Questions raised by Philip North’s appointment not going away anytime soon

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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.”

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5 Responses to "Questions raised by Philip North’s appointment not going away anytime soon"
  1. The recent controversy appears to demonstrate that the Five Guiding Principles are internally contradictory and hence largely not worth the paper they're written on, in terms of how the church will behave within its own internal structures. How this will ultimately work out remains to be seen, but at least with an established church such guarantees provide for at least the possibility of some sort of due process for those who feel that they are not being treated fairly in accordance with the Principles.

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  2. I do believe that the "argument" that:
    "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"
    is a bit misguided for 2 reasons.

    1) An "argument" by definition consists of at least two premises and one conclusion drawn validly from those premises. The soundness is then what is debated. But Anglican clergy are no longer required to take logic or philosophy, and it has shown in the numerous invalid arguments, or lack of argumentation at all, in the 20th c. I haven't be able to, for the life of me, to find a single argument amidst the 20th c. "theologians" that doesn't merely assert rather than argue. The assertion

    2) The assertion that the representative is of Jesus' humanity and not his masculinity conflates gender and sex, the former a social construct the latter a biological reality rooted in genetics and biology.

    3) To only appeal to humanity and not gender NOR sex is simply Gnosticism. If the sacrifice given for the sins of the world requires no genes nor physical aspect rooted in biology nor anthropology, then we simply cannot hold that a body on the cross could have ever saved us. If we can change the material element (here I'm thinking of sex, not gender) of a sacrament, then we're saying "matter does not matter," which is against The Doctrine of The Incarnation. All sacraments then fall, and we holding up said principle no longer have a reason against using oreos and milk for "eucharist" nor soda for baptism, or any such activity, as is somewhat popular in the "pastoral" sections of students and faculty in protestant seminaries and divinity schools. This Gnosticism means there is no salvation and Christ therefore couldn't have saved us on the cross. At this point we implicitly accept a logic that teaches us, and our children (who pick up on this faster than we do), that "Church" is a waste of time.

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    • While you may understand this (the this I am referring to is the first sentence of your third point) as Gnosticism, the Council of Ephesus did not appeal to the humanity of Jesus on either his gender or sex. Rather they defined his humanity in terms of his suffering. So unless you are saying that the Council of Ephesus is guilty of Gnosticism, I would put forth that one can appeal to the humanity of Jesus without referring to his sex or gender.

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    • You make the specious, illogical argument that being male versus female is some defining and\or disqualifying characteristic in becoming priests (as well as being God Incarnate). That’s sort of like saying 100 years ago only sons can become doctors and not daughters. Why? Well because I don’t see any female doctors, do you? That type of “argument” thankfully doesn’t fly anymore. The reason we didn’t have female doctors in the past wasn’t because there was some genetic difference between men and women that disqualified women from becoming doctors. It was simply because of a systematic denial of women being admitted to medical school based on fallacious assumptions and ignorance. I do not see a good explanation of exactly why women cannot be priests – I just hear the assertion that they can’t because that’s the way it should be. I think you are dangerously and perhaps unwittingly close with your talk of Gnosticism to implying male equals the fullest expression of humanity and female does not. The priesthood in the Episcopal Church is all the better because women aren’t denied simply because they are women. The quality of our priesthood is immensely better because this artificial restriction has been removed. The Roman Catholic Church could immediately improve its quality of priests if it would join us in the 21st century.

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  3. Mr Tipton:
    The Doctrine of the Incarnation is that the Word became flesh, a human being. God created human beings male and female in the image of God.
    Therefore the essense of the incarnation is not sex or gender, but humanity.

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