Sheffield’s women: who should tolerate what?

John Sentamu & Philip North

John Sentamu & Philip North

Outcry all round. Philip North, the suffragan Bishop of Burnley who opposes the ordination of women, is to become the next Bishop of Sheffield. This is the first of three posts on the subject.

It is a diocesan post, so he will have oversight of all the priests in his diocese. A third of them are women.

Philip is a leading member of the Society of St Wilfrid and St Hilda , which states in its journal New Directions that, with regard to women priests and bishops, and even male priests ordained by women bishops,

We can’t receive their ministry.

So members of that society are invited to

sign a Declaration that commits them to what The Society stands for. Priests and deacons submit their letters of orders to prove they were ordained by a bishop whose orders we can recognize. The relevant Society bishop sends them a Welcome Letter, so they can prove that they are clergy of The Society; and we have begun to issue identity cards to priests.

Martyn Percy, the Dean of Christchurch, Oxford, quotes this text in a substantial article arguing that the situation is untenable. Modern Church has published a shorter summary . Similarly a couple of years ago, when Philip was consecrated Bishop of Burnley, I argued that it wouldn’t work. That, though, was only a suffragan post. This one is diocesan. Percy explains the difference:

As the diocesan bishop, the ‘cure of souls’ is legally and sacramentally shared with all clergy-colleagues. So, the Bishop needs to be fully confident that the priests they share in this ministry with are pastorally competent, theologically sound, and crucially, that their ordination is valid and affirmed, such that their sacramental ministry (again, shared), is efficacious…

Bishop Philip was clear that the women are, if so ordained, legally and canonically priests or bishops. But the crucial question is, what does Bishop Philip think is happening at the altar, when a woman is presiding at the Eucharist. I don’t know. And so far, Bishop Philip has tended to be ambiguous in his statements on this matter. But this issue cannot now be fudged. Any answer that sidestepped the question as to whether such a sacramental offering is valid or efficacious would be pastorally and personally undermining of women clergy…


The Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, has defended the appointment :

Bishop Philip has assured women clergy in the diocese that he is in favour of women’s leadership and would actively promote it. I know he will do so. Women clergy in the Diocese of Sheffield will not only be accepted, but will be encouraged, inspired, and furthered in their ministry by their new Diocesan Bishop.

Percy replies :

For a passionate-moderate like myself, let me state clearly that not all views are of equal worth on race or gender. Some are wrong and harmful. Being tolerant – and I do believe in a tolerant, mild, open church – also means that, sometimes, views that are manifestly intolerant have to be named and resisted. Moderates have backbones too.

Ian Paul , in an attempt to defend the appointment, proposes to turn Martyn Percy’s liberalism on its head:

It is quite striking how illiberal Percy’s liberalism is; anyone who is not as tolerant as him simply will not be tolerated : ‘Tolerating intolerance is not virtuous practice!’ The obvious response to that is that we should not tolerate Percy’s intolerance in turn, highlighting the incoherence of this position.


it is becoming more and more clear that those who want to see change in the Church’s teaching are not, in fact, seeking to ‘agree to disagree’.

However, Martyn Percy is right. Toleration does not mean allowing everyone to do whatever they want, however intolerant they are of other people. It often means protecting the weak against the strong, even when the strong complain that they are being discriminated against, or not being tolerated.

So in order to protect a policy of toleration, we need to be aware of the power relations. Who has power? Who is threatening the freedom of whom? Whose desire for freedom adds up to a desire to restrict the freedom of others?

Because of the way the Church of England works, Philip North, whatever his other qualities, will be in a position of power over the women priests in his diocese. Nobody is denying his personal right to reject women’s priesthood. The point is that the post of diocesan bishop, in a diocese with many women priests, needs someone who affirms it. Otherwise the priesthood of Sheffield women is undermined.

Speaking personally…

Both sides in this debate have been keen to stress that Philip North has great talents which the Church should use to maximum effect. Both sides accept that while in Burnley he has been conscientious in caring for the women priests there. The most common observation is that he has campaigned for the Church not to withdraw from the most deprived areas of the country. Some say he has been an outstanding witness for the poor. Unfortunately, however outstanding he has been in this respect, the issue of his regard for the priestly ministry of women is not affected.

