by the Revd Charlotte Bannister-Parker, University Church of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford
I would like to thank Bishop Stephen Cottrell for his Presidential Address to the Chelmsford Diocesan Synod on 11th March 2017.
It was beautifully written, considered and a very clear working out of his current position in regards to LGBTI inclusion within the Church of England. Its timing couldn’t have been better as we look to move forward from General Synod’s reflection of the House of Bishop’s report on Marriage and Same Sex Relationships following the Shared Conversations (GS 2055).
What I found interesting in this address was that he also referred to the situation surrounding the Bishop of Burnley, the Rt. Rev. Philip North’s appointment to the See of Sheffield.
They are of course very different theological and pastoral topics but they do share two common factors. First, the need to learn how to carry out “good disagreement”, which in the case of Philip North means how we regard and uphold the “5 Guiding Principles”. Second, that further work needs to be done by the Bishops to explain the impact of these issues on the life of the Church of England and its ministry. For instance how, in practical terms, would those who hold very different understandings of Anglicanism truly be able to “mutually flourish” under such principles? What would that actually look like when played out, on the ground, in our churches and ministry.
So, on the one hand the Church is trying to work out how it can treasure and preserve the traditionally catholic position on the historic apostolic succession so that those who value it can have confidence of sacramental assurance. And on the other we have the difficult and potentially deeply divisive issue of LGBTI inclusion, where one is looking at how the Church of England might take (as Bishop Stephen Cottrell recently declared) “small steps forward”.
In these two different issues there are two different aims: one is the preservation of the old, the other is the forging of the new.
With regards to LGBTI inclusion many have embarked on enormous amounts of research, theological reflection, reading and prayer to understand why, like the Bishop of Chelmsford, we believe it is time now for the Church of England to consider the creation of (at minimum) a service of Prayers of Thanksgiving for same sex partners. Whilst we understand that a change to the Canons on marriage is not possible at this stage, many of us would support the careful introduction of a pastoral liturgy for blessing of gay couples in committed partnerships. Through careful deliberation of scripture, tradition and reason on issues of human sexuality we might then begin to truly honour Archbishop Justin Welby’s call for a theology of “radical new Christian inclusion”.
However, in relation to the second issue I must admit that as a woman priest the appointment of Bishop North came as somewhat of a surprise. The key issue for me was his transition from a Suffragan to a Diocesan Bishop, and what that then meant for my understanding of the legitimacy of the priesthood of women in Sheffield.
Let us be clear that all personal negative comments about him as a priest must be condemned. Whilst I have not met Bishop North, it is obvious from all the letters of support – as well as from the testimony of his colleagues from Sunderland, Hartlepool, London and Burnley – that he is a remarkable minster and Bishop, with dynamic leadership qualities and a great advocacy for the poor and marginalised.
The reason for my concern comes from the fact that my understanding of the role of a Diocesan Bishop is that they represent a “focus of unity” and act as a “Father of God” to all clergy who take a vow of canonical obedience to them. The Bishop is therefore surely the person through whom the sharing in the apostolic ministry of Christ is continued and the guarantee that the Church in this time and place is in continuity and communion with the Church in every time and place.
I deeply admire Bishop Cottrell and I was delighted to hear that he was on the Crown Nominating Committee for Bishop North, and have no doubt what so ever that hours of prayer, consideration and reflection on exactly this issue went into that nomination consideration. But when one reads the “Statement of Policy and Pastoral Guidance” by the Council of The Bishop of The Society, of which Bishop North is a member, it does become somewhat confusing. I quote:
“As bishops of The Society, it is our duty to offer those committed to our charge such sacramental assurance and, where the sacraments are concerned, always to follow the safest course. We can therefore only commend the sacramental ministry of male priests who have been ordained by a male bishop who stands in the historic apostolic succession of bishops at whose episcopal ordination a male bishop presided”.
While I am delighted to read that in (2.6) the bishops of the Society “reject any so-called ‘theology of taint’ whereby a bishop who ordains women to the episcopate or the priesthood thereby invalidates his own orders and renders invalid the orders of those whom he subsequently ordains”, I did find this following statement difficult to understand in light of Bishop North’s appointment. The bishops of The Society say that “to be unable to affirm the sacramental validity of the orders of some who are ordained in the Church of England is not necessarily to deny the efficacy of their ministry”.
So, if Bishop Cottrell supported the nomination of Bishop North to the See of Sheffield he must have a much greater understanding than I of how Bishop North can on the one hand not affirm the sacramental validity of women priests while on the other not deny the efficacy of their ministry either.
Jeremy Pemberton in his recent blog “On infidelity, broken promises and hounding: why Elaine Storkey is wrong” puts this very well:
“They (members of the Society) do not have confidence that a woman’s blessing is a blessing, or that a woman’s absolution is an absolution, that a Eucharist presided over by a woman is a Eucharist, and that a person ordained by a woman is truly ordained to the order of priest or bishop….. How can he (then) sponsor people for ordination training to a ministry which, however much he might like and affirm the individuals, he does not actually think is ordination to a ministry of sacrament?”
Given this clear dichotomy I believe that the impact of North’s theological position – its actual working-out in churches – should have been clearly addressed ahead of the announcement of his nomination, so that all women priests who were at risk of feeling that their ministry was going be regarded as redundant could instead have understood how they might also flourish and be fully acknowledged. Maybe then we could have avoided the outcome of this terrible episode which has been deeply unfortunate and very sad for all. Then and only then can we understand the true concept of ‘mutual flourishing’ and move forward on these issues – finding ways of living together with our “good disagreements” and not letting them drive us apart.
The recent moving letter from the retiring Bishop of Bradwell regarding LGBTI inclusion challenges us directly on this:
“There are very differing views on this within the Church of England and across the Anglican Communion, but there is much more we hold in common. Unity in Christ is a fact, a command, a promise; not simply something we can opt in and out of as we pick and choose. We need to live with our differences, not simply listening to those who see differently but offering true attentiveness. That was the value of the Shared Conversations, but not clearly reflected in the Report from the House of Bishops as reflected in the Synod Vote.”
The issues of sacramental assurance and the provision for those priests who in good conscience wish to acknowledge same-sex partnerships are two totally different doctrinal and theological concerns. However, how the Church should move forward on them is the same. We must use the language of clarity, honesty, graciousness and consideration that reflects our priestly roles as Christ’s advocates on earth. Furthermore, we cannot move forward as a Church without considering how we deal with these internal debates that impact directly on our image, voice and mission potential in the wider world.