On infidelity, broken promises and hounding: why Elaine Storkey is wrong.

In her comment on Fulcrum on the events in Sheffield diocese, Elaine Storkey writes:

Five principles were drawn up to help the church move forward in our call to unity on women bishops. The first principle states that the Church of England is fully and unequivocally committed to all orders of ministry being open equally and legally, without reference to gender; the second made it clear that those coming for ordination must accept this.  The clarity of this is indisputable. This measure could not be interpreted as endorsing two integrities, two sorts of calling, two doctrines, two positions pulling against each other.  The church recognized, without ambiguity, that women are called to episcopal office.

I have to say that she is wrong in what she asserts. A plain reading of the text of the Five Guiding Principles makes it entirely possible for an individual to accept that the Church of England as a whole is committed to all orders of ministry being open equally and legally to men and women, and yet not personally to accept that women can be priests or bishops. The logic for this is that the church has decided that this is an acceptable minority position that deserves to be honoured. It decided this in the Act of Synod of 1993. While that Act is no longer in force the principles behind it have, I would suggest, not been abrogated. So it would be extraordinary if the Five Guiding Principles were meant to be read as an attempt to disrupt that settlement.

The evidence for this is in Elaine’s next error. She writes of those who personally do not believe in the possibility of women being priests and bishops being given “no straw to clutch”. Again, she is wrong. There is now a bishop for “headship evangelicals”, and the bishops of the Society are expressly there to provide for those who do not believe in the possibility of women sharing in priestly and episcopal ministry, in exactly the same way as “flying bishops” did from 1992 to 2014. For people in either of those categories, it is possible practically to flourish inside the Church of England without ever being obliged to face the reality of the general truth to which the Church of England as a whole has unequivocally committed itself. The expansion of the episcopate in the direction of “headship evangelicals” makes this clear. Calling this provision ‘pastoral and sacramental’ changes it not a whit. Those evangelicals and anglo-catholics are still being given a protected space within the church, and by exactly the same means as before, ensuring that “no women” areas in both these directions are preserved.

Let us look a bit more closely at this. The third reason for the existence of the Society isto

to guarantee a ministry in the historic apostolic succession in which they can have confidence

If members of the Society accepted ex animo what Elaine Storkey says they have to accept, then there would be no reason for its existence. But the word ‘confidence’ gives the game away. The Church of England may, as a whole, have decided that it will have women priests and bishops, and it has, as a whole, confidence that their ministry is truly and sacramentally priestly and episcopal. But there are still many in the church of England who do not accept this. They do not have confidence that a woman’s blessing is a blessing, that a woman’s absolution is an absolution, that a Eucharist presided over by a woman is a Eucharist, and that a person ordained by a woman is truly ordained to the order of priest or bishop. As a church, I would maintain, contra Storkey, that we have given them this right. We have talked of mutual flourishing and have tried to make spaces so that people can feel that they and their ministries can flourish.

Elaine Storkey accuses people of hounding, vilifying and name-calling Philip North until he felt he had no option but to withdraw his acceptance of the See of Sheffield. Like everyone else I a not prepared to countenance that. But I don’t believe that identifying serious theological problems and the concomitant pastoral difficulties that this appointment would have brought about deserves those epithets.

If things were as Elaine describes them, then the charge of infidelity might be justified. But they are not. She claims, “He would have put all the structures in place necessary for him to be a focus of unity.” How would he have done that when he himself does not believe that women can be priests? This is the fundamental issue that will not go away and which has not been answered satisfactorily (or at all, to be honest) by those who supported his appointment. The second half of the first Guiding Principle says that the Church of England:

holds that those whom it has duly ordained and appointed to office are true and lawful holders of the office which they occupy and thus deserve due respect and canonical obedience

There is clearly some important wriggle room in this phrase. It must be possible to believe that women are truly and lawfully holders of their offices, but not to believe that they are sacramentally ordained. Otherwise, Society members and their churches could have confidence. And they don’t.

