in those two parishes there were officially sanctioned opposing views on sexuality. In one, both laity and clergy could enter same-sex marriages and this would be celebrated. In the other, the official position would be that such a situation should be met with a call to repentance. Such a contrast is not sustainable, not least in law, and is completely contradictory.

Ethical disagreement

My own view is the reverse. One is a matter of private ethics. Nobody needs to police other people’s sex lives. Anglicans have in the past had major public disagreements about all sorts of issues – divorce, contraception, and in the nineteenth century, marriage to deceased wife’s sister. The dominant consensus has often changed, with bishops publicly disagreeing with each other. In each case, although arguments varied, supporters of the older view did not get very far by simply appealing to ‘officially sanctioned views’ or ‘the official position’. Characteristically both sides understood that the debate was not primarily about appeals to authority. It was about the rights and wrongs of the matter.

Nor was disagreement confined to private ethics. In the 1960s our predecessors disagreed over capital punishment. When it was finally abolished the majority of bishops voted in favour of abolition despite the Church’s official teaching (in the 39 Articles) positively approving of it. We might add the debates about pacifism, socialism and imperialism.

Compared with all those, the current debate about same-sex partnerships reveals a distinct, more dogmatic mood. Ian Paul, as above, believes it ‘not sustainable’ for one parish to accept the ‘official position’ while the next does not. Thus the Church’s official teaching is presented as a standard which ought to be accepted by Anglicans simply by virtue of it being the Church’s teaching.

If this view had prevailed in the past we would still be arguing about deceased wife’s sisters. We would still be opposing divorce and contraception. The fact that it seems credible today witnesses to the growing influence of dogmatic Calvinism. This tradition has its historical roots in the theory that every statement in the Bible is literally true. The implication is that true Christians always believe the same things. My book  Liberal Faith in a Divided Church examines this in detail, so now I confine myself to arguing that ethical disagreement between churchpeople is perfectly normal and much more healthy than everybody feeling they should believe what they are told.

Diocesan bishops

The question of who is competent to be the Bishop of Sheffield is not like this at all. We therefore have to make a distinction which is normally quite obvious, but in this instance apparently needs to be spelt out. When same-sex couples disagree about marriage, it is possible for everyone to get what they want: the approvers marry, the disapprovers do not. On some matters, however, one decision is made for everyone. We may disagree about whether our town needs a by-pass, or whether Britain should leave the European Union, and the disagreement is perfectly legitimate. However a decision has to be made one way or the other. Those who support the losing side are still entitled to think they were right, but they must abide by the decision.

Similarly, whoever is appointed Bishop of Sheffield will be Bishop for everyone in the diocese. I am not arguing here that Philip North should not have been the Bishop of Sheffield. I have done this elsewhere, and many others have done so too. My point here is simply that the accusation of inconsistency fails. On sexual ethics we can agree to disagree while each of us does what we consider right. On the appointment of bishops, we can still agree to disagree on what the person specifications for the post ought to be, but an appointment will be made and those who disagree with it are obliged to live with the decision.

Liberal consistency

The argument that liberals are being inconsistent seems, as far as I can understand it, to presuppose that official church teaching is the dominant authority in both debates. Our critics complain that we are accepting it in one instance but not in the other. Yet liberals rarely accept the presupposition.

I cannot speak for all liberals because we think for ourselves, so we disagree with each other a lot. However, precisely because we do think for ourselves we do not have much regard for an officialdom that busies itself telling us what we all ought to think. In this sense we are more traditional in our Anglicanism than our dogmatising critics with their over-emphasis on official statements.

Towards a resolution

Here’s my proposal. Everyone should be encouraged to think for themselves and hold their own views, on whatever interests them. The corollary is that other people can disagree with you, and nobody has a mind that trumps other people’s minds.

This is perfectly compatible with saying that

(a) however strong your views are you have no right to impose them on other people unless there are practical reasons for doing so, and

(b) institutions like the Church have to be organised in specific ways, with specific rules that are accepted in practice even by members who disagree with them.

Threatened, declining institutions often try to suppress internal debate.

When institutions flourish, they generate debate about their own rules and objectives. It’s normal. It’s healthy. It’s a sign of growth.