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Church must address abuse of women priests on social media, says Bishop of London

12 July 2021

‘Sometimes it hurts’ — Synod takes note of Five Guiding Principles report


The Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, pictured in 2019

The Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, pictured in 2019

MOST parishes had never heard of the Five Guiding Principles, established in 2014 to enable those unable to receive the ministry of female bishops or priests to flourish within the Church’s life and structures. This was suggested by one of many speakers in a debate at the General Synod on Monday about whether these principles were still “fit for purpose”.

The Revd David Fisher (Salisbury) said that the deficiency had become apparent at a vacancy-in-see committee meeting where a colleague had commented: “We must have the Five Guiding Principles for you Anglo-Catholics.” They were for the whole Church, Fr Fisher had told him: “If they disappear, so will unity in the Church of England.”

The principles were an integral part of the House of Bishops’ Declaration on the Ministry of Bishops and Priests, and were not time-limited.

In 2017, objections raised to the nomination of the Rt Revd Philip North to the see of Sheffield had led to his withdrawal. The Synod had been due to debate the circumstances of that in a motion first tabled in 2017, but a change of business had resulted in only the scheduled take-note debate on the principles themselves (News, 9 July).

The report before the Synod was the outcome of research conducted by the Implementation and Dialogue Group (IDG) in 2018, and the Bishop of Rochester, the Rt Revd James Langstaff, acknowledged that, as new experience had been gained, new questions had arisen.

The Revd Alicia Dring (Derby) said that she was unable to take note of the report. Mutual flourishing in her experience was not very mutual, was formalised in institutional discrimination, and was often weaponised, she suggested. “Mutuality must work both ways. It must encompass the needs of the whole people of God, not a minority.”

The Revd Anne Stevens (London) was of the same mind. The report did not reflect the wider picture of the Church, she said. “We don’t get the voices of women clergy or their experiences on the ground; nor of bishops and archbishops — why very odd things are happening at consecrations — nor of lay people. This is a flawed report based on a flawed project.”

There was already a higher proportion of bishops who did not ordain women than parishes that required their oversight, observed Jenny Humphreys (Bath & Wells). With other speakers, she deplored the lack of transparency on parish websites about their theological position. Zoe Heming (Lichfield) compared the resources given to the four per cent of people who couldn’t accept the ordination of women with those given to disabled people and other minority groups — “resources the likes of us can only dream about”.

YouTube/Church of EnglandThe Revd Esther Prior (Guildford), with praise for clergy who supported her while disagreeing

The Bishop of Newcastle, the Rt Revd Christine Hardman, was “a huge supporter” of the principles, and remained committed to them. It was the firm principle of the first of these — emphasising that all holding office were “true and lawful” — that was in danger of being disregarded, and the experiences that she was hearing of men who had been ordained by a woman bishop were painful.

The Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, was intending to take note of the report, which she commended for its refusal to “shy away from sensitive issues”; but she had some concerns. She expressed her gratitude to the Bishops of Maidstone and Fulham, who had oversight of Evangelicals and Catholics, but said: “The work can’t stop here, nor [the acknowledgement] that sometimes it hurts.

“My presence means that areas that have been fudged in the past can no longer be fudged. The new Standing Commission will need to hold us to account.” Women priests, she said, “are more often abused on social media — see how often I am subject to abuse. We need to get to grips with that . . . be intentionally engaged about where we stand. We have chosen to live with one anther in total agreement and love.”

Bradley Smith (Chichester) warmly welcomed the report, and praised the response of the Bishop of Gloucester, the Rt Revd Rachel Treweek, to the request by two parishes in her diocese for oversight from the Bishop of Ebbsfleet, as “a model of pastoral practice based on clarity, integrity, and trust. . . We have some way to go, but Chichester is a very different place since 2002.

“The Five Guiding Principles underlie all the diocesan structures and engagement with others. Here, we have avoided objectifying them. We can see them lived out in practice.”

And the Revd David Banting (Chelmsford) declared himself “still reeling” from being called “one of my greatest gospel partners” by the Revd Esther Prior (Guildford), an Evangelical and Vicar of a Church Society sole-patronage church, even though she was someone “for whom the word ‘headship’ causes my blood pressure to spike”. Mr Banting, a complementarian Evangelical, Ms Prior said, “could not agree with me on oversight”, but had jumped to her defence in complementarian circles.

The motion to take note of the report was carried in a count by Houses, in which 40 abstentions were recorded in all: Bishops 25-1, with six recorded abstentions; Clergy 93-39, with 14 recorded abstentions; Laity 93-40, with 20 recorded abstentions.

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