Being Sheffield’s bishop and the limits of inequality

By Savi Hensman
March 11, 2017

Philip North, who had been chosen as Bishop of Sheffield, has withdrawn after intense controversy. He is a ‘traditionalist’ who does not believe that women can be priests and some people had questioned how he could effectively lead and care for all clergy in his diocese, across genders.

Perhaps most controversial was his role as one of the leaders of the Society of St Wilfrid and St Hilda. This works closely with the campaigning group Forward in Faith to promote the view that only men can be priests and support those with this belief.

Many women clergy especially in Burnley, where he is a suffragan bishop (not leading the diocese), had spoken highly of him and he is reputed to have fine qualities. He may understandably feel hurt and rejected – but, if he had refused to back down, others would have felt that their own ministry was not accepted.

In a statement he expressed “regret and sadness”. But “It is clear that the level of feeling is such that my arrival would be counter-productive in terms of the mission of the Church in South Yorkshire and that my leadership would not be acceptable to many.” He was critical of some (maybe all) the objectors, stating “There is clearly much to be done on what it means to disagree well and to live with theological difference in the Church of England... If, as Christians, we cannot relate to each other within the bounds of love, how can we possibly presume to transform a nation in the name of Christ?”

The Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, joined in these criticisms. He claimed that “what has happened to Bishop Philip clearly does not reflect the settlement under which, two and a half years ago, the Church of England joyfully and decisively opened up all orders of ministry to men and women. It also made a commitment to mutual flourishing.”

This refers to a compromise reached to allow women bishops while protecting the small minority in the Church of England who think only men can or should be priests. But the principles agreed, meant to allow “mutual flourishing”, were unclear about situations such as this, which meant that Philip North was placed in a difficult and painful situation. ‘Liberals’ and ‘progressives’ have sometimes failed to give enough credit to those with very different views who have nevertheless made real efforts to support women. However there are wider issues.

To avoid further such problems in future, it would be helpful to encourage thorough discussion of different possible interpretations of the ‘deal’ and costs of each. A clearer understanding could then be reached. This might also help in thinking through the possibility of local flexibility for those for and against full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people, partnered or single.

Being 'one in Christ'

Churches have increasingly come to believe that both women and men should be able to serve as ministers or elders, if it seems that God has called them. This reflect the view that God breaks down barriers: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3.28).

This can also encourage diverse church members to practice the ‘priesthood of all believers’ (1 Peter 2.9), sharing God’s love with the wider community. And it can assist the quest for a just and peaceful world in which the oppression of, and violence against, women and girls is no longer tolerated.

Yet the Church of England has struggled around women’s ministry. Though in 1975 General Synod decided that there was “no fundamental objection to the ordination of women to the priesthood”, moving forward has been very slow.

Most members – including numerous evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics – now agree that women should be ordained. However some ‘conservative’ churchgoers (mainly evangelicals) believe that the Bible teaches that only men should lead in the church and home. Others (mainly Anglo-Catholics) think that women are by nature unable to celebrate such sacraments as Holy Communion, or should only be ordained if the Roman Catholic church also agrees.

It was generally accepted that “mutual flourishing” meant that parishes could continue to have only male priests and bishops leading worship. If a woman became their bishop, she would delegate her duties to a man. Indeed this would generally be someone who also would not receive women’s ministry, in particular not accepting the Eucharist if a woman asked God to bless the bread and wine.

However it was not clear what would happen if a man with such a view were nominated as a diocesan bishop, with pastoral responsibility for women clergy he did not regard as proper priests. Should he have the right to be promoted or would this too deeply undermine the flourishing of women, girls and the wider church?

One of the reasons this had not been adequately addressed is that the Church of England tends to be rather hierarchical. So, for instance, top leaders did not seem too bothered in 2008 when Kristin Aune, a sociologist of religion, announced startling findings. Collectively churches in England had been losing 50,000 women worshippers a year, over a million in total. Evidence indicated this was partly because young women found churches disempowering.

In contrast, there was great concern about the risk of upsetting far fewer (often Oxbridge-educated) male clergy opposed to women’s ordination. Their feelings were and are important, of course. But so are those of others who tend to be bypassed, until they become too hard to ignore.

There is also a widespread lack of understanding of the theological importance of justice and the psychological and sometimes physical damage done by discrimination of all kinds. Even those campaigning for greater equality on one front often have little understanding of what it is like to be excluded for other reasons. Also those marginalised are sometimes reluctant to marginalise others, even those with whose views they strongly disagree. Also many came to faith in contexts where women’s roles were seen as different from men’s. Yet there may be a difficult balance if this may mean that others are driven away or encouraged to feel inferior.

In addition, many senior clergy live in something of an institutional bubble where problematic practices are glossed over. For instance in a hospital, if a junior doctor announced that he did not regard women as proper doctors, it would be unlawful to appoint him, let alone let him be supervised by a man rather than the woman who heads his department. Yet the major concessions already made by the church are often taken for granted by those who benefit. Likewise school governors would not just nod through the appointment of a head if he were part of a movement which encouraged parents not to let their children be educated by women teachers.

Unity and justice

Furthermore, respect for people and views can be confused. While opponents of greater equality are often vocal about their cause, those in favour may be persuaded to tone down their arguments, for the sake of ‘unity’. Yet ongoing challenge and debate can help the Christian community to identify, and move towards, the truth. Critics of women’s ordination are often far from misogynistic and strongly against extreme forms of women’s subordination. But those who think this theological approach may bolster sexism and idolise maleness (even if unintentionally) should be free to say so.

What it means for a bishop to be a 'focus of unity' also deserves more attention. This is sometimes misinterpreted to mean that people should be chosen only if those with most influence and privilege in a diocese approve of him or her. When the first black Anglican bishop, Samuel Ajayi Crowther, was ordained in 1864, some objected that he would not be sufficiently respected because of his ethnicity. This was rightly brushed aside.

However a key role of a bishop is to serve as a link across different congregations in a diocese and between the local and wider church. This usually means that, as far as it is within the bishop’s power, the ministry of all those confirmed and ordained is recognised and supported.

What is more, the Society of St Wilfrid and St Hilda declared that ordination of women bishops left members in a state of diminished communion with the rest of the Church of England. This was visibly demonstrated when the Bishop of Burnley was consecrated. While consecration usually resembles a rugby scrum, as bishops representing many areas reach out to touch the kneeling candidate , he chose to have hands laid on him only by the handful of bishops who did not ordain wome.  It is extremely unusual for any church to appoint a bishop or moderator who declares himself or herself to be not in full communion with most of the congregations and worshippers he or she is meant to serve, along with the greater part of the church overall.

To learn from past mistakes and foster healing, perhaps deeper sharing and listening are needed. This may involve admitting that churches often treat some people as being worth less than others; instead of pretending that all are equally loved and taken into account. There are no easy answers. However, if the difficulties are recognised, there is more chance of finding ways forward.


© Savitri Hensman is an Ekklesia associate and respected commentator on welfare and other issues. She is author of the book Sexuality, struggle and saintliness: same-sex love and the church (Ekklesia, 2016): http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/22613 and has been involved in seeking greater inclusion.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.