Philip North has withdrawn his acceptance of the offer to become the Diocesan Bishop of Sheffield. He seems universally liked, and widely proclaimed as a “good man”. But as a theological conservative he does not recognise the validity of women in holy orders. There was something of a storm of protest from those who could not reconcile his ministry with those he was called to serve and as a result he has decided to withdraw.
I feel desperately sorry for him – his translation to Sheffield must have been soon. Mentally he would already have been there, his thoughts and prayers being occupied with his new challenge.His statement on withdrawing has indicated his hurt at what has been said about him:
“The highly individualised nature of the attacks upon me have been extremely hard to bear. 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? I hope though that this conversation can continue in the future without it being hung upon the shoulders of one individual.”
That indeed raises some very difficult issues for us as a church. A church which only consists of people who agree with me is not the sort of church I want to be a part of. Whilst I genuinely can’t understand his theological position, I have always wanted to find a way for them to stay not only part of the church but part of the conversation.
We are very bad at conversation in the church – so afraid of bad conflict that we refuse to exercise good conflict. When we do engage well, it is wonderful. When we don’t then the church slips into either boredom or acrimony.
What I find truly astonishing is that this scenario had not been thought through years ago and a plan devised. The strategic thinking of the C of E is breathtakingly bad sometimes. That I think is symptomatic of a church which does not talk to one another enough. Philip North is currently Bishop of Burnley, a suffrogan. That he is a suffrogan but not an assistant Bishop is significant. A suffrogan is a bishop under the juristiction of a Diocesan Bishop, but responsible for a specific area. Presumably in Burnley there were women priests, did anyone think to ask them how things had gone? The fact that, as far as I can see, North’s track record was good implies that they made it work somehow.
My own feeling is that I would feel very very uncomfortable working under a bishop who holds his views. I simply can’t see how my fellow clergy could manage it, male or female, to know that only half of our ministries are recognised – and of course for the women in his diocese that feeling would infinitely stronger. But could there have been anything done to make it work? The answer will always be yes – if there is the will to do it. Whether this was though a far more powerful assistant Bishop, or through alternative oversight, I’m sure a way could have been managed. In the church, the only things that are truly impossible are the things that we don’t want to happen.
I disagree with Philip North on most branches of theology and I fully accept that I am hardly in a position go be directly affected by his ministry. But if someone who seems to have been genuienly well regarded by everyone, cannot become a Bishop, then it does imply that there is a theological bar which is uncanonical and undoctrinal. Which is pretty much the complaint about how Jeffrey John was treated.
And let us not forget that the reason he has given for resignation is not the people of his diocese but the complaints and comments of those who opposed him online. This is a case where the more unpleasant tactics of my own theological community got their way. And that is not how I like it. I want to win the day with good theology, generous conduct and loving attentive listening. Not with anger and noise.