The nomination of the Rt Rev’d Philip North to the See of Sheffield seemed at the time to be a remarkable but joyful celebration of the concept of ‘mutual flourishing.’ It was a nomination not only widely welcomed throughout the Church – and particularly perhaps by traditional catholics – but also by an overwhelming majority of conservative evangelicals. The subsequent vocal opposition to the nomination, coupled with the withdrawal of the Rt Rev’d Philip North from his acceptance of the nomination, not only removed that sense of joyful celebration but also negatively affected the perception of ‘mutual flourishing’ held by many. The result of the whole episode was – and is – that there is now less confidence than before that those who cannot accept the ministry of women bishops on theological grounds will genuinely be encouraged to flourish within the Church of England.
This submission will not seek to address all of the points of concern raised by the Archbishops, not least because of my lack of involvement in the process leading to Bishop Philip North’s nomination. However, based on my own experience over 19 months and consultations with those evangelical parishes in Sheffield that have availed themselves of the provisions in the House of Bishops’ Declaration on the Ministry of Bishops and Priests (the Declaration), it will seek to comment on:
- What has been done to inform and educate clergy and laity about the Declaration
- The consistency of the nomination with the Declaration
- The response of conservative evangelicals to the nomination
- The challenges now facing the concept of ‘mutual flourishing’
Information and Education
The then Bishop of Sheffield was one of the first to invite me to become an Assistant Bishop in the Diocese – where I was subsequently known as one of the two ‘appointed’ bishops (the other being the Rt Rev’d Glyn Webster). This followed a wide-ranging consultative exercise undertaken by a working group chaired by Bishop David Hawtin, which had earlier produced a document entitled “New Norms, New Beginning.’ This document was widely circulated and was discussed at the Diocesan Synod. It is noteworthy that it stressed that ‘mutual flourishing’ would not be easily achieved but that it did involve deanery and diocesan structures being ‘open to people of all traditions.’ (p27). A number of recommendations were made, most of which were based on the assumption that the Declaration, the five guiding principles, and the concept of mutual flourishing would be promoted and widely discussed at deanery and parish levels.
As a way forward for the diocese, the document was something of a model for how to address the issues that had previously divided us. I promoted it as such during early visits to different dioceses. My own appointment within the Sheffield diocese in February 2016 was given a high profile and I was subsequently able to agree a protocol for operating within the diocese with the diocesan bishop. My relations with senior staff within the diocese were, and have continued to be, very constructive. What is more, among those whom I have consulted, there is genuine gratitude for the way in which flourishing is encouraged in practical ways by the acting diocesan bishop and the archdeacons.
However, it has to be said that after all the initial enthusiasm and effort, much of what the document had envisaged by way of action at deanery and parish level failed to materialize. ‘New Norms, New Beginning’ had envisaged the ‘appointed’ bishops being involved in a monitoring group for the deanery and parish discussions, but I am not aware of this having been set up. This is in no way a criticism of the diocese; the departure of the Bishop of Sheffield in the summer of 2016 meant that such new initiatives could not easily be accommodated. Nevertheless, there seems to have been little follow-up to the production of ‘New Norms, New Beginning.’ I have been told that at a recent meeting of the Diocesan Synod, a poll showed that few parish representatives had read the document. Those parishes I consulted were unaware of it having been discussed at either deanery synods or chapters. They also spoke of different diocesan officers seeming to suggest that a PCC resolution under the Declaration effectively precluded the vicar from consideration as an Area Dean, and characterizing their position as being ‘anti-women,’ despite ‘New Norms, New Beginning’ urging care with words. Some incumbents have reportedly gone much further in their descriptions of the attitude to women of those who have passed resolutions or who hold ‘traditionalist’ views. It is perhaps no surprise that in one case I was told that a female incumbent felt unable to attend a Deanery chapter meeting at which a conservative evangelical incumbent was present because she felt his presence and beliefs undermined her position.
The conclusion I have drawn therefore is that whilst there was very helpful consultation within the Diocese of Sheffield prior to 2015, since then, despite the clearly positive leadership being given, there has been an absence of engagement at the local level with the Declaration, or with the concept of mutual flourishing. At the very least, what are now needed are fresh conversations at every level within the diocese in order to build mutual understanding and respect as well as clarity about the access of clergy and laity of all traditions to all deanery and diocesan roles.
