Are liberals illiberal about women priests?

Group of childrenExclusive inclusives! Intolerant tolerance!

When Philip North announced his withdrawal from the post of Bishop of Sheffield, it was open season for his supporters to accuse liberals of being illiberal. This post is a defence of liberalism, inclusiveness and tolerance.

The Bishop of Willesden, Pete Broadbent, responded to North’s withdrawal by tweeting:

This is what the Church of England will be like if the intolerant exclusive ‘inclusives’ win… if there is no future for the Catholics, we’re all in deep trouble.

That’s the trouble with tweets. Simple slogans can sound meaningful while meaning nothing. Still, a bishop said it so the BBC reported it and others leapt to his defence. Gavin Ashenden has responded to Martyn Percy, who first argued that someone denying that women priests are possible should not be the bishop of a diocese that already has them. To Ashenden,

The three-card trick that Professor Percy and his cultural fellow-travellers play is to refuse to exclude anyone except those who don’t agree with them. You only get to be included in the equality stakes once you have accepted their moral and political presuppositions. So, of course, they do actually discriminate between anyone who shares their basic world view and those who don’t…

Meanwhile, they claim the higher moral ground by pretending to be something that they are not – outlawing discrimination while practising it. This is, of course, hypocrisy – that is, saying one thing while doing another.

Elaine Storkey makes stronger accusations. Her main argument is that North’s appointment to Sheffield would have been in keeping with the Five Guiding Principles, a point to which I have already responded. Anyway Jeremy Pemberton has replied to her article extremely well, so I shall say no more about that. However Storkey also jumps on the intolerant-tolerance bandwaggon:

The appalling hounding, vilification and name-calling meted out to Philip North, a faithful brother in Christ has produced a severe set-back to this vision of the Church. It has manifested the same spirit evident in the worst aspects of our culture today – the power of ignorance and the supremacy of intolerance. We have much work to do to separate ourselves from the post-truth, sloganeering, and media-hype of our age. We are in an era of name-calling, where truth disappears within a hundred offensive epithets.

I have not come across this ‘hounding, vilification and name-calling’. Since she tells us it exists I am prepared to believe her, but I would be very surprised indeed if any bishop opposing North’s appointment has tweeted anything as aggressive as Bishop Broadbent’s ‘intolerant exclusive “inclusives”‘. All the critics of the appointment that I have read have all bent over backwards to clarify that they are not making personal criticisms. Their argument is that, given his views, the role of diocesan bishop with responsibility for many women priests cannot be adequately performed by him. It would be helpful if those disappointed at his withdrawal were to respond to this point rather than accusing us of being illiberal, intolerant and exclusive.

So what does it mean to be liberal, tolerant and inclusive?

What liberalism means

Outside theology, some forms of liberalism argue for freedom of action. The best known case is neo-liberal economic theory, which argues that owners of property should be left free to do what they like with it. Some argue that they should not be subjected to taxes or to restrictions designed to protect other people.

Others apply the ‘freedom of action’ idea more generally, and treat liberalism as belief that ‘you can do anything you like’. This would give a free hand for the strong to oppress the weak, so it is rarely defended; but opponents of liberalism often imagine that this is what liberals believe. It makes it easier to accuse them of being illiberal.

In religious discourse, liberalism can still mean different things. I have described elsewhere the difference between people who hold a liberal position on a particular issue and people with a theology that is liberal in principle. The former may consider themselves liberal because they believe in women bishops, or assisted dying, or promiscuity, or whatever the society of the day considers liberal. It does not follow that they are being at all liberal on other matters. They may even hold their ‘liberal’ opinion in a quite dogmatic, illiberal manner. To this extent critics can accuse liberals of being illiberal, but only because they are using the word ‘liberal’ in this superficial way.

A principled theological liberalism is a specific, limited position. As a shorthand summary we might call it the ‘anti-dogmatic’ principle.

It defends in the religious sphere a position which is almost universally accepted outside it: namely, that no statements of belief or factual claims are beyond question. We should always consider ourselves free to think for ourselves and question dogmatic assertions. In principle, any statement is open to question.