Still, let us put it into perspective. Suppose you are a non-stipendiary woman priest in Sheffield. You have worked as a priest for decades, it is how you get your personal affirmation and your sense of self-worth. But your income is from state benefits, which have been sanctioned. You have no money to feed yourself or your children. Which is going to upset you more, your lack of money or the fact that your new bishop doesn’t believe you can be a priest?

The answer is obvious. Some things matter more than others. If you can’t eat, not being able to conduct services pales into insignificance.

Since 2010, the numbers of people driven to starvation and homelessness has shot up as a result of benefit cuts, benefit sanctions and the Bedroom Tax. This should be recognised as the scandal of the decade, far more important than Brexit. Yet the affluent chattering classes are not interested, so it rarely gets mentioned in newspapers or on television. I know from my own records that when I blog on this matter I get far fewer readers than I get for my blogs on church politics.

If we ask who does address this dramatically-increased extreme poverty, the most important answer, by far, is local churches. This is where people run food banks, this is where people donate food and money.

All the more reason why somebody like Philip North, who is genuinely concerned for the issue, should be given a senior post in the Church to campaign for a more caring, more Christian society. But he should not be a diocesan bishop. If there aren’t any other senior posts, create some.

This entry was posted in Churches, Gender, Theology and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Sheffield’s women: who should tolerate what?

  1. Robin Wilson says:

    You say “when I blog on [benefits cuts etc.] I get far fewer readers.” I am sorry to hear that. I stopped going to Anglican services, in about 1990, when I realised that the church politics surrounding women priests was still “important”. I longed for a church that would pay attention to the impact of Thatcherism and accept that, in that struggle, women were often most at risk, and poor women most of all. I fear that the resurgence of opposition to women priests may be just one aspect of the Anglicans moving back to their historic role as “the Conservative Party at prayer”.

  2. Matthew Duckett says:

    “Philip North, the suffragan Bishop of Burnley who opposes the ordination of women”. I do wish people would stop saying this, as it simply isn’t true. The theological minority, of which he is a part, accept that women can be and are ordained (as all must, as stated in the first two of the five guiding principles), but don’t receive their ministry themselves (as allowed in the last two guiding principles). Those bishops of the minority who aren’t PEVs, and so have male and female priests in their responsibility (London, Chichester, Burnley etc) must be, and are, committed to supporting all their clergy and enabling all with a vocation to the priesthood to be ordained. That’s quite different from “opposing”, don’t you think?

    • Eh? He will not ordain women to the priesthood because he thinks women can’t be real priests. His Society, in the words of Colin Podmore, ‘can’t’ receive the priestly ministry of women. If that isn’t opposing, what is? Or are you just trying to make a distinction between his refusal to ordain women and his admission that the Church has in fact ordained some women?

      • Matthew Duckett says:

        Opposing surely means resisting or trying to prevent something. The bishops who belong to the minority, on the contrary, enable, encourage and support women in their priestly vocations and ministries, but don’t ordain them themselves. That is admittedly not an ideal or ecclesiologically simple situation, but it’s part of the complexity that Synod signed up to to enable mutual flourishing. It works the other way round where clergy of the minority minister under a woman bishop but receive sacramental episcopal ministry from another bishop appointed by their own bishop for that purpose. Messy, but it enables us all to remain together. Essentially, Synod prioritised mission and charity over ecclesiological coherence. Welcome to the Church of England…

        • Thanks Matthew. The bit I don’t get is that they ‘enable, encourage and support women in their priestly vocations and ministries’. The whole point of the Catholic position (as opposed to the Evangelical one) is that they don’t think those women can be true priests, even when ordained as such. That’s why they say they can’t receive their ministry. This is what the Catholic objection is all about. Of course it’s up to them if they want to seek out priests with the right colour of card; the problem arises in that a diocesan bishop will be responsible for a large batch of women who are already priests.

