Christianity Church of England & Ministry

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If you don’t know what I’m on about, this afternoon the Bishop of Sheffield elect, Philip North, has withdrawn his nomination.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.

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  • Reply
    Fr Mark
    March 9, 2017 at 9:38 pm

    Thank you

  • Reply
    March 9, 2017 at 9:57 pm

    Surely you know that you are not alone in this. What does the Church mean by Mutual Flourishing, when a Traditional Bishop who has demonstrated his ability to work alongside and empower women in ministry in one diocese is not acceptable to a minority voice in another.

    It seems that those who shout loudest get heard, while those who are gentle and supportive are ignored.

    I don’t agree with Bishop Philip’s theology, but truly believed that he deserved this opportunity to actively demonstrate that mutual flourishing was workable.

    Those who said that their arguments were not with him personally, but with his theology, should have seen that their rhetoric would be taken personally by him. This is the second time it has happened – no wonder he has withdrawn from his acceptance.

    This totally discredits the label of liberal in my eyes, and I will never apply it to my theological outlook ever again.

    • Reply
      March 9, 2017 at 10:15 pm

      totally agree…

  • Reply
    Graham K Smith
    March 9, 2017 at 11:07 pm

    As an acquaintance of mine wrote, “It is weird that sexism is still so acceptable – replace woman with black person and you see it immediately. Someone who sincerely believes that black people cannot be ordained (a genuine position 100 years ago) would not command such huge sympathy.”

    • Reply
      March 10, 2017 at 7:35 am

      Thanks Graham. My husband would agree with you, he works for an international company and just doesn’t get it. However change takes time and the church is on a journey here. Of course we need people challenging the status quo, of which I am one, but the fact is that the CofE agreed to a process of change that included allowing for ‘mutual flourishing’ of all. That seemed like a fair step at the time and without it I’m not sure the women bishops vote would have passed. However, aside from that my point was also largely that the accusations levelled at +Philip were unfounded and untrue.

  • Reply
    Andrew Graystone
    March 9, 2017 at 11:11 pm

    What I genuinely don’t understand is this: does +Martin believe that you are a priest or not? If he does, then what is all the fuss about. If he doesn’t, then how can he justify leaving your parishioners without- as he sees it – access to the Eucharist? Can you help me to understand this?

    • Reply
      March 10, 2017 at 7:46 am

      Hi Andrew, thanks for the comment. I can’t answer for +Martin on that. My point was that in my experience it *is* possible to hold a deep theological view and yet still allow for the opposite view to thrive. I am aware that there are several Forward in Faith churches here in Sussex so those who feel they need to receive the Eucharist from a man who has been ordained by a man (etc) can do so, and they are well supported by the diocese. I know the Eucharist is deeply important to +Martin so I would imagine (my opinion) it took a lot of soul searching to come to the position he holds. I don’t think that would have been easy or a position taken lightly but the fact is he does it. I don’t agree with his position of course, and of course he won’t be the one Priesting me in June which is sad, but that is part of the CofE. My faith has been deepened by working with and studying with those on the more Anglo-Catholic end of the spectrum, as I am sure it has for many others too and I think it’s important that we recognise that. I know many women who have been hurt by the lack of provision for their ministry over the years and in some case continue to do so, which is shocking and should not be excused but let’s not fall into the same camp of hurting and name calling which seems to be happening at the mo. Not sure that helps at all in answer to your q!

      • Reply
        Andrew Graystone
        March 10, 2017 at 8:19 am

        Thanks for this helpful reply Jules. It seems like there is a theological illogicality built into the heart of the C of E – but maybe that’s OK.

        • Reply
          March 10, 2017 at 11:24 am

          isn’t life theological illogical?! I like that line, needs some exploring…
          I don’t know, it’s such tough issue and I understand why people are upset and angry, and perhaps I should be too as an ordained woman, but I just prefer to err on the benefit of the doubt. Maybe that’s ok, maybe it’s just sitting the fence – which someone once told me will just get splinters in your bum – but I’d rather not subject him or anyone to the kind of abuse women have and still receive – we are all better than that.

          • UkViewer
            March 10, 2017 at 12:58 pm

            The thing about being at the Catholic end of the spectrum is a conviction of the Sacramental nature of everything, including all of God’s children.

            I find the Sacramental theology attractive and it has become formative in my worship, prayer and formation for ministry, which is ongoing.

            This doesn’t place me in a tradition which discrminates, but in one which in my experience of it, is one of love and an exceptional commitment to care for people and to build the Kingdom of God. I am in a broad church, where we have the whole spectrum of the church from all traditions and we are a cohesive community because of what we share is our discipleship of Jesus Christ. A sister church in the same community has opted for the traditional headship theology and is in oversight of a PEV, but they participate in the Deanery and Chapter and have an excellent outreach – we don’t have to agree on theology to work for the Kingdom of God.

  • Reply
    Alison Hardy
    March 9, 2017 at 11:23 pm

    Thank you for a compassionate and generous article. So sad and angry that Bp Philip feels it necessary to withdraw. I pray that he will find strength to recover and flourish in whatever lies ahead for him under God.

