Arun Aurora: Why the CoE must be a broad church when it comes to new Bishop of Sheffield

Philip North is the new Bishop of Sheffield.
Philip North is the new Bishop of Sheffield.
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I RECENTLY received an email from an academic researcher on a proposal to set up a new website for the creation of an “intersectional discussion group”. Her proposal ended with a rather startling statement: “We reject racism, misogyny, violence, aggression, sexism, ablism, homophobia, transphobia, casteism, white supremacy, patriarchy and oppressive ideologies.”

I was reminded of the email by a piece in The Times earlier this week which reported that “British universities suffer from “group-think” with a strong left-wing or liberal bias among academics”.

As the husband of an academic, I found much of this rather surprising. Many of the academics I know tend to be thoughtful, reflective – and as you might expect from people involved in higher education – able to balance views in a way which rises above the kind of strident polemical tone which might be more likely to be found amongst undergraduates rather than those who teach them.

But the advent of digital technology seems to have seduced those who might otherwise know better into making the kind of rash statements which social media often elicits. Not that such statements are only to be found on Facebook or Twitter.

Writing in these pages earlier this week, the Reverend Professor Martyn Percy implied that those who support the appointment of Bishop Philip North as the new Bishop of Sheffield, and the Church of England’s settlement on enabling women to be bishops were akin to those who held apartheid era racially-segregationist views. Following Professor Percy’s logic that means he is suggesting the Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, as good as holds racist views. So much for thoughtful and reflective views.

That astonishing implication goes to the heart the issue with Professor Percy’s argument. It’s not so much that he doesn’t make out a case but rather that those who disagree with him must be labelled in such a way as to make holding an opposite view morally unacceptable. By presenting his arguments in such terms where is the room for reasoned and balanced debate? Or, to put it another way, when did it become acceptable for academics to start playing the man and stop playing the ball?

Professor Percy is at pains in his article to suggest he thinks Bishop North is a good man and the argument is not personal. Well, if someone told me that I should resign from my job because my views were effectively sexist, I think I’d take that rather personally. Taken as a whole, Professor Percy’s argument goes beyond stating his own view to requiring someone else who holds a different view to either agree or resign.

The nomination of Philip North as the next Bishop of Sheffield was made within the frameworks and processes agreed by General Synod in 2014. Many, if not all, of Professor Percy’s arguments were heard and considered by Synod before being rejected.

Rather than casting out opponents into the wilderness – or labelling them with epithets such as “racist” or “sexist” – the 2014 settlement sought to achieve how people with fundamental differences could still walk together. In doing so the settlement reflected one of the great beauties of the Church of England in its theological breadth.

Since that settlement was reached, 10 women have been consecrated as Bishops in the Church of God. Philip North is the first Diocesan bishop to have been nominated whose views on women bishops reflect the Church’s traditionalist approach and also those of our sister Churches across the world including the Roman Catholic Church, Orthodox Church: 10 to one is a pretty good result for those whose desire is to keep score against their opponents. For the Church as a whole it is a sign that mutual flourishing is possible and that despite disagreement it is possible to work together. However, Professor Percy’s argument would suggest even this is too much.

In the nomination of Philip North the Church of England has an opportunity to demonstrate to a wider world that enables opponents to flourish. I have no beef with Martyn Percy the man. But the implications of his argument are that by disagreeing with him I am no better than an apartheid-supporting racist. Professor Percy is better than that and the Church of England should be too.

Reverend Arun Arora is director of communications at the Church of England.

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