In their request to you, the Archbishops were not only concerned with what has happened in the diocese of Sheffield but also with what has happened within the wider church to inform and educate. For my own part, I have visited the diocesan bishops of all but three dioceses in order to discuss the implications of the Declaration and to explore whether there might be ways in which I could help within the life of the dioceses. In thirteen cases, I have also been able to meet their senior staff teams in order to discuss issues arising out of the Declaration. I have also sought to engage PCCs in consideration of the issues: so far I have met 51 throughout the UK. In addition I have published a booklet giving guidance to PCCs – over 700 of these have been requested to date.
I regret that I am not in a position to give a comprehensive overview of the efforts being made by others throughout the country to promote understanding of the Declaration. I have, however, encountered various individual issues which demonstrate that there is much still to be done to promote this understanding. Two examples might give a feel for this:
- One of the issues most frequently raised with me at senior staff meetings is how to deal with the topic of men’s and women’s ministries during interviews to fill parish vacancies. This is particularly pressing when candidates are being considered who hold views about male headship when the parish itself has not taken a particular view. Diocesan representatives feel themselves to be in a difficult situation where on the one hand they wish to enable a candidate to be open about their convictions, but on the other know that in opening up the question, the PCC representatives might immediately dismiss the candidate without giving proper consideration either to the five guiding principles or to a candidate’s wider merits. This demonstrates the difficulty of securing commitment to the five guiding principles at the level of the parish.
- When considering the prospect of new church plants – or the possibility of granting BMO status to church plants which have not yet been officially recognized, it has been clear to me that some of those being consulted (eg on archidiaconal pastoral committees) object on the grounds of the views being taught in those congregations or held by a prospective minister on male headship. The view has been expressed to me that ‘flourishing’ means acceptance for those who are already part of the parish structure but does not mean a preparedness to accept an expansion of their activity.
The Consistency of the Nomination with the Declaration
The references in the Declaration to ‘Reciprocity’ (paras 9-13) mean that it should be unexceptional for someone who has ‘traditionalist’ views (whether from traditional catholic or conservative evangelical theological convictions) to be considered for nomination to a See. Paragraph 9 states that ‘notwithstanding differences of conviction on this issue, (everyone) will accept that they can rejoice in each other’s partnership in the Gospel and cooperate to the maximum possible extent in mission and ministry.’ Paragraph 10 speaks of the need for those of differing conviction to do all within their power to avoid giving offence to each other. Paragraph 13 concludes the section on reciprocity by saying that ‘It will be important that senior leadership roles within dioceses continue to be filled by people from across the range of traditions.’ It is in this context that the wording of paragraph 11 about the Crown Nomination Commission should be understood. While the thrust of that paragraph is to make clear that each diocese should have at least one serving bishop who ordains women to the priesthood, this is clearly within a context where bishops will continue to be appointed who do not. It follows that the principle of Bishop Philip North’s nomination to the See of Sheffield cannot possibly be inconsistent with the Declaration. Indeed, the Declaration assumes that such nominations will be made.
That said, paragraph 12 of the Declaration does entitle dioceses to express a view in the Statement of Needs it prepares during a vacancy in see, as to whether the diocesan bishop should be someone who will or will not ordain women. Examination of the Statement of Needs that was prepared in Sheffield shows that no view was expressed on this subject. That said, there was an open acknowledgement that there had been tensions in the past but that the diocese was now committed to mutual flourishing. In paragraph 1.4 it stated: ‘Our next Bishop must, therefore, be someone who can see the value in the different traditions, affirm them and be able to relate to them, reflecting the doctrine of the Body of Christ and being a focal point of unity.’ There is no suggestion that the nomination of Bishop Philip North was inconsistent with articulating either this value or affirmation.
The Response of Conservative Evangelicals to the Nomination
A number of conservative evangelical clergy expressed their welcome to Bishop Philip North when his nomination was first announced. I wrote to him personally in a similar vein. It was felt that despite his different theological tradition, he had a strong record of promoting mission and was entirely fair in any decisions involving people of different churchmanships. As a gifted apologist and with a heart for those on the margins of society, it was felt he had much to offer the diocese. It was surprising therefore to read an article in the Church of England Newspaper (CEN) of 24th March 2017 which suggested that ‘evangelicals were ready to oppose North as bishop’. This prompted a letter to the CEN from 14 conservative evangelical clergy which was published on 7th April. This explicitly disavowed any suggestion that they were preparing to oppose the nomination, expressed sadness about the events that led Bishop Philip to step down, and stated their belief that the actions of a significant minority in the diocese were quite wrong.