Principled theological liberalism, therefore, is a modest position to hold. It simply denies that religious teachers have methods of accessing truth which transcend everybody else’s methods.

Thus it is about questions of truth rather than action. When it comes to expressing our beliefs in action, other considerations apply.

Opponents of Philip North’s appointment were not, therefore, being illiberal. They were accepting his right to believe what he believes. The opposition to the appointment was based only on the nature of a diocesan bishop’s duties. There is nothing unusual about this: we all accept that some people are unsuitable for specific posts because of the views they hold.

One implication of the liberal principle is that nobody has the right to treat their opinion dogmatically, as though it was immune to criticism. To explain the significance of this I offer a comparison with a different issue.

Researchers now accept that people with a same-sex orientation have it permanently. Whatever the respective contributions of nature and nurture, people cannot simply choose not to have it, even if they convince themselves that they ought not to have it. At the same time others believe that gay and lesbian lifestyles are immoral and perhaps also harmful. They may even believe they have a God-given duty to preach and campaign against them.

The two sides are not equal. One depends on a condition, the other on an opinion. The condition cannot be changed but the opinion can. Whatever the claims of the anti-gay lobby, all opinions are in principle open to being questioned and challenged.

Now let us apply the difference to women priests and their opponents. Being a priest is not an inescapable condition like being gay. However, there is a close parallel between Catholic opposition to women priests and religious opposition to same-sex relationships. In both cases opinion is dressed up as unchanging condition.

Liberal theology, therefore, does accept that people should be free to believe whatever they judge true. However the freedom comes with two limitations.

1) It does not follow that they should be free to act on their beliefs.

2) They have no right to be left unmolested in their beliefs, as though they transcended all reason. If others find them incredible or harmful, the right to hold them comes with a duty to justify them.

What inclusion and tolerance mean

The accusations of ‘exclusive inclusives’ and ‘intolerant toleration’ are so similar that I shall respond to them together.

When we talk about inclusion, usually the point is to make sure we include those in danger of being excluded. Similarly arguments for toleration are usually designed to protect those who would otherwise not be tolerated.

So discourse about inclusion and toleration usually addresses power relations. It is the powerless who are threatened by exclusion and intolerance; it is the powerful who need reminding to ask who is being left out or mistreated.

To include, and to tolerate, do not therefore mean that ‘anything goes’. They contain a moral imperative to look after those in danger of being left out.

A constructive, healthy policy of inclusion and toleration therefore needs to be realistic about power relations. When powerful people find their privileges threatened they find it all too easy to complain that they are being discriminated against or excluded. Again there is a parallel with same-sex partnerships. In the LGBT community many have suffered from discrimination, or been beaten up in the streets, or in some countries even executed. On the other side, those who claim – usually on biblical grounds – that they have an absolute right to campaign against same-sex partnerships, are not so threatened. They may feel threatened because the values they believe in are declining and they seem to be on the losing side; but the threat is to their beliefs, and it is right and proper that beliefs should decline when they cannot be adequately defended.

In the same way the opponents of women priests may feel threatened. Like the opponents of same-sex partnerships they were once a majority and are now a minority. It is easy for them to feel that they are being discriminated against, or excluded, or no longer tolerated, when what is really happening is simply that they are losing the advantages of belonging to a majority.


To return to the accusations with which I began.

When Bishop Broadbent accuses us of being ‘intolerant exclusive “inclusives”‘ he speaks from a position of comparative power. The establishment position has been undermined. The substantial threat, however, was to the women priests of Sheffield Diocese, who would have been placed in an anomalous position.

Similarly, when Gavin Ashenden complains that

You only get to be included in the equality stakes once you have accepted their moral and political presuppositions

he is misinterpreting the objection to North’s appointment. North is as free to reject women priests as Percy is to accept them. What he should not be free to do is to perform a role which conflicts with his views. He should not be the Bishop of Sheffield for the same reason that Percy should not be President of Forward in Faith.

