THE shifting tectonic plates of the earth’s crust come together in three different ways: they butt full on into each other; one overrides another; or they grind along together. For years, the two plates that were formed over the ordination of women butted into each other. With the passing of the women-bishops legislation, secured with the help of assurances for the protection of traditionalists, the Church appeared to be in for a few years of grinding along together. Less than three years later, it looks as if the third process is now under way. As Bishop North remains in Burnley to lick his wounds, and Sheffield diocese remains without a diocesan, it is easy to concentrate on the faultlines, since these are where the earthquakes happen. The more serious question, however, relates to the plates: how can the Church function (let alone flourish) if its members behave as if those with a different view are on another continent?
Those who queried Bishop North’s translation to Sheffield have been keen to point out that their opposition was not personal. It was personal, and to more than just him, in the way that theological and ecclesiological disputes generally are. More to the point, it was specific, as the national principles were applied in a particular place. This is where the Crown Nominations Commission appears to have got it wrong. The Sheffield diocese has an unhappy history on the issue of women’s ordination. In the early 1990s, the then Bishop, the Rt Revd David Lunn, threatened to resign. Successive bishops have worked hard and relatively successfully to reconcile the different camps, but it is being reported that, because of this history, the vacancy-in-see committee was advised not to consider a women diocesan this time. No mention was made of a traditionalist. Another factor was opinion in Sheffield at large, where pride attaches to the city’s hosting of the earliest meeting of the women’s suffrage movement. There was thus widespread puzzlement at the Church’s choice.
Given the majorities in favour of women’s ordination in the Church and among the general public, it is hard to imagine a diocese where similar conditions will not prevail. Thus traditionalist priests find themselves in the same position as the first women priests: tolerated, even encouraged, but with no prospect of preferment to higher office. This was not what the Synod voted for, nor, judging by the letters we have received, what many people want. Once again, the Church is damaged by an all-too-human unwillingness to engage with difference. There is a way forward, if the will is there: the programme of regional Shared Conversations about same-sex relations, for all its flaws, was an acknowledgement that potential changes need to be received rather than imposed. For, if principles are to be applied successfully, tolerance is not enough: wisdom, patience, and commitment are needed as well. Without these, the unity of any Church is in jeopardy.