When the news broke that Bishop Philip North had declined the nomination, I issued a press release on 9th March, the text of which read:
I am deeply saddened that Philip North has felt forced to withdraw from his nomination as the next Bishop of Sheffield. It will be a huge loss to Sheffield and is a body blow to the concept of ‘mutual flourishing’ which lay at the heart of the agreement to introduce women bishops in the Church of England.
Philip has huge gifts to offer the Church, and his leadership in Sheffield would have given a great boost to mission.
However, the damage to the principles on which the House of Bishops Declaration on the Ministry of Bishops and Priests is based, is profound. If all orders of ministry and all appointments are equally open to men and women, then the same has to apply to those who hold that the ministries of men and women are distinctively different. If it does not, if there is, in effect, a glass ceiling that prevents those of traditional churchmanships ministering at all levels of the Church, then the Declaration and the provisions that came with it lose all credibility.
I know that both Archbishops were personally wholly committed to the concept of mutual flourishing and it was warmly supported by the General Synod. If it is to survive as our governing motif, then urgent action will be needed to demonstrate its effectiveness. In the absence of such action, we will simply have given in to those who hounded Philip North out of office.
The Challenges Now Facing the Concept of Mutual Flourishing
The issue with which I believe we are left following Bishop Philip North’s withdrawal from the nomination is whether or not ‘mutual flourishing’ means equal opportunity and treatment for all, whatever their convictions over men’s and women’s ministries, or whether those who are in the minority within the Church of England are simply being treated on sufferance.
To some extent, this issue is exacerbated in the case of nomination to a see where those involved believe that the diocesan bishop must be a focus for unity. Although in Bishop Philip North’s case, his ability to be a unifying influence had been demonstrated through his existing ministry in Blackburn, there is, in general, a strong evangelical view that ‘the focus of unity’ concept has been widely misinterpreted. For evangelicals, the focus of unity is Christ himself, as He is revealed in the gospels and apostolic teaching. Bishops foster unity insofar as they hold faithfully and promote such apostolic teaching. The idea that bishops, in their own persons, need to hold a ‘majority’ view on everything in order to foster unity has no place in New Testament teaching. Nevertheless, the latter view has often prevailed – and in the case of Sheffield was seen by a vocal minority to preclude Bishop Philip North’s appointment.
More generally, I have a growing concern over the number of occasions when I have been told that the appointment of a complementarian evangelical (ie one who believes in male headship) to a deanery or diocesan role will ‘undermine’ female priests working in the deanery or diocese. Despite the fact that very few such evangelicals would want to question the validity of any priest’s orders, the mere presence of conservative evangelical clergy is regarded by some as offensive. That said, it is important to recognize that the majority of female priests do not take this view and are entirely supportive colleagues in ministry. Nevertheless, the voices of a vocal minority can sometimes be so loud, that prospective appointments are made to appear controversial and are therefore avoided ‘for the sake of unity.’ It is noteworthy that no complementarian evangelical bishop has been appointed in any diocese since the House of Bishops’ Declaration was approved – apart from my own appointment.
A further difficulty with the way ‘mutual flourishing’ operates is the treatment of complementarian evangelical women who wish to be, or have been, ordained as permanent deacons. Amongst those I have consulted, they believe they are made to feel ‘second best’ to those women who are ordained as priests. They report that their role and distinctive theology is widely misunderstood by diocesan staff; that there are few opportunities for service and wider diocesan roles; that their options for training are limited and that they are made to feel as though they are a drain on diocesan resources.
The withdrawal of Bishop Philip North has brought many of these growing concerns to a head. It seems to me therefore, that if ‘mutual flourishing’ is to imply a ready acceptance of each other within a climate of growth, we need to go further than simply advocating that discussions about the Declaration take place at deanery and parish levels. I believe a guide to mutual flourishing needs to be produced – set explicitly only within the context of the Declaration (ie not in the context of wider issues such as sexuality) – which can then be discussed in deaneries and diocesan synods before coming to General Synod itself. However, the production of more material will not in itself persuade those who rely on the provisions in the Declaration for their ministries that mutual flourishing really does mean equal treatment. Ultimately, this will now only happen when a man who does not ordain women is nominated to a see.
Rt Rev’d Roderick Thomas
Bishop of Maidstone