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 While that Act is no longer in force the principles behind it have, I would suggest, not been abrogated.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.


15 thoughts on “On infidelity, broken promises and hounding: why Elaine Storkey is wrong.

  1. Peter

    Jeremy, haven’t you read GS 1076, the actual agreement? There’s no ‘interpretation’ about it – the agreement which everyone signed up to is crystal clear:

    Para 12:
    Dioceses are entitled to express a view, in the statement of needs prepared during a vacancy in see, as to whether the diocesan bishop should be someone who will or will not ordain women. In dioceses where the diocesan bishop does not ordain women he should ensure that a bishop who is fully committed to the ordained ministry of women is given a role across the whole diocese for providing support for female clergy and their ministry.

    The 5 Guiding Principles are just that, guiding, but the finer print is entirely clear. Sheffield’s vacancy-in-see committee had a right of ‘veto’, but clearly chose not to exercise it.


    1. I have indeed read it. The fault may lie with the Sheffield CNC representatives, but someone clearly had not done any stress-testing of a proposed solution that I don’t really think the agreement fully envisaged. The tone of GS 1076 is significantly directed at protecting the consciences of those who were going to find accepting a church that unequivocally had decided for women in the episcopate difficult to take. It can be read the other way, but that is not the direction of travel of most of the document. It is arguable whether Sheffield’s vacancy-in-see committee actually had a veto, but it does seem that they did not express a view that carried the assent of the diocese when it came to it. That is my point about this particular way of interpreting GS 1076 producing a result that has produced unbearable stresses in this diocese. Whether it would be different elsewhere I could not say, but those doing the choosing will be well advised to do a lot more groundwrok before pushing the candidature of someone like Bishop Philip again.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pam Smith

    Thanks you. This is a clear and thoughtful reply to Elaine Storkey’s piece. The more this situation is unpacked, the more surprising it becomes. The way events have unfolded, it appears more and more as if there has been an implicit undertaking to appoint another Diocesan of + Phillip’s views, in addition to those who are already in post. If that’s the case, then the pressure to make a similar appointment elsewhere is going to build until it happens.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Dave

    I am looking in front the outside as a free church evangelical. From this perspective I think there are a few separate questions that need to be answered separately and that different Anglicans may give different answers to. 1. What is their view of Scripture. 2. What is their view of sacraments 3. What is their view of Bishop’s 4. What is their view of how churches should relate together. These questions relate but if not answered separately and truthfully then you will keep on getting messy compromises that please no-one and the result will be that you end up with people getting hurt and more importantly the Gospel being mocked. So probably another question would be “Do you share the same Gospel?” If so, what honours that, not what are your rights. Then we end up with the question, the elephant in the room. To honour and preach the Gospel, do we need an established church and should it be the Church of England in its existing form?

    It might be helpful to think about how those of us outside of the Church of England are answering those questions. My perspective is that I don’t think we need or should have an established church. I also don’t see Bishop’s as having sacramental authority or that their blessing carries a specific weight. I suspect that a lot ( though not neccessary all) of Evangelicals in the Church of England deep down share that conviction. I also don’t believe in a separation of clergy and laity. So the question of ordination isn’t there. I do however believe that the Bible teaches about male and female roles around the authoritative teaching of Scripture.


    1. Dear Dave,
      Your comment tells me precisely why you are a free church evangelical. I suspect you would also like clear and definitive answers to your questions. It is not possible to give them. The Church of England is a messy compromise and always has been. And people who can’t live with that have usually left to go somewhere where the boundaries are better defined, either to Rome or to free churches. It must be frustrating watching this.


      1. Dave

        Thanks Jeremy. Yes, frustrating – but prayerful too and aware that now and not yet means messiness. I guess a follow up question would be how long you can go on with messy compromise within the structures – or are you in the end expecting too much of the structures. To some extent the advantage of a free church perspective can be that the “boundaries” free up for relationship, friendliness and neighbourliness. I know why and how I’m relating to someone and it isn’t just because I’m in the same denomination. At its worst we can pull up the drawbridge and be isolationist of course.


  4. Adrian Beney

    Thank you Jeremy. As I said on a comment on Elaine’s post, it seems to me that GS1076 is the peace agreement. The hard work is building the peace, and I seriously question the extent to which that work has been done, especially in Sheffield which, by chance or not, formed the crucible for this need. I am instinctively “with you” in all you’ve said about the disconnect between having women priests who are women in a diocese whose diocesan bishop belongs to a Society which does not believe they are priests. That disconnect is abundantly clear.

    And yet, maybe “mutual flourishing” really could have been a prophetic sign or witness to show that despite apparently irreconcilable differences, a diocese could cope or even thrive with a diocesan who, unlike his predecessors, does not ordain women. And that grace and mercy can exist amongst disagreement and division. It seems some women in Sheffield felt that way.

    But the failure of the appointments process, and indeed perhaps Synod, is not to have put enough resource into helping other senior leaders in the C of E, let alone “ordinary” diocesan clergy or laity, work through what are the consequences of GS1076 and how to live and love constructively within what Synod had come up with. Synod had 8 years and 18 months of facilitated conversations to get to GS1076. The diocese of Sheffield and the rest of the church was given just a few weeks.

    We need to learn that winning a war is easier than building a lasting peace.


  5. David Shepherd

    Although it was at great cost to +Philip, this precedent has laid the foundation for what mutual flourishing will look like in the future.

    So, ;et’s say that the logic of the Five Guiding Principles should be equally applicable to revisionist position on same-sex marriage: that it is as an acceptable minority position that deserves to be honoured.

    So, while the Church of England, as a whole, may unequivocally commit itself to leave the definition of marriage intact, it might also be possible practically to flourish inside the Church of England without ever being obliged to face the reality of the majority position.

    Ergo, should the Church of England declare that it ‘remains committed to enabling LGBT persoens to flourish within its life and structures’, this is not a promise to provide a diocesan bishop from those quarters.

    To paraphrase you: ‘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 the same-sex married 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.’

    Do you really consider that kind of mutual flourishing to be an acceptable provision for minorities?


    1. Frankly, David, if there was a space in the Church for LGBTI+ people to have their lives and ministries affirmed I think we would be glad. However, at present there isn’t, but there is what appears to be a rearguard action to prevent us sharing in an equal way in our church. The truth is, however, that affirming LGBTI+ people and ministries and relationships is not a minority position among Anglicans any more, but very close to being a majority one. And that majority is only going to grow as time passes. So the fact that there is no affirmation at all in any serious way for these relationships is even more unjust and unacceptable. And surprising as it may seem, we aren’t asking for everyone to see it our way, and there would still be space for people who wanted to continue to block and ignore the gifts that God is giving his church through its LGBTI+ faithful.


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  8. John Schofield

    Jeremy. Thank you for this helpful and thoughtful article. Apart from a post on the website of St Mark’s Centre for Radical Christianity (now removed in light of the changed situation) I have deliberately refrained from online comment on this issue and concentrated my efforts elsewhere (e.g. helping relaunch Sheffield WATCH recently). But I will just say this: I think it has come as a surprise to many inside and outside the church that liberals are not just wishy-washy anything goes people, but people who have principles and are prepared to enunciate and stand up for them. Thank God.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Pingback: Questions raised by Philip North’s appointment not going away anytime soon | Episcopal Cafe

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