Oxford theologian invites bishop-designate of Sheffield to decline nomination

Martyn Percy calls upon Bishop Philip North to decline appointment to Sheffield

The Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, has invited the Bishop-designate of Sheffield, the Rt Revd Philip North, to decline his nomination to the See because of his opposition to women’s ordination. 

The Very Revd Prof Martyn Percy has made a case against the elevation of the Rt Revd Philip North, the Bishop of Burnley, in an article published on the website of Modern Church, a society promoting liberal Christianity, of which Prof Percy is a Vice President.

Professor Percy argues in the article ‘Questions of Ambiguity and Integrity?’ that the logic of Bishop North’s theological position makes it impossible for him to affirm and receive the ordained ministry of all his female clergy. Moreover, the same would apply to any male ordained by a female bishop. Women account for around one-third of the clergy of Sheffield diocese.

Commenting on this, Martyn Percy observes that:

the ratio of male clergy to female clergy in Sheffield Diocese is 2:1. In a Diocese like Chichester it is more like 10:1. A non-ordaining Bishop in Sheffield Diocese is a serious matter for the female clergy, who are present in very large numbers. This will feel like a step backwards for many parishes and clergy, as the full acceptance of women clergy was patiently established under the ministry of Bishop David Lunn, who had begun his episcopacy as a leading opponent of the ordination of women. His acceptance of women clergy is a defining moment in the life of the Diocese. The Crown Nominations Commission has shown a marked insensitivity to this history in nominating Bishop North to the See of Sheffield. The initiatives that were developed to accommodate conscientious objectors in the Church of England were simply not designed to be implemented against Dioceses such as Sheffield.

Sheffield, as a City and Diocese, has a proud record in relation to issues of justice and equality. Percy believes the inevitable inequality that would be introduced through Bishop North accepting the nomination to the See would have profound and disturbing ramifications for the public witness of the church in the region, and for the pastoral oversight of its female clergy across the Diocese. He adds:

Sheffield is a go-ahead, vibrant, progressive city, with cutting-edge universities and research-led industries.  It is thoroughly modern.  The public will neither comprehend nor welcome this rather fogeyish sacralised sexism of the religious organisation known simply as ‘The Society’, whose Council of Bishops includes Bishop Philip North.

Percy is particularly concerned with a proposal from The Society to issue ‘identity cards’ to the priests of his organisation in the near future, in order to guarantee their sacramental purity. This proposal would, in effect, says Professor Percy, amount to clergy listing their ‘(male) ontological genealogy’:

…travel forward, if you will, a century from now. Those identity cards… will need to show that the bishop who ordained you, was, in turn, ordained by someone pure and efficacious, and in turn, was ordained likewise – stretching all the way back to our present time.

The proposal endorses clergy having to demonstrate an unbroken chain of ‘ontological purity’, via a ‘taint free’ litany of bishops. Percy writes:

As bishops turn over every ten years or so, the genealogy will eventually be longer than the one we have for Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew.

He added that he

could not envisage a diocesan bishop functioning well who is also an ambassador for gender-based discrimination, and an advocate of inequality.  The women clergy are already in a state of grief about the appointment, moving through the early phases of shock, anger and denial.  But bargaining and acceptance are unlikely to be options. Their situation is profoundly unjust.

Professor Percy’s article discusses the principle of integrity – a key issue enshrined in the Church of England’s attempts to find a way forward, together, for groups holding irreconcilable positions within the church (The Five Guiding Principle of the House of Bishops’ Declaration on the Ministry of Bishops and Priests June 2014, which are not enshrined in law.

Professor Percy calls upon Bishop North to clarify his position on women clergy, and men ordained by female bishops. He says the issues cannot be ‘fudged’ through an over-investment in ambiguity, as ‘fudging’ lacks integrity, and ambiguity destroys authority:

if these differences can’t be resolved, then the virtue and practice of integrity suggests some new paths: acquiescence or withdrawal. Either the bishop has to step aside and step down from exercising episcopal ministry at this level and in this context, or the men and women have to resign, as their own bishop does not recognise and affirm their sacramental efficacy.

Professor Percy adds:

Bishops have a paternal and maternal relationship to their clergy and parishes.  As a ‘Father in God’, Bishop North needs to be able to give his unequivocal support and affirmation to his male and female clergy alike. It can’t be a partial and conditional affirmation, based on gender.  You can’t have a pastoral situation in which the Bishop effectively says to his clergy ‘I will love, support and affirm you all; but not all of you equally’. Such a statement would amount to the most awful parenting. In more Patriarchal terms, Bishop North’s stance on women is of a similar sort to the discrimination that Abraham showed to Isaac and Ishmael in the book of Genesis. Bishop North’s stance imputes ‘doubtful parentage’ on his women clergy – that their ‘ontological heritage’ is invalid.

Professor Percy continues,

Such a witness would lead to a dysfunctional episcopacy and an unhappy Diocese. Family breakdown will be inevitable. This cannot lead to ‘mutual flourishing’. Bishop North’s appointment would represent the toleration of gender-based sectarianism, and will ultimately cause significant pastoral and public damage to the church.

Professor Percy concludes, that

the Church of England has always embraced a wide range of beliefs and practices. But it has begun to discover in debates on sexuality, and on gender, that if you truly want to be one church, you can only ultimately afford one integrity.
First printed at the Modern Church

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