          • Matthew Duckett says:

            Thanks for the reply Jonathan. May I point out please that there is not one “Catholic position”. There are Catholics who receive and rejoice in the priestly ministry of women – I should know, I’m one! The objections of those who don’t receive that ministry are probably for them to comment on, though the five guiding principles locate such objections within the realm of the authority and discernment of the wider church. John Paul II, in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, also identified the problem as one of authority and did not address the question of ontological possibility – an interesting and significant omission, I think. That said, there probably are those in the Church of England who are agnostic about whether women can be ontologically priests – not a view that I think is theologically defensible, but do we want to open windows into people’s souls? There are evangelical bishops who I strongly suspect don’t believe that *any* of their clergy are ontologically priests. Do we really want to go there? If we ask such questions of Catholics, we would have to ask them of all.

          • Thanks Matthew I think this clarifies things. I was intending to address this issue in a forthcoming post. Where there is open debate between different theological positions I accept that we should make allowances for them all unless there are good reasons to the contrary. However these debates have pretty well completely closed down. As you say, you can’t speak for people who believe women ontologically can’t be bishops, but who does? Maybe you can direct me to people who do. Before the 1992 vote I knew people who were making the case, but not now. What I don’t think the Church can realistically do is make special arrangements for every group that asks for special treatment because of their theological position but refuse to submit their theological position to examination by the whole church. We wouldn’t be happy with ‘I cannot in all conscience accept the ministry of an African priest’, for example. What I think needs to be expressed is (a) What is distinctive about being a priest? and (b) how is (a) incompatible with being a woman? Personally I think there really are distinctive things about being a priest, and although I wouldn’t want to define them precisely, I think they are real enough to justify the idea of having a vocation. Obviously, someone who then wants to add that they are incompatible with being a woman would have to be more precise than I am being.
            I’d be grateful if you could point me to a substantial case for the ontological impossibility.

  3. David Emmott says:

    Jonathan: More and more I realise that I’m glad I belong to a Messy Church. The problem with many extremists (notably conservative evangelicals and their attitude to LGBTI relationships) is that they want to remake the whole church in their image. What a lot of ‘liberals’ seem to be unaware of is that they are doing the same thing. On the other hand, puzzling as I find the views of people like +Philip North and ‘The Society’ (something of a mafioso ring to that term), they can’t be accused of that. They are content to coexist with the majority of the C of E (and increasingly creatively so, if the tributes to Bishop Philip mean anything) even if they don’t ‘receive the ministry’ of their female priestly and episcopal colleagues. And that’s their loss, not the women’s, though I don’t say that disparagingly.

    Roman Catholics are unable to ‘receive my ministry’ as a male Anglican priest. I respect their views and wouldn’t be insulted if one was present at my eucharist without communicating. (Though I have several times given communion to RC priests and nuns) That might not be their personal view, but by refraining they would be following the accepted teaching of their Church. Similarly ‘conservative’ Anglo-catholics would argue that they, and the C of E, has no right to disregard the teaching of the universal church in this matter. So what they might personally believe about the status of women priests and bishops is irrelevant.

    Some of us less conservative Catholic Anglicans still yearn to be reunited with the majority of the Western Church (I’d have been a Remainer during Henry VIII’s Brexit too) but see that our independence allows us the freedom to be prophetic. And think this is an argument that was won some years ago.

    But I agree with you about the much greater importance of social justice than peripheral theological matters such as this.

    Anyway have you read this comment by our Liverpool diocesan colleague?

    • Thanks David. I’m happy for the disagreements to continue and to worship together with people who disagree with me. The problem arises with a diocesan bishop responsible for women priests whose priesthood he denies.

  4. Matthew Duckett says:

    Jonathan, I’m not aware of anyone making a serious case for ontological impossibility – it’s an argument that rather falls apart as soon as it is examined, which is perhaps why even John Paul II avoided it. The Scholastics held that women were defective matter, and so not fitting to be ordained, much as it would not be fitting to consecrate a damaged loaf of bread in the Eucharist. That is straight out of Aristotle and has long been left behind. JP2 introduced a new theology of nuptuality, inspired by Balthasar, which has been curiously taken up by the conservative evangelicals in their idea of complementarity, who I think don’t recognise either where it comes from or how new it is. That is in neither case about ontological possibility but about role.

