by the Revd Dr Hayley Matthews, Director of Lay Training, Diocese of Leeds
The announcement didn’t register on my own personal richter scale. I’d heard only good things about the Rt Rev’d Philip North, and had been particularly pleased to see somebody shining a spotlight on the plight of the marginalised working classes. Well done that man. Consequently, the storm that followed the announcement of his appointment to become a Diocesan Bishop took me by surprise. As a woman who has felt rejection almost constantly through near on fifty odd years in the church (so much so that it is still a small delight to be warmly welcomed wholesale anywhere), I was suddenly faced squarely with an image of what it is to be me, or any other woman, or BAME or differently abled or identifying as LGBT within the church played out within the incarnation of ‘the norm’ or ‘the privileged’ .
It was interesting to see the way that different parties handled it; the press, the clergy, the public, the laity, various interest groups. For this was a new thing. Let’s face it we’re rather used to Jeffrey John being hung out to dry again, and we recount the passive aggressive, duplicitous and disingenuous forms of bullying that take place towards LGBT and female clergy almost as a given, sharing our sorrows with one another as if it were just another part of the cross that we bear.
It was also interesting to note Philip’s (if I may) reactions:
- He felt personally wounded and was surprised at how hard this hit him.
- He withdrew from public life, albeit time limited.
- He questioned his vocation
- He questioned his place in the church
These are everyday ‘norms’ for those clergy carrying a minority status. The continual cost of being publicly scorned, written viciously to, put down and theologically battered with another’s opinion nearly always plays out in both the physical and mental health of a person, however resilient they are. Needing to find a safe space to get back to oneself and find God amidst the pain of denigration and rejection; hating being a focal point for such anger and hatred that one is taken aback by the force of it. Wondering if the God who calls us means for us to be on this road, or whether we have run ahead or gone off piste. Wondering how we move ahead and find our place in an organisation that invests heavily in us on the one hand, and then threatens to chew us up and spit us out on the other.
I’ll be honest, my heart went out to him because he was clearly hit like a freight train by the reaction to his appointment, and only those of us who are relentlessly subjected to that can understand just how much it shakes the very foundation of all that one is called to be and to do as a priest in the Church of England, and of how much courage and strength it takes to dust oneself off, gird up one’s loins, lift one’s chin and head back into the fray. It is costly.
Equally, I’m very glad that the Bishop had this experience. It is one thing to theologically dispute an integrity, but it is quite another to live out the consequences of our theology. Ironically, through his own theological convictions, the Bishop experienced first-hand the consequences for others of those very same convictions.
For some people those convictions are multi-layered and some clergy face exclusion on more than one identity issue. Women particularly tend to find that there is a cumulative impact of owning more than one ‘label’ (intersectionality). For example, a woman is discriminated against for being female owing to theological or even socio-political economic biases. Add to that that she is bisexual, for example, which immediately ‘doubles’ her minority status adding to the exclusion she is experiencing. This can take the form of a wider cohort of people agin her, or those that already are finding more grist for their mill. Add to that her motherhood, for example, a well-documented form of discrimination faced by professional women the world over, and however gifted, hardworking or however ‘good a fit’ the person might be for her role, she is likely to face unprecedented levels of discrimination, both overt and insidious.
Men, on the other hand, according to research participants, tend to find that their ‘maleness’ ameliorated any other minority status’. For example, in contrast to women clergy, male clergy who had children were “cooed over” as being twice as worthy of admiration. Gay male clergy tend to find that there are cohorts of like-minded clergy that they can affiliate to as men, which is not afforded to women. And of course, there is the obvious point that you can always hide being gay, but you can’t hide being female.
What is it going to take to enable us all to mutually flourish? For Jeffrey John finally to be consecrated bishop? For The Rt Rev’d Philip North to set out how he intends to lead a diocese of female and male priests whilst holding to his integrity? For women and BAME and LGBT and differently-abled priests to be able to be themselves without fearing reprisals or relentless vexatious complainants? For all to continually grow into the vocation that God called their unique personhood into?
Perhaps we have been missing the point by trying to squeeze the ordained (or the laity for that matter) into restrictive identities that are at times nothing more than antiquated follies that look rather wonderful but are really without substance. There’s no point having pomegranates embroidered around the hem of your garment if you’re only wearing it to hide who you really are. Perhaps the point is, that God deliberately calls individuals from many and varied identities and people groups in order that we might learn that God is only and ever consumed with where a person’s heart is, before God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
 The Revd Dr Hayley Matthews has conducted in-depth research into this matter, which is currently being written up for publishing
 Moses is given meticulous detail over the priestly garments to be worn as Aaron and his brothers are prepared to become the first priests for Israel. See Exodus 28:33-35 ref the pomegranates. The whole chapter is dedicated to ‘The Priestly Garments’ and makes for interesting reading.