WHEN I heard that the Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North, was being translated to Sheffield, my first reaction was to text him my congratulations. I have known Philip for about 15 years, and we coincided for a few years on the Liturgical Commission. Although I knew that he was “unconvinced” that there was a case for women priests, he was very different from most of those I knew who opposed women’s ordination. He never absented himself when women presided at Commission eucharists; he even read the Gospel on at least one occasion.
His support for women went far beyond Anglican politeness: he was genuinely enthusiastic about their ministry, and did not patronise. He was never an impossibilist. He believes that women ordained in the Church of England are validly ordained. His hesitation, if I understand him correctly, is that by acting alone on this issue the Church of England has breached Catholicity.
I was quite angered by the objections of some Sheffield clergy and those who supported them, especially as they must have known that he had already withdrawn his acceptance of one episcopal appointment, to the suffragan see of Whitby in 2012. I was not surprised that he stood down again, and I deeply regret the decision. It isn’t as if the Church has all that many such godly, grounded, mission-focused priests to call on when it appoints diocesan bishops.
The awful truth is that the agreement reached with traditionalists more than two years ago which enabled women to become bishops enshrined a theological imbalance between men and women in episcopal orders which has now brought down the whole delicate structure of the legislation. While traditionalists retained the right to request extended episcopal oversight, on the grounds that women’s orders were suspect, others did not have any equivalent right. (Nobody could conceive that there could be any deficiency in the orders of male bishops).Those who hammered out this legislation believed, wrongly, that a residual inequality was a small price to pay for women bishops and that the consequences could simply be massaged away. They never envisaged that a male bishop could be found unacceptable on the grounds of his beliefs, and could be pushed to withdrawal by a popular campaign.
One more victory for populism, I suppose, but a disaster for the Church. We now know that no bishop can regard himself or herself as a focus of unity. The attempt to achieve both equality and diversity was always a fudge, arguably lacking in theological integrity. The system is now thoroughly broken, and we all are the poorer.