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Spin force swoop in to manage Sheffield row

10 March 2017

diocese of blackburn

“Sadness”: the Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North, who has decided not to accept his nomination to be the next Bishop of Sheffield

“Sadness”: the Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North, who has decided not to accept his nomination to be the next Bishop of Sheffiel...

JOURNALISM can be so much fun, possibly to consume as well as to produce, that it is easy to forget how much of the material is raw human agony.

The Daily Mail, and later The Daily Tele­graph, had a story from the Isle of Lewis about a Wee Free minister who killed himself (de­­tails of his methods supplied by the Telegraph) after his wife had apparently accused him of affairs with seven named women.

After his death, she seems to have de­­manded the formal excommunication of the other women, at least some of whom have denied everything, and hired a public-relations con­sultant, which gave rise to a surreal para­graph in the Mail story: “Last night a public relations professional hired by learning sup­port assistant Mrs Camp­­bell made no attempt to deny any de­­tails of the story, but said: ‘The family has lost a husband and father.’

”A letter to the local newspaper last month com­­plained of flowers being stolen from the grave of a ‘departed friend’, adding: ‘It un­­covers a very dark, sad and sinister side of the character of whoever would engage in such an activity.’”

Quite irrespective of the truth of any of this, the suffering of all involved is difficult to be­­gin to imagine. Yet this is, of course, the quality that means that the story has spread from the Scottish press to the London one, and hence even to Russia.


HOW much more edifying is the row over the Rt Revd Philip North’s becoming Bishop of Sheffield (News, 3 March). The PR apparatus of Church House, Westminster, has been de­­ployed in force for this: the Revd Arun Arora, the C of E’s communications director, wrote in The Yorkshire Post to denounce the Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, the Very Revd Pro­fessor Martyn Percy, who had written in the same newspaper: “The faithfulness of the church, and its public witness, is neither af­­firmed nor rewarded by finding some fudged middle ground between sexism and equality . . . We would not tolerate, quite rightly, a post-apartheid South Africa that still gave hon­oured places in government to those who held racially-segregationist views.”

Arun (whose name the paper misspelled in his byline) came back with the claim that this means that Professor Percy is suggesting that the Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu (who supports Bishop North), “as good as holds racist views. So much for thoughtful and re­­flective. . . It’s not so much that he doesn’t make out a case but rather that those who dis­agree with him must be labelled in a such a way as to make holding an opposite view morally unacceptable.”

Just as I was recovering from my shock at the thought that anyone would stoop so low as to suppose that their opponents were morally unacceptable, there was another atrocity: John Bingham, the former social and religious affairs editor at The Daily Telegraph, who is now working for Church House, arranged for 32 women priests in the diocese of Blackburn to write to this newspaper in support of Bishop North (Letters, 3 March). To judge from the outrage on Twitter, you would have thought that he’d had them all shot in front of York Minster to teach the resistance a lesson.

Then came a letter to The Yorkshire Post from Eleanor Lloyd, of Sheffield: “[Bishop North] doesn’t believe women can be priests
. . . He says that when they celebrate the Eu­­charist, no sacrament has taken place. He will not receive Communion from them. Their own conviction of their priestly calling he re­­gards as a delusion, and the Church’s rati­fication of it he regards as a theological error and a practical impossibility.”

This may be powerful if you speak the lan­guage, but how much of it is comprehensible if you do not? No polling company would let you ask the general public questions about “the validity of women’s orders”, or whether “a sacrament has taken place”, because no one would know how to answer them. The whole Sheffield row is confined to a tiny subset of theologically literate Christians in a particular tradition.

And the problem is not just about women. Whatever it is that Bishop North believes he is doing when he celebrates the eucharist about half his own Church don’t believe he’s doing. The Church of England has long learned to live with that disagreement, or at least to ig­­nore it. The only possible test of his fitness is whether Bishop North does in practice dis­criminate against his women clergy in ways that the outside world can understand. And there the harshest verdict possible would be “Not proven”.


COMPARE this inwardness with the theo­logically confused but socially lively piece in The Guardian about an independent Charis­matic Evangelical church in a rapidly gen­trifying part of Bristol: “Its members pursue idiosyncratic beliefs within a loose structure — a belief in prophecy, speaking in tongues, and the power of the Holy Spirit in instigating modern-day miracles.

”They also believe in urban regeneration. The church runs a range of startups and social enterprises in the neighbourhood. . . These enterprises, which gener­ate funds for charities and community arts projects, channel the ethics of Bristol’s famous street art: an active, communal idealism and an earthy, back-to-nature spiritual­ity.”

The way to get stories like this into the press is to deserve them.

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