A couple of weeks ago Southwark Cathedral was full of children having a ‘messy celebration’. By all accounts it was a really wonderful morning. The children decorated an altar cloth and a chasuble which the Bishop of Croydon then wore for the Eucharist. It was wonderful and what was even more wonderful, so our vergers told me the next day, was that everyone cleared up the mess that they had made. So often people walk away from mess, leaving it for someone else to clear up. It’s like those awful mornings after a really good party. You come down and find the place full of stuff to be cleared away. The messy celebration was nothing like that.
Whatever you think about Bishop Philip North and the events of the past few weeks, whether you think that he would have made a good Bishop of Sheffield or not, whether you think the CNC was right to nominate him to the Crown for this See, or not, whether you think that he had exactly the skills that the diocese needed at this moment in its life, or not, we are in a mess.
As kids we loved watching Laurel and Hardy movies, the tremendous slapstick, the improbable plots in the films and the regular line that Hardy would say to Laurel, “Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into!”
The Church of England is good at some things – processions, hierarchy and getting into incredible messes and having public fights. Even though I’m Rector General of another Anglican catholic ‘Society’, The Society of Catholic Priests (SCP) which in Europe, North America and Australia supports the ordination of people regardless of gender or sexuality, I have kept quiet about the whole business as far as the blog world and Twitter-sphere are concerned. One thing that stopped me – apart from there being far too many opinions flying around – was my membership of the Crown Nominations Commission. I have to stress that I was not a member of the Sheffield Commission and so know absolutely nothing about their deliberations. But I do know how complex the processes are that the members of the CNC have to engage in and how strongly held opinions can too easily intervene in a process that you would hope responds only to the promptings of God and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit!
But whatever happened and whatever has happened we are now left with a situation which seems to have blown those Five Guiding Principles that we gathered around as a church, out of the water or at the very least led people to ask the question as to whether they mean anything at all.
I had the privilege of being a member of the General Synod that finally voted to allow women to be ordained to the episcopate. It was those principles which were the key to unlocking the impasse that had defeated us on previous occasions from moving forwards in the way that many of us believed God wanted us to do. That phrase ‘mutual flourishing’ that was included in those Principles was one that I personally rejoiced in – but does it have cash value and is it possible? The ‘North Affair’ is the first real test of this in relation to a Diocesan Bishop and it looks like a mess that is going to be very difficult to clear up.
The thing is that on the issue of ordained women at all levels of the church and the issue of the place of LGBTI+ people at every level of the church and the recognition and celebration of their faithful, committed relationships, we have been encouraged to disagree well. At the moment it looks like we are only able to disagree badly.
There are no winners in what has happened in the Diocese of Sheffield and to Philip North, just as there were no winners when my dear friend and colleague Jeffrey John was forced to stand down from being Bishop of Reading. There has to be a better way, there must be a better way.
Perhaps though I’m just being naïve, perhaps the Five Guiding Principles are unworkable and especially in relation to the appointment of Diocesan Bishops who need to be, of their very nature, ‘a focus of unity’, not just for the clergy, not just for the laity, not just for the church but also for civic society, in the public square and some of what we saw in civic Sheffield was utter disbelief at a church in disarray and displaying, what can appear to be discrimination, and celebrating it.
I think it was also more than unfortunate that the ‘passports’, the ID cards for priests who are members of The Society, reassuring those who need to be reassured that their orders are valid because no woman has been involved in their ordination, were issued whilst the storm around Philip was raging. To those, like me, who have tried not to talk about a ‘Doctrine of Taint’ being in the mind of some who hold that woman cannot be priests and, even when ordained, are not priests, it seems to suggest that there might be some very unpleasant opinions around that we might not want to flourish.
I have said too much; I am very sad that we are where we are, none of us is flourishing at the moment and Jesus must weep over us. My only consolation and hope is that from the very beginning God brought order out of chaos. May he do it again and forgive us in the doing of it.
Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.