Philip North, Suffragan bishop in the diocese of Blackburn in the Church of England, was appointed to be the next bishop diocesan in Sheffield. However, North belongs to “the Society,” a group formed and controlled by the conservative Forward in Faith, which does not accept the ordination of women;
“As bishops, it is our duty to offer those committed to our charge sacramental assurance that when they receive communion in one of our parishes they do indeed receive Christ’s body and blood, and to follow the safest course where the sacraments are concerned. We can therefore only commend the sacramental ministry of male priests who have been ordained by a validly ordained bishop (that is, a male bishop who stands in the historic apostolic succession of bishops at whose episcopal ordination a male bishop presided).”
Writing at Modern Church, Linda Woodhead draws attention to, perhaps, the most important aspect of this controversy – that traditionalists have been unable to answer, theologically, the challenge of how someone who holds to their opposition to women’s ordination can possibly share in ministry with ordained women.
“On Friday 24th February Martyn Percy wrote an article questioning the nomination of Philip North, Bishop of Blackburn, to the see of Sheffield.
How, he asked, could someone who believed that women clergy and those ordained by them were not real clergy serve as bishop in a ‘woman-friendly’ diocese where women make up a third of the clergy? You could do one or the other but not both.
In the debate that has unfolded on social media since then, no-one has answered this challenge – not even Philip North himself. The evasions reveal a Church in retreat from serious theological reflection.”
Instead, as she points out, the defenses of North have been rooted in secular ideas of equality and not in any credible theological framework.
“The most credible defence of North’s appointment isn’t a theological one but a secular one: the liberal principle which says that people should be free to hold whatever view they like so long as no-one is harmed.”
But such defenses of his appointment raise important theological questions (unanswered by his defenders), which critics of the North appointment pointed out.
“People asked how North could claim to be in communion with the third his clergy who are women and how he could sponsor women for ordination training to a ministry which, however much he might like and affirm the individuals, he doesn’t actually regard as ordination to a ministry of sacrament. And Jeremy Pemberton asked how he could be a pastor to his whole diocese when he would have to appoint clergy to parishes to dispense sacraments when he has no confidence that they are real sacraments. No answers have been given.
So the theological, moral and pastoral challenges keep popping back up however much North and his supporters try to beat them down. The reason is simple. Those in power in the Church of England decided to ordain women not because they had a late-onset conversion to feminism, nor because they were forced to do so, but because they conceded the theological argument. As Archbishop William Temple had admitted over half a century before:
‘if we could find any shadow of theological ground for the non-ordination of women I should be immensely comforted, but such arguments as I have heard on that line seem quite desperately futile.’”
The theological work of the past generation has shown that the celebrant at Eucharist is a representative of Jesus’s humanity and not his masculinity and that church history may not have accurately conveyed the whole truth about the role of women in the earliest church.
“The irony which the Philip North controversy has exposed is that it is the so-called liberals who are the ones clinging to orthodoxy and tradition, and the so-called traditionalists who are appealing to liberal principles of freedom, toleration, and equal respect. Lacking a strong theological basis for their position, the defenders of North are behaving like relativists who believe their position must be upheld not because it is true but just because it is their identity.”