Mutual flourishing? not likely…

A few years ago when it was passed that women could become Bishops in the Church of England, I cried. Cried from the emotion of knowing that one more step had been taken to allow the ministry of women in the church thrive. It felt hugely personal. Tonight I feel like crying again, but this time at the injustice of a talented man feeling the need to step down from his appointed role. Whilst I was one that was hoping for and speaking out in favour of women bishops, it was not with the intention of causing similar pain as has been measured to many female clergy, to those with differing theological views as us. 

If you don’t know what I’m on about, this afternoon the Bishop of Sheffield elect, Philip North, has withdrawn his nomination. This following weeks of speculation and accusation that due to his theological views on the ordination of women, he would not be able to do the job well and fairly. This makes me sad and cross because I know from first hand experience that is perfectly possible to do just that. Whilst I’ve not met +Philip, and neither I am in his diocese, I do happen to be in the position of serving under a Bishop who will not ordain women as Priests.

Here in the Diocese of Chichester our diocesan Bishop, Martin Warner, does not ordain women as Priests and yet I can honestly say that I have never felt unsupported by him. In fact the complete opposite. Since he took up the role here (in 2012) he has done his utmost to make women in this diocese feel supported and encouraged. He appointed a Dean of Women’s Ministry – a new post – and has rearranged his senior leadership team to include more women, including a female Archdeacon, Dean of SSM, Diocesan Sectreary, and a Director of Apostolic Life – who amongst other things oversees all us Curates.

I have met +Martin on several occasions, both individually and in a group setting, and always found him to be supportive, encouraging and generally enthusiastic about my ministry and that of other female clergy. I am not the only one who speaks highly of him locally, in fact I haven’t heard a single female member of clergy here say anything negative about him and have heard through others that he stamps down hard on misogyny and sexism. And despite his theological views on women’s ordination I have never once heard him speak openly about this – I’m not saying he doesn’t but he is clearly careful and considerate about where if at all.

So, it is more than possible to take a considered theological viewpoint and yet act in a way that both allows for and encourages other views. In fact I feel sure that many of us clergy have to do that on a regular basis, and on a range of theological matters. I know some have found this hard to beileve and have questioned +Philip’s ability to do so, which frankly seems profoundly unfair considering he has been serving as a Bishop for some time (admittedly not a diocesan) and has the support of many female clergy in his diocese.

The Archbishop of York has also released a statement which points out that the agreement made when women were allowed to become Bishops, made a commitment to all clergy, and that those who ‘on grounds of theological conviction, are unable to receive the ministry of women bishops or priests’ will both be able to continue in the Church of England, but more than that there was a commitment to enable ‘mutual flourishing’.

Much has been made of this phrase ‘Mutual Flourishing’ in recent weeks what does it mean, what does it look like? And the accusations thrown at +Philip have been along the lines that he cannot possibly support women in ministry when he won’t ordain them as Priests. How can he enable them to flourish with his viewpoint? Apart from the fact that those accusations completely prejudge his ability to do so, I know that it is in theory possible because I am in that very situation and Chichester is an example of where exactly that is happening. 

There are plenty of male clergy who hold the same views as +Philip and sadly do in a far more aggressive way. I’ve been lucky enough to be sheltered from the worst of that but have still been ignored, or spoken to rudely or put down, or had people turn their back on me, simply because I am an ordained woman. That is unacceptable behaviour, rudeness is never necessary, and shows a distinct lack of love. + Martin, +Philip and others have shown that there is a way to hold a deep theological view and yet work towards the support and encouragement of all, with grace.

I, as an ordained woman want to publically say that I am appalled at the way +Philip has been treated and sad that he has felt the need to step aside, which can only be due to the recent and public objections – how is this in any way enabling mutual flourishing? I understand that some of my fellow clergy, both male and female, will welcome the news of his withdrawing and of course take an opposing view to me, but in my opinion, all that this decision allows is simply the flourishing of those who are radically in favour of women’s ordination. We preach a message of tolerance, and talk of the beauty of the breadth of the Church of England, but it seems that we only mean that when it suits our own views and standpoints.

My prayers tonight are with +Philip, for God’s wisdom and guidance to continue to lead him and that he too may be able to flourish in his future ministry.