It gets more and more bizarre. Now that women can be bishops in the Church of England, opponents of women priests – who have existed for 20 years – are finding new hurdles to throw in their way.
The Revd Philip North, a member of Forward in Faith, is to be the next Bishop of Burnley. In principle this is not unexpected, as the negotiations included assurances that senior positions should still be available to opponents.
However Philip has requested unusual arrangements . Normally the proceedings are led by the Archbishop, in this case John Sentamu the Archbishop of York, who would lay hands on the new bishop at the consecration and preside at the Eucharist. Philip has asked him to refrain from both these actions. Sentamu has not only assented – to show what he calls ‘gracious restraint’ – but has also agreed that other bishops should do the same.
What this means is that, however many bishops are present, the only bishops who will take part in Philip’s consecration will be the ones who refuse to ordain women to the priesthood.
From the Archbishop’s perspective this ‘gracious restraint’ may just be a pastoral courtesy which has not thought through the implications, though one wonders how he would have responded to the request if the matter at issue had been his ethnic origin.
What Philip is doing, however, is quite clearly an open, deliberate and defiant act of schism. After the consecration we shall have one bishop who has publicly shown that he does not recognise the orders of other bishops, or even his own archbishop.
If the consecration goes ahead as currently proposed, here are five questions.
1) What does he think of the Church of England?
Given that it accepts women priests and bishops, does he accept it, or not? This question has already been much discussed in the preparation for women bishops. In May 2013 the House of Bishops proposed Five Guiding Principles , which were accepted by General Synod the following November. They state that
the Church of England is fully and unequivocally committed to all orders of ministry being open equally to all, without reference to gender, and holds that those whom it has duly ordained and appointed to office are the true and lawful holders of the office which they occupy and thus deserve due respect and canonical obedience;
Anyone who ministers within the Church of England must be prepared to acknowledge that the Church of England has reached a clear decision on the matter.
It would appear that Philip does not accept these principles.
2) What does he think of women?
How on earth is he going to perform an adequate episcopal ministry without accepting the role of the women priests in his diocese as equally valid to the ministry of the male priests? How on earth is he going to relate to women bishops as an equal?
These are the easy bits. It gets worse. Given his objection to the hands of John Sentamu, which are at least male, how is he going to relate, on a professional and pastoral level, to male bishops who ordain priests, male priests ordained by a woman bishop, and male priests ordained by a male bishop who also ordains women?
It doesn’t stop there. How far up the ordination trail will he go? If Alfred was ordained by Bertrand who was ordained by Charles who was ordained by Diana, I suppose none of them will be any good; but what if Ernest was ordained by Frederick, who didn’t ordain women at the time, but ten years later did ordain a woman? Will Frederick’s later act invalidate the earlier ordination? Will the Holy Spirit, so to speak, pull the priestly grace out of Ernest? The walls of Philip’s study will be covered in ‘family trees’ of ordinations and consecrations showing who, with what status, did the business on whom. Will he, perhaps, seek biblical precedent in Deuteronomy 23:2-3, which draws the line at the tenth generation?
Obviously Philip is digging himself into this hole. But if the Church’s leadership is prepared to accede to his requests, the Church is also digging itself into it.
3) What does it say about Anglo-Catholicism?
The Diocese of Blackburn wants an Anglo-Catholic Bishop at Burnley. The Church of England wants to express its acceptance of the opponents of women priests by appointing one of them to an episcopal vacancy, and Burnley is the one. We understand how this has become a cause celêbre, with the long struggle to get women bishops; but how many episcopal vacancies are to be filled by Anglo-Catholics who support women’s ministry? Are they not in danger of losing out? Does not the apparent legitimacy of these arrangements put pressure on Anglo-Catholics to toe the anti-women line?
4) What will it mean as a precedent?
Unless the mood changes considerably, North is not going to be the last opponent of women priests to be made a bishop. Will the next ones do the same?
He will have had ‘pure’ hands laid on him, untainted by women. He will have made sure that he is absolutely acceptable to opponents of women priests. That is the whole point of his request. Now think of it from the point of view of the second and third Forward in Faith bishops. If they don’t request, and get, the same treatment, they will always appear – to FiF members and presumably also to themselves - as tainted bishops, not as pure as North, inferior for the rest of their lives, with no hope of salvation. They will have to make the same request. Otherwise, once the precedent is set, they will not be considered proper bishops.
If the archbishops follow Sentamu’s lead and accede to the request each time, Philip’s study wall will make the situation clear. There will be a new church, separate from the rest of the Church of England, with its own priests and bishops who refuse to recognise the rest of us. If the 1993 Act of Synod is any guide, we will end up once again with a sub-group whose primary aim is to bite the hand that feeds it.
5) How impure are Sentamu’s hands?
Here’s an analogy. When the early Christians renounced pagan gods, they did one of two things. They either denied their existence altogether, implying that worshipping them was harmless but pointless, or they treated pagan gods as evil demons – in which case worshipping them was positively harmful. In the same way, if Sentamu lays hands on North, North can interpret the act either as spiritually meaningless or as spiritually harmful. If it is meaningless but not harmful, there is no need for him to make his request. All he needs is the hands of three bishops who agree with him, regardless of how many other hands there are. The request only makes sense if he believes Sentamu’s hands are spiritually harmful. And if Sentamu, presumably all bishops who ordain women along with the women themselves.