Sunday, 12 March 2017

Blessed Incoherence

Poor Fr Philip North is making something of a career out of not being appointed bishop of various places. A few years ago he wasn’t appointed Bishop of Whitby; now he has withdrawn his name from consideration as the next Bishop of Sheffield. In between, he did manage to become Bishop of Burnley, but one out of three isn’t a good average.

I met Philip North once when he came to St Stephen’s House while I was studying there. Everyone thinks he’s a pretty good egg. The trouble is that he’s the wrong sort of egg for some people, and although he’s easily the most personable prominent traditionalist Anglo-Catholic in the Church of England – which is why the hierarchy keeps trying to move him into this or that episcopal position – wherever he goes there are those who don’t want him there, and are prepared, sometimes, to be quite nastily vocal about it in the simpering, passive-aggressive way that Anglicans do so well.

When his name was mooted as Bishop of Whitby, a number of churchgoers (especially in the Archdeaconry of Cleveland) protested that their previous two bishops had been opponents of the ordination of women as priests, and now they wanted someone of a different view; funnily enough, it was the Archdeacon of Cleveland who was bumped up to that job. Now, after Fr North was put forward for the bishopric of Sheffield, cries have been raised that he would not be able to treat the female clergy of his diocese equally with the men, although as far as I know there haven’t been any complaints of his behaviour while at Burnley. It’s a slightly different sort of position, as Sheffield’s bishop is a fully-charged-up diocesan rather than a suffragan or assistant bishop like Burnley, but others around the country prove that it’s not impossible to manage the problems that arise. No, the issue seems to be that he is who he is and, as his personal character is impeccable, that he associates with people who are not – ‘fogeys’, ‘reactionaries’, and the like. And so, for the second time, he’s done the decent thing and, recognising that as Sheffield’s bishop he would not be the ‘focus of unity’ he would want to be, he’s withdrawn.

A couple of years ago the Church of England came to a compromise that would allow the legislation to permit the consecration of women as bishops to go ahead while still, just about, accommodating the people who disagreed. When Philip North was consecrated as Bishop of Burnley in 2015 it was a demonstration of how this might work: Archbishop of York John Sentamu refrained from laying hands on him, delegating that to the bishops of Chichester, Pontefract and Beverley, all of whom oppose the ordination of women, but the prayer of consecration itself was said by all the bishops present, including Abp Sentamu and Libby Lane, seconds after her own consecration as the first woman bishop in the Church of England. Of course it was all messy, incoherent and in a way ludicrous, but via such messes, incoherencies and ludicrousnesses does God’s Church of England proceed and work crap out, and always has done.

There are a lot of people in the Church who were hopping mad at that. They want tidiness, coherence, and sense, and call it justice. They want the trads forced to knuckle under. They don’t believe compromise is possible or honest.

To an extent, I know what they mean. The trad Anglo-Catholic position, which is that the grace of God operates like a sort of divine electrical current in which all the wiring has to be right or it doesn’t work – and the circuitry requires not just no women priests but no bishops who have ever ordained women as priests – is nuts.  It really is. I remember having a conversation with a lovely member of our congregation who was grappling with what would happen when Marion our curate was made priest and he might turn up on a Sunday to find her at the altar rather than me. I said I thought the fundamental question was whether the Holy Spirit was at work in Marion’s ministry or not. ‘Well, put it like that’, mused Fred, ‘and it’s absurd to think any different. Of course the Holy Spirit is at work in what she does.’ For a while I copied Fred in on the service rota so he knew when not to come to mass, but then one day he came and took communion from Marion and there’s never been a problem since. I never tackled him about it. The trad-Catholic position is so ridiculous that what was done at Philip North’s consecration is very clearly in the manner of a fig leaf to spare their embarrassment. One day they will have to face these questions, as indeed they are, priest by priest, congregation by congregation. There is no need to rub their noses in it.

But if Philip North can’t be a diocesan bishop because some people in his prospective diocese are upset (and let’s say I would not be very surprised to discover that Sheffield Cathedral had much to do with the protests), does this mean no trad-Catholic can be, except, perhaps, in the diocese of Chichester? Surely ‘mutual flourishing’ must mean that a woman can be Bishop of Chichester one day and an opponent of women being ordained can be Bishop of Southwark (to pick a liberal diocese)? If not, that hard-won agreement of 2015, and all the warm words said around it, mean nothing at all.

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