A whole series of very worrying questions follow from this disconnect. How can a bishop who does not believe women can be priests or bishops claim to be in communion with the third or more of his clergy who are women? They might be able to share a communion at which he presided, but not the reverse. This is a strange kind of communion. How can he sponsor people for ordination training to a ministry which, however much he might like and affirm the individuals, he does not actually think is ordination to a ministry of sacrament? He can, I guess, see women as ministers of the word – but that kind of separation of word and sacrament is not Anglican, and certainly not catholic. How can he be a pastor to his whole diocese, when he is going to be instituting vicars and rectors to parishes to dispense to the people in those parishes sacraments that as a member of the Council of Bishops of the Society he has no confidence are real sacraments? The implications of this last question are shocking.

It is questions like these that have not received the answers they deserved. If Elaine Storkey’s interpretation of what happened in 2014 was correct, then so too would be her accusation of infidelity. Much has been made of a “broken promise” to those evangelicals and anglo-catholics who do not receive the ministry of women bishops and priests. The fourth Guiding Principle says this:

the Church of England remains committed to enabling them to flourish within its life and structures

It is not clear to me that this is a promise to provide a diocesan bishop from those quarters. If mutual flourishing means anything, it must mean that all parties feel secure that the ministry and sacraments in which they have confidence are affirmed and supported. For those who do not accept that women can be priests and bishops there are bishops who think as they do, and whose episcopal ministry they can receive. But it is hard to see how a bishop from that quarter can convincingly be a bishop for a whole diocese with men and women among its priests. That is not a broken promise. It is putting a system under stresses that it cannot bear.

Much has been made, negatively, of the public and organised opposition to Philip North’s appointment. I think it is worth recognising that while this will have been intensely unpleasant for Bishop Philip, the appointment as a whole is something in which the public has a proper interest. The Church of England is not yet a private religious society. It is the established church of the land. And the disconnect between a society in which discrimination on the grounds of gender is illegal and a church which somehow manages its affairs so that this is permitted is becoming harder and harder to explain convincingly. A public letter from a woman MP from Sheffield is an example of this awkwardness. It should not be criticised – those voices have every right to be heard while we are a church by law established. They are not a sign of infidelity or hounding, they are the point of engagement between church and society over a matter in which they too have a stake.

I understand what it is to have one’s life pulled apart in public, and therefore some small insight into how painful this latest business must have been for Bishop Philip. And it is not as if he hasn’t experienced this before. I do not know Bishop Philip. Everything I have read about him tells me that he is a fine priest – but I refrain even from affirming that, first, because, as I don’t know him, that sounds patronising, and secondly, because, in the end, this is not about the man. Elaine Storkey writes:

May we resist the canonisation of illiberalism, the creation of new orthodoxies based on intolerance of tradition, and the tyranny of mouthing acceptable slogans. The call of the church today is, surely, to sound a prophetic note of hope to the struggles of a divided and hurting culture. It is not to sink into its mud.

I cannot claim to have sounded a new note of hope. Bishop Philip’s withdrawal of his acceptance of the See of Sheffield is a very painful and shocking moment in our church. What it means will need to be teased out carefully in the coming months. But I hope I have identified some clear reasons why Elaine is not correct in the interpretation she puts on events, nor is she just in the motives she ascribes to some of those who have questioned the wisdom of this appointment. There are proper and principled reasons to have done so. The mud of a divided and hurting culture includes name-calling. And she ought not to have joined in doing it.

What is also muddy is the capacity of the Church of England not to be clear about what its compromises mean and do not mean. The ambiguity of the Five Guiding Principles may have been deliberate. It may have been the best that could be managed in 2014 while the Synod, under pressure from Parliament as it undoubtedly was, made some kind of a deal to get women bishops. But if that was the case, then not having done any work to have elucidated the meaning of what those principles did and did not comprise in the intervening two and bit years has done us all no favours.