In July 2014, the General Synod of the Church of England after years of discussion since 1992 passed legislation that both allowed for the consecration of women as bishops, and made promises that traditionalists would continue to have an honoured place in the Church.
Those promises were contained in ‘five principles’ of mutual recognition. The promise was that those who “on grounds of theological conviction are unable to receive the ministry of women bishops or priests, will 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; and 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 degree of communion and contribute to mutual flourishing across the Church of England.”
Because of this commitment, both Evangelical and Anglo-Catholic members of the synod felt able to vote, as I did, for the legislation. I had been involved in the Synod debates since 2005 as reports and legislative drafts were discussed and rejected. Eventually, formal synodical processes were set aside and Justin Welby and his Canon for reconciliation, David Porter who had been involved in the Peace Process in Northern Ireland stepped in.
They brought together recognised representatives and leaders from all points of view for a series of meetings starting in September 2012 which developed over time a solution that all could accept with integrity:. women would be consecrated as full and not second class bishops, and the minority who could not receive their ministry were assured a succession of bishops who would give oversight to their churches and ordain their priests. Disputes were to be resolved by an ombudsman.
Sadly, tragically, disastrously and appallingly, these vows have now been broken. Following the announcement that Bishop Philip North, Suffragan (or assistant) Bishop of Burnley, had been nominated to be Diocesan Bishop of Sheffield, a campaign was mounted by the Sheffield Alliance for Ministry Equality comprising people within the diocese, and powerful figures outside such as Martyn Percy the Dean of Christ Church Oxford, objecting to his appointment on the grounds that it would “represent the toleration of gender-based sectarianism”.
But the time for those arguments is past. General Synod settled the question that this would not be the result. Refusal to include in the Church those Bishops who disagree on the matter of the ordination and consecration of women, makes such sectarianism more and not less likely.
Susan Leafe the Director of Reform has written: “I have lost count of the number of times conservatives have been asked to trust that we can flourish in the Church of England, but without solid evidence that there is an equal future for conservatives in the Church of England (beyond that of dhimmitude) it becomes harder and harder to convince talented young men and women to offer themselves to serve in this denomination or to persuade congregations to continue to finance the work.”
It is now not only the Catholic supporters of Bishop North’s theology of ordination who are distressed. Many women priests are also upset. The Rev Jules Middleton a priest in Chichester Diocese where the Bishop, Martin Warner, takes the same stance as Bishop North: ‘I, as an ordained woman want to publically say that I am appalled at the way +Philip has been treated and sad that he has felt the need to step aside, which can only be due to the recent and public objections – how is this in any way enabling mutual flourishing?’
Questions must be asked. Bishop North was clearly intimidated and bullied. His resignation statement speaks of “highly individualised attacks on me.” Such bullying had already persuaded him to withdraw from being nominated to the suffragan see of Whitby in 2012. Did the bullies smell blood and decide to go for the jugular in 2017, to prevent a man widely recognised as being a gifted minister of the gospel with long experience in some of the most deprived urban parishes in England, from becoming a diocesan Bishop?
We must assume that his Archbishop, the Archbishop of York will have tried to encourage him to weather the storm. Being a single man Bishop North will have needed the support of friends and colleagues. But given that this campaign against him was well-organised within and beyond the Diocese of Sheffield, did the Archbishops of York and Canterbury, the ultimate guarantors of those vows, consider calling in its leaders, listening to their concerns, and as any Prime Minister would have done in other circumstances, making it clear to them that if they cannot accept the policy of the Church of England they should consider their position? And if not, why not?
This will not stop here. The Bishop of Maidstone writes: “if it (the concept of mutual flourishing) is to survive as our governing motif, then urgent action will be needed to demonstrate its effectiveness. In the absence of such action, we will simply have given in to those who hounded Philip North out of office.”
One blogger states: “There can now be no radically inclusive formula of words, no guiding principles, no memorandum of agreement or synodical ‘fudge’ by which those Anglicans who oppose the creation of some sort of liturgical same-sex blessing (proto-marriage), and those who advocate it as a fundamental equality or Christian social justice, can coexist in the Church of England. The hounding of Philip North from the Bishopric of Sheffield has put paid to all carefully-crafted yarns of mutual flourishing and rose-tinted via-media tolerance: mob rule has supplanted synodical governance; bullying and hounding have usurped reason, vocation and love.”
Once vows are broken, trust is very difficult to restore.