    The argument that the catholic conservative minority make, and that is implied in the 5 principles, is one from authority and reception: the Church of England does not own the priesthood, but shares it with all those churches that receive the historic apostolic ministry. Any local development in the priesthood to include women therefore has an implicit provisionality, dependent on reception by the wider church. Thus far I think all catholics would agree. Those of us who receive the priestly ministry of women accept this provisionality as part of God’s call to go ahead with this development, both for the enrichment of our local church and as a prophetic sign to the wider church in its discernment and reception. And Anglican ordinations anyway have a certain provisionality in the eyes of Rome and the Orthodox, but, hey ho, this is where God has called us to be. Our more conservative brothers and sisters hold that provisionality undermines confidence in the sacraments, and so reception by the wider church should be prior to local reception. That seems to me to be a Catch-22 (something has to be happening somewhere before it can be received everywhere), but it is a theological position explicitly recognised as being within the legitimate spectrum of the Church of England. Hence the language of “being unable to receive the ministry of ordained women”, which is precise and intentional.

    • Thanks Matthew, I find your explanation very helpful. But to me it doesn’t answer the central question, what it is about priesthood and women that makes them incompatible. Ontological impossibility, if it could be established, would answer it. Your account shows that the question, rather than being answered, is being referred to the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox hierarchies. But how are they going to answer it, if not by ontological impossibility?
      The idea of reception by the wider church, while having much to recommend it, has its own problems. Anglicans need it more than anyone else, as we can’t possibly claim (as the Pope and the Patriarch of Constantinople can) that we simply *are* the Church. What constitutes it? If Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics, why not Methodists? Jehovah’s Witnesses? Or, more critically, those Anglicans and Baptists with a Calvinist theology who deny that Roman Catholics and the Orthodox are Christians at all? My response would be to say we ought not to draw the line at institutional boundaries like this. The process of reception should be a more open matter, willing to receive wisdom from any source at all but judging it on its merits. Which means simple appeals to authority or traditions are not enough.
      Your response has made me re-think my next posts, so I appreciate your help.

      • Matthew Duckett says:

        You’re welcome, and your responses have helped me to understand where you’re coming from as well, so thank you for that. It’s good to have a dialogue like this.

  5. Marianne Valkass says:

    Find it hilarious that there are no female respondents… I just wonder from a Psychological perspective just how much of this debate between predominantly male theologists, priests and vicars has to do with men clinging onto definitions of masculinity and the control and power placed upon men for years to dictate where the Woman’s position in society lies. I look at Mr Trump in USA and see him taking advantage of the position of power he is in. Often people with low self esteem find the need to belittle and control those they consider to have higher self-esteem and who are more empowered. I wonder whether this can be observed in Biblical contexts too. St. Paul was preposterously arrogant and definite in his views of how women rated, but you know that was the kind of person he was and God loved him dearly none the less and put someone like that in a huge position of power over the initial Christians and how they did things. I have met a range of dreadful Vicars over the years in terms of how they are with people especially women and children, but often they have a niche where they excell so they remain. I have also met dreadful Bishops usually due to the whole effect of power on the male ego etc…I therefore don’t understand why Women are packaged off as being almost redundant of skills or abilities as Vicars and Bishops. I suspect most will be good and again some dreadful, but shouldn’t they be given an opportunity to see if they can do as well as men? I also wonder if at the top male Bishops fear Women doing a better job of it than them?? Fear makes people do strange things.

  6. John Sandeman says:

    I am curious. What other senior post should be created? And how would it rank alongside a diocesan bishop?

    • I have no idea! But I can’t see that it would be a problem. The early church appointed bishops, priests and deacons because they were jobs needed doing. If we can’t do the same we’re in trouble!

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

Comments are closed.