Martyn Percy: Bishop's views mean he should decline job

IT may surprise readers of The Yorkshire Post that I agree with most of what the Archbishop of York wrote in Saturday's edition. Philip North, the Bishop of Burnley, is a fine person.
Philip North's appintment as the new Bishop of Sheffield has divided the Church.Philip North's appintment as the new Bishop of Sheffield has divided the Church.
Philip North's appintment as the new Bishop of Sheffield has divided the Church.

But he should decline to be the next Bishop of Sheffield, and here is why. He cannot, in his conscience recognise, value and affirm the sacramental integrity of one third of his clergy.

Such a position has no integrity. He will be the cause of division, and cannot bring unity. His views on women clergy mean that he is an instrument of partition and pain. He cannot bring healing.

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On the one hand, Bishop Philip says he is committed to women in leadership. But on the other hand, he clearly believes that these same women – his own clergy – are not true priests. And so he undermines them. His apparent affirmation does not compensate for his subversion.

My essay in Modern Church did not call for Bishop North to resign. It asked him to either fully and unequivocally affirm all his clergy – and so distance himself from the position of the Society he helps to lead. And if he can’t or won’t do this, he is not the right person to lead and unite the Diocese of Sheffield. Simple.

Philip North’s commitment to a society that does not accept female clergy as true, full and equal alongside male clergy is a form of gender-based discrimination. It has no other name.

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He is part of a catholic society that believes only men can truly be priests and bishops. What leadership roles, exactly, are left for the women, in a church run by such men?

At this, there have been some howls of protest from conservative catholic groups in the Church of England. The logic is very odd. Namely, they should be allowed to be intolerant of women. But it is apparently intolerant of me to object to this. I would simply argue that tolerating intolerance is not an especially virtuous practice!

To try and appease those who objected to women priests and women bishops, the Church of England adopted the (so-called) ‘Five Guiding Principles’ to help maintain unity.

The first principle is crucial. It states “the Church of England is fully and unequivocally committed to all orders of ministry being open equally to all, without reference to gender, and holds that those whom it has duly ordained and appointed to office are true and lawful holders of the office which they occupy and thus deserve due respect and canonical obedience”.

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Let us dwell on those words: ‘fully’, ‘unequivocally’, ‘equally open to all’ and ‘without reference to gender’. That those so ordained are ‘true’ and ‘lawful’. True means true. Not half true. The Society that Philip North belongs to does not believe one third of his clergy are ‘true’ clergy. (But he does admit they are ‘lawfully’ ordained).

The faithfulness of the church, and its public witness, is neither affirmed nor rewarded by finding some fudged middle ground between sexism and equality. Any more than it is between racism and impartiality, or any kind of exclusion based on a person’s identity, and their inclusion.

The Five Guiding Principles seek a middle-way between inclusion and exclusion. They are muddled. We would not tolerate, quite rightly, a post-apartheid South Africa that still gave honoured places in government to those who held racially-segregationist views.

I know that Bishop Philip North is a loyal Anglican. But his appointment does not represent a triumph for a broad church that can now showcase its diversity, and a capacity to live with differences and disagreements.

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It sends a completely different message to the world. Namely, that we tolerate exclusion and discrimination at the highest levels. And that our Church leaders support such discrimination, in the name of inclusion and ‘mutual flourishing’.

The Church of England has to find better ways forward with its complex balancing act: between managed diversity and integrated unity. We cannot be seen, as a public and national church, to be sanctioning and sacralising such sexism.

Philip North’s appointment to the See of Sheffield, whilst he is still a card-carrying member of a group that doesn’t believe women can be ‘truly’ clergy, is not a step forward for the church. It’s a step backwards into dense fog, and greater darkness.

The Very Reverend Professor Martyn Percy is the Dean of Christ Church, Oxford. He worked in Sheffield Diocese from 1997-2004.