To be liberal, inclusive and tolerant do not just mean that anything goes, or that we agree with everyone. They mean we care about truth enough to challenge dogmas; and we care enough about other people to stand up against exclusion and intolerance.

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14 Responses to Are liberals illiberal about women priests?

  1. William Lynn says:

    Thank you so very much for this Jonathan. It really hits the spot. I do so like the notion of the ‘anti dogmatic principle’ It would be great if this could be published beyond Facebook, eg Church Times, Guardian and perhaps the Times and Telegraph via religious correspondents etc……!

  2. Stephen Howarth says:

    Have you read the Five Guiding Principles? The first one says that diocesan bishops as well as suffragan Bishops may be non-ordaining. To then reject a non-ordaining diocesan could easily be construed as going back on the deal that permitted women bishops.

    • Thanks Stephen. Not only have I read the Five Guiding Principles; I have read some of the debate about them, and blogged on them here. Your claim about ‘diocesan bishops as well as suffragan bishops’ surprised me, so I had another look, but I still see no reference to them. Principle 1 speaks of ‘all orders of ministry being open equally to all’, that’s the nearest I can see. The usual account of ‘orders of ministry’ is that there are three: bishops, priests and deacons. If there had been a specific reference to the office of diocesan bishop being open to those who did not accept the priesthood of women, in a diocese containing many women priests, I cannot imagine that it would ever have been agreed in the first place.

  3. James Edmonds says:

    I think tolerance does mean allowing people to do some things you don’t agree with, providing they don’t impact excessively on you. In the grey area of activities which do impact on you to some extent, what is permitted need to be established by an acceptable process. Respecting this process then become part of the structure of liberalism. The 5 guiding principles were supposed to be such a process. However, they have led to a perverse result, namely: a bishop being appointed who, like you say, is unsuited to a role in the same way that Marytn Percy is unsuited to be the leader of forward in faith. Those in favour of North’s appointment argue that the agreement ought to be respected notwithstanding this perverse result- because liberalism entails respecting agreements. I don’t think that’s practical- agreements are only workable when the outcomes they produce are within a tolerable range. The wise and sensible thing, however, would simply have been for North to decline the appointment on the basis that he wasn’t the right person for the job- I can’t understand why he didn’t do this.

  4. Philip O'Reilly says:

    The House of Bishop’s Declaration which accompanied the five guiding principles and the Measure made it abundantly clear that traditionalists could be made diocesan bishop’s. See the statements from +York,Rochester.

  5. David Gould says:

    If you had typed Philip North into Twitter on the day of his announcement you would have seen the most vile language used about him, even from people claiming to be Christian. “Arsewipe” was a charming word I noticed. This row will have one main consequence. “Liberals” can forget any movement on the same-sex marriage or blessing issue, because they simply cannot be trusted.

  6. Cynthia Katsarelis says:

    Very well said, thank you, Jonathan. I especially appreciate that you named the people who were actually getting hurt, the female priests of Sheffield. I would suggest including the girls in Sheffield as well. Having grown up in the Greek Orthodox Church, I’m keenly aware of the awful message girls receive from exclusion.

    The aggressive name calling, “intolerant exclusive ‘inclusives,’” is so offensive, when the reality is the problematic term “mutual flourishing.” The powers-that-be never worked out how it was possible for female priests and girls to flourish with a bishop who believes in the theology of taint. Synod did not anticipate that SSWSH would create an exclusive, card carrying, club and demand that their members be able to “flourish” regardless of the possibility of limiting the capacity for women and girls to flourish. No girls voted on that compromise and I bet that the number of female clergy who voted on it was small. Without their voice, they can’t possibly flourish. And that is the crux of the matter.

    It baffles me that the CNC didn’t foresee that selecting a bishop who believes in the theology of taint would offend pretty much EVERY woman in the diocese.

