When I told people I was going to be ordained by a bishop who was a woman, I was surprised by the response. We need to call each other out on unholy behaviour or dodgy theologies which make those sorts of responses worse.
Since the appointment of Philip North, Bishop of Burnley, to the see of Sheffield, there has been an uproar on social media. Lots of people seem angry.
Since the Church of England began to consecrate women as bishops, guidelines called The Five Guiding Principles (available here) have attempted to achieve “mutual flourishing” of all in the Church, whether or not they can accept in good conscience the ministry of women. But this has not please all. The campaigning group Women and the Church released a statement which comments on the ongoing systematic discrimination against women in the Church, asking: “Who is concerned for the flourishing of women clergy?” Commentators on social media have argued that “mutual flourishing” only exists to protect traditionalists, and leaves women in ministry in the lurch.
The row reached a low point in an unfortunate guardian article reporting the views of Martyn Percy, the dean of Christ Church, Oxford, which quoted him as saying: “The public will neither comprehend nor welcome this rather fogeyish sacralised sexism of the religious organisation – known simply as the Society – and that Bishop Philip leads.” The Society is one organisation of those who do not accept the ordination of women.
Has “mutual flourishing” broken down? The sometimes uncomfortable rhetoric of liberal commentators and the experience of women in ministry might suggest so.
But the trajectory of “mutual flourishing” for the future of the Church is a deeper question than a matter simply of who is in the papers today.
Much of the criticism of the Society from progressive quarters has argued that its members have a theology of “taint” – that is that those who accept women’s ministry, especially bishops who ordain women, are tainted and so members of The Society will refrain from receiving sacraments from them. There are accusations that this is a form of donatism (not without some substance, in my view) and that such a view is inconsistent with an acceptance of Anglican Orders.
But The Society’s leadership has consistently rejected “any so-called “theology of taint”” , so does that mean that the charge doesn’t stick?
The experience of a man from a woman bishop’s rib
I am a man, a cis-gendered man, so in some respects I feel unjustified in writing a blog post on this subject. But, thanks be to God, I am due to be ordained this June by the Bishop of Newcastle…. who is the Rt Revd Christine Hardman.
I was not always due to be ordained in Newcastle. I came from a diocese with a man as bishop. But when Bishop Christine offered me a curacy with an interesting and exciting vicar in her diocese, and when I heard of her growing reputation as an effective and creative Bishop, I was glad to accept.
But not all my friends were as glad as I.
“I’ve got a curacy,” I told one, “in Newcastle Diocese.” “Ah, who’s the Bishop there?” came the response. “Christine Hardman, formerly archdeacon in Southwark.” “Hmmm.”
I’ve got very used to that Hmmm.
It is a response which more men in the Church will begin to experience as the first generations of men to be ordained by women emerge from more diocesan cathedrals. It is a response of disappointment, and often of confusion too.
People don’t know how to respond. On the one hand, they like that a young man straight out of university is going to serve in the Church. But on the other, they don’t like the fact that he is due to be ordained by a woman.
What happens next is often interesting.
It is interesting, I think, because although the theological reasoning may be the same as if they were talking to a woman who had announced she was being ordained, there is a category error: I am theologically in a position which they have generally only encountered as inhabited by women; and yet I am a man, so the social rules of discourse seem strangely altered.
Sometimes people feel they can say things to me that they wouldn’t need or wouldn’t be able to say to a woman directly, or at least I hope they wouldn’t. Here is a selection:
- “Couldn’t you be ordained by a suffragan bishop who was a man? That would get around the problem.” At no point had I thought of Bishop Christine as a problem.
- “Why are you throwing away a ministry with such potential?” I guess, unless one is ordained by a man in pure male succession, one can be of no service to Christ’s church.
- “Well, of course, at least you’re not a woman yourself. That would be really difficult.” I really don’t know how to respond to that, even with hindsight.
What was especially interesting was when, with some young members of The Society and ordinands who aspire to membership of The Society, I have posited the hypothetical possibility of being ordained deacon by the male suffragan in the Diocese, the Rt Revd Mark Tanner, Bishop of Berwick.
“Oh no, there were women at his consecration. He’s not validly ordained, not a real bishop… The communion is fractured. You’d need to find a Society Bishop to do it. Otherwise you wouldn’t be ordained.”
Now this was interesting.
A male bishop, consecrated bishop by men, with women bishops present, would not be able to ordain me validly. That was textbook theology of taint. From the mouths of young members of The Society.
And on another level, women training for ordination and those experienced in ministry are probably used to a certain level of unpleasantness, receiving the cold shoulder if not often direct misogyny. But young men like me are not. It is shocking to hear and receive so openly from fellow Christians. They can’t call me “that bloody woman”, but the frosty chill in the atmosphere doesn’t take the greatest empathy to detect.
Mutual flourishing means respect
Mutual flourishing is a great challenge to the Church. If we learn to do it well it could be a remarkable model for how the Church could preach the Gospel in our increasingly divided society. It could be a model for how Churches riven by schism could come together in something stronger than the mere ecumenism of the last fifteen years.
But mutual flourishing needs to be mutual.
The charge that mutual flourishing is only one way does not follow through in every case. But it does seem the experience of some of us on the ground that a theology of taint is alive and kicking amongst those opposed to women’s ordination.
Liberals have behaved appaulingly at times, our campaigning tipping over the Christian boundary from striving for the Gospel into defamation and disrespect. We must do better. And our bishops must call us out on this when we get it wrong.
But conservatives must acknowledge that bad behaviour, disrespect and bad theology are not limited to liberals. And The Society bishops rightly condemn theologies of taint, but it doesn’t seem that all of its members are listening.
The work of reconciliation between conservatives and progressives cannot come to fruition until the leaders within both groups begin to call out campaigners and those in the ranks when they behave inappropriately. Mutual flourishing means respect, and an honouring of the other, even when you can’t share an altar.
I look forward to ministering alongside those who hold very different views from me, as I have enjoyed training alongside them. And I pray that as we say mass, at our different altars, in different churches, in different “societies”, our sacrifice of praise may join with those of our brethren in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, and with the saints and angels in heaven.
And if I pray this sincerely, I may get angry, I may slip up, but I will try not to defame them, try not to scoff, and I shall certainly try not to exclude them.