The turmoil caused by Bishop Philip North’s experience with Sheffield Diocese will not go away easily.
In a statement explaining his withdrawal from his appointment as the next Bishop of Sheffield Philip said this: “The news of my nomination has elicited a strong reaction within the diocese and some areas of the wider Church. It is clear that the level of feeling is such that my arrival would be counter-productive in terms of the mission of the Church in South Yorkshire and that my leadership would not be acceptable to many.”
He then went on to reveal something of the personal cost of the events of the last few weeks: “The highly individualised nature of the attacks upon me have been extremely hard to bear.”
The reason for the well-orchestrated campaign against Philip was his refusal to ordain women to the priesthood for deeply held theological reasons. Here in Blackburn Diocese those of us who know Philip to be a gracious, gifted, inspiring, hard-working Bishop are dismayed that he could be treated in such a brutal way. The Bishop of Blackburn has sent Philip on retreat so that he can recover from the ordeal and, we trust, soon return to his duties as Bishop of Burnley.
Our prayer is that he will come through this experience, “hard pressed… but not crushed, perplexed, but not in despair… struck down but not destroyed.” (2 Corinthians 4:8,9) We even pray that Philip would be able to echo these words of Paul later in the same chapter: “We do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.” (16,17)
But this matter is not just about one man’s turmoil; it is also extremely unsettling for many of us because it reveals that the Church of England is not fully committed to the flourishing of those who remain unconvinced that the ordination of women is in keeping with scripture and the historic practice of the church.
At a meeting of General Synod back in 2014 Archbishop Justin Welby made a speech in which he described his hopes for the Church of England:
“It’s not a church that says we do this and we don’t do that. It’s a church that says we do this and we do that and actually quite a lot of us don’t like that but we are still going to do it because of love.”
When faced with the disagreement over women bishops Archbishop Welby’s solution was to try and have a “good disagreement”. He wants to see a church in which those of opposite views agree to differ and lovingly accept each other’s right to be part of the church; even that each group should be committed to the “flourishing” of the other group.
But the treatment of Bishop Philip in Sheffield Diocese has revealed that there is a faction in the Church of England that is implacably opposed to the flourishing of those who don’t support the ordination of women. The Archbishop of Canterbury’s policy has failed at its first real test and it’s difficult to see how he and Archbishop Sentamu will be able to make it work in the future. Many will conclude that the policy is so flawed that it will never work.
Yours in Christ