    Re: Philip O’Reilly’s assertion that “The House of Bishop’s Declaration which accompanied the five guiding principles and the Measure made it abundantly clear that traditionalists could be made diocesan bishop’s.” Whether true or not, there were no women in the HoB, let alone a proper 50 percent to inform the men how deeply offensive and unacceptable the theology of taint is.

    • Thank you Cynthia. My mother was Greek and I know what you mean. We still have relatives in Athens.
      As you say, the surprise is that the CNC didn’t see it coming.
      I didn’t respond directly to Philip O’Reilly because he was really just reiterating that the powers that be have so decreed, and I’ve already responded to that point. Sometimes I feel like a real old codger, grumbling about the good old days when we were allowed to think for ourselves.

  7. Pingback: After Sheffield: blogs debate flourishing in the C of E – SAME

  8. David Williams says:

    There is a wide spectrum of belief in regards to women’s ministry even within the so-called traditionalists of the church. They do not all draw their lines in the sand in the same place. But at one end of this spectrum by far the worst and potentially the most damaging attitude of all has to be the concept of taint, particularly in the way that it can extend its vicious tentacles. Taint is unpleasant, unchristian in concept, and for many of us is still all too reminiscent of some of the worst excesses of nazism. It is potentially the most harmful aspect of holding the type of uncompromising traditionalist views as espoused by Forward in Faith. It brings the church into disrepute with people we would wish to attract. Holding the views he had, Bishop North would clearly have struggled as a diocesan and eventually he and others had the good sense to realise it. It is surely more important that the church in the Sheffield diocese as a whole flourishes, than Bishop North himself.

  9. Mikhail Ramendik says:

    I do not agree with you on +Philip, but this disagreement hinges on the fact that he was never asked to clarify his views on female priests (I think the Church Times may not have done its job properly). Does he hold their ordination “invalid” or only “irregular”? Does he consider the Sacraments where they officiate to be true Sacraments, though breaking the Biblically and Catholically preferred church order, or not Sacraments at all?

    For the record I do agree with ordination of women, what i disagree with is exclusion of conservatives. And another part of your post is very worrying in this regard:

    “On the other side, those who claim – usually on biblical grounds – that they have an absolute right to campaign against same-sex partnerships, are not so threatened. They may feel threatened because the values they believe in are declining and they seem to be on the losing side; but the threat is to their beliefs, and it is right and proper that beliefs should decline when they cannot be adequately defended.”

    The threat is not just to their belief but to their freedom of express it, and it is a very real threat, some arrests and prosecutions were made, though, as I understand, no convictions in the UK. Peter Tatchell, the famous gay rights advocate. has defended the prosecuted preachers. I very much agree with his philosophy on this matter (and on many others) and consider that to be true liberalism, old-fashioned style.

    And separately, I strongly disagree with the claim that church inclusion does not have to extend to those deemed “powerful”. Inclusion that does not include the conservatives is not inclusion at all, it is simply a change from one entrenched position to another. And this passage in your post gives a strong indication that, if blessing of same-sex relationships were to gain a foothold, you would campaign in a similar way to exclude those against it from leadership positions.

    (For the record, I would support a solution where, based on extensive precedent of blessing acts of the State including crowning the Monarch, priests are given an open license to bless any marriage or civil partnership conducted by the State without requiring approval of their Bishop, using the liturgy based on the one that exists for blessing of civil marriage, but removing any implication that the blessing necessarily comes from the entire Church as a body. In this way nobody is excluded and conservative bishops are no threat to affirming priests).

    • Thanks Mikhail for this constructive response.
      I agree that there’s a real issue here, illustrated by the ‘no platform for racists’ argument in many universities. Should people be allowed to promote their beliefs in public even when the effect is to destroy the lives of other people? Both gays and women often claim that they suffer adverse discrimination, and sometimes physical abuse, as a result of hostile campaigning. The actual discrimination and abuse usually isn’t performed by the public campaigners; it’s more often performed by people influenced by the campaigners, and that means we can never prove cause and effect. But I do think it’s not good enough to say anybody can make public statements on anything regardless of the effects on others.

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