    • Reply
      March 10, 2017 at 7:46 am

      Thanks Alison and Amen!

  • Reply
    Joan Armstrong
    March 10, 2017 at 10:56 am

    I will pray for him.

  • Reply
    Bruce Gulland
    March 10, 2017 at 11:10 am

    beautifully put

    • Reply
      March 10, 2017 at 11:20 am

      thanks Bruce 🙂

  • Reply
    Kathryn Fleming
    March 10, 2017 at 11:13 am

    Some wise words in a situation where wisdom and grace are badly needed. Thank you for writ in as an ordained woman flourishing in a place where others might expect that to be impossible

    • Reply
      March 10, 2017 at 11:21 am

      Thanks Kathryn. I think that is the key, had I not experienced it I might not have thought it possible to be honest!

  • Reply
    John Webster
    March 10, 2017 at 12:45 pm

    Jules: bravo, well put. The more diverse we are, the richer and stronger the Kingdom of God is.
    However (and this is not a ‘but’ – but rather part of a dialogue) the little that I’ve picked up (as an outside insider: ordained Oxford, serving in Australia) presents Philip North as not as accomodating as +Martin.

    One of my friends posted the following on FB:
    “However good a man Philip North is, the bishop of a diocese must recognise the validity of ALL priests, including women, with whom he shares the cure of souls. The appointment of someone who does not acknowledge woman priests is therefore not comparable with the appointment of a female Bishop, because she DOES recognise the validity of orders of all priests in the diocese. This is especially important in the diocese of Sheffield, for the reasons Giles outlines here: Sheffield’s new bishop is a slap in the face for the women of steel | Giles Fraser: Loose canon

    To which I responded: “Yes – this is bizarre. How does one tolerate intolerance? How does the theology of inclusivity & diversity incorporate a theology of exclusivity & homogeneity? One key part of the answer is not to give the latter any power of control. Uh-oh!” (Last aside was a reference to the current American political debacle.)

    Now you present +Martin in a different light, & suggest Philip North could have been the same. If so, that would have been great. But what if the concerned were proven right, and women’s ordination was actively discredited, as is done here by Sydney Diocese.

    And I’m curious: will you have the same sense of support from +Martin when you are priested, knowing that he would always presumably exclude himself from any situation where you are exercising your priestly authority?

    • Reply
      March 10, 2017 at 3:50 pm

      Thanks John. Yes it’s a tough one for sure. Of course we won’t now know but all the evidence from those who know +Philip was that he would have been able to do the role well and fairly. In terms of +Martin, I can’t speak for his views but I have only heard positive things from my female colleagues here, both Priested and not and in fact I know he licensed a friend of mine recent as Priest in Charge of her parish so I’m not sure that he would ‘presumably exclude himself’. I don’t know of any situations where he has but there might be.

  • Reply
    Steve Lane
    March 10, 2017 at 5:20 pm

    Hello Jules
    I will start my comment that I am first and foremost Child Of God (a Christian) and happen to worship in and serve as a leader of a Baptist Church in Fakenham, near Little Walsingham in Norfolk. I have met and had conversations with Father Philip North on a few occasions, and have on several occasions enjoyed helping the teams at the Shrine by leading in worship during family and children pilgrimages
    So it may be no surprise that on some theologies Father Philip and I would not agree. And it may well be that you and I should we meet will find areas of scripture where we inturpret it differently
    When working with team at the Shrine I have discussed with them and agreed there were some songs I could not sing. We found compromise and ways of working around that
    We shared common ground in our love of Jesus and thankfulness for all that He did for us.
    Surely that is the key. Whether in the same denomination or from a differing one, what we should focus on is the love we are united in because of Jesus.
    No one should be subjected to abuse from other people and in this case especially those form the same “family”, Gods Family, The Church.
    I applaud your blog/article and I have tried to write to Father Philip to offer encouragement to him. He has been called by God into ministry and I believe he still has so much to offer.
    I pray that the overall outcome from all of this can be turned to the glory of God somehow, even if it is difficult to see that at the moment
    God Bless Steve (Lane) Little Walsingham

    • Reply
      March 11, 2017 at 8:09 am

      Thanks Steve. Yes, if only it were as easy as that!
      Even Jesus had his battles to face and I’m reminded today of the story where he was hounded from his own town towards the cliff edge. People who would have known and loved him still couldn’t accept who he truly was. A lot of people feel deeply hurt by the church and by those who have refused to acknowledge their ministry, that runs deep and it’s hard to see beyond. Like you I hope and pray that this can be resolved for the glory of God…

  • Reply
    des murphy
    March 10, 2017 at 8:42 pm

    as Philip is my bishop and I am for women bishops, I am glad he is staying, he cares for all of his people and does a very good job here in Burnley. To underline this my Vicar who is a women was very sad to hear he was leaving

    • Reply
      March 11, 2017 at 8:10 am

      Thanks Des, I have heard good things about him in Burnley and I pray he will continue to be a huge blessing there.

  • Reply
    Lilian Ellis
    March 12, 2017 at 9:21 pm

    I too am saddened by+Philip’s decision
    Reverend Sister Lilian Ellis CA

  • Reply
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