Can the Church of England still afford nuance or ambiguity? Some final thoughts on Sir Philip Mawer's Sheffield review

Can the church still afford nuance or ambiguity? And should it?Sara Santandrea/Unsplash

What exactly is the difference between nuance and ambiguity? To the vast majority of the population, it is not much. But closer inspection suggests some pronounced dissimilarity. Nuance is enunciating a subtle difference, or a fine distinction in expression, meaning, response and refinement. Indeed, the very word 'nuance' derives from the Latin word for 'cloud', carrying intonations of light, shade, subtle tone and mystery. Ambiguity, on the other hand, is about doubtfulness and uncertainty. It is the realm of the equivocal and indefinite.

In W.S.F. Pickering's masterful Anglo-catholicism: A Study in Religious Ambiguity (1989), Pickering's takes his sociological lens – formed by his reading of Durkheim – and sets about telling the story of the Anglo-catholics. The concept of ambiguity is the central theme of the book and the reader is left in little doubt that as an expression of Christianity, Anglo-catholicism has (what I would term) 'sacralised ambiguity'. Are Anglo-catholic orders recognised by Roman Catholics? It is ambiguous. Do they preach the doctrine of the Real Presence at the Eucharist? It is ambiguous. Actually, it is all about ambiguity.

However, in Sir Philip Mawer's Review of the Nomination to the See of Sheffield he refers to the position of some Anglo-catholics as a matter of 'nuance'. Specifically, he cites the willingness of some Anglo-catholics to treat women clergy as (legal) 'office holders' on the one hand, but not as 'sacramentally efficacious' on the other hand, as a kind of refined distinction. But this is, of course, ambiguity: doubt, uncertainty – and probably denial.

Pickering was one of the first to point out that the advent of modernity spelt trouble for Anglo-catholics. Whether it was on gender, ecumenism or sexuality, the rapid move to transparency and clarity tends to blow away the clouds of nuance, and it leaves little space for ambiguity. Movements – whether political, social or religious – are forced to choose. Moreover, choose in public, and in the glaring light of media and social media attention. Pickering pointed out that the old tactic of deferring difficult decisions to the aesthetic and to ritualism was unlikely to prevail. It was a prescient prediction.

Hitherto, sacralised ambiguity served a complex purpose in Anglo-catholicism, focussed in the function of conflation. First, Anglo-Catholics hold that God is mystery, and can only be witnessed to through signs and symbols – which are inherently open-ended and to some extent opaque. Aesthetics – signs, sounds, touch, and taste – play a vital role in this. Second, the primary agents of this reification – but note, not its translation or clarification – are faithful priests. And to some extent, they must be part of the ecology of mystery to which they point to. Third, and it its best, this leads to dense, rich encounters with the divine through a kind of structured equivocality and abstruseness. Clarity is set aside in place of mystery; opacity is preferred to certainty. This is essentially what set Anglo-catholicism apart from more propositional expressions of Christianity (e.g., Evangelical) – those that downplayed ritual, art and Theo-drama, and instead focussed solely on correct beliefs.

At its worst, however, Anglo-catholic ecologies revelled in low-level ambiguity. And this served little purpose, other than a hope. Namely, that by the faithful continuing to invest in unresolvedness, the priest-caste might still remain in its pivotal place and privilege, and followers retain their identity and rationale. That is undone, however, by our more contemporary culture's fondness for greater openness. This is arguably most apparent in arenas of sexuality. In the past, discretion in certain areas might have seen wise, and arguably valued. Nowadays, clarity and frank openness is preferred by most in society, and closeted discretion probably treated with a slight degree of suspicion.

Equally, the claim that the worship is 'Catholic' – and carefully leaving aside the prefix 'Anglo-' in the hope that the Eucharistic mimesis will somehow be elided with 'Roman' in the eyes of the participants – began to dissolve several decades ago. Seasoned worshippers know the difference between an Anglo-Catholic and a Roman Catholic Church, Priest and Eucharist. They will know that despite appearances to the contrary, these two are not interchangeable.
Sacralised ambiguity becomes the inevitable victim in this. I say this, fully conscious of an underlying theological and spiritual reality. That in the Eucharistic mimesis of Anglo-catholic worship, the priest is almost bound to become, in some sense, the misunderstood victim. There is an aspect of Christ's biography being acted out here.
However, one should note that this is a kind of pathology, and not a divinely-scripted reality for clergy. 

Christ is the tortured victim and sacrifice, not the priest: Dali's Christ of Saint John of the CrossGlasgow City Council

Christ is the tortured victim and sacrifice, not the priest who proclaims or tries to embody Christ. To confuse the two is to conflate them. Moreover, Jesus' ministry, rooted in the politics of the Kingdom of God and in his championing of victims – women, the sick, gentiles and the despised – suggests that he is not merely recruiting fellow victims, but rather preaching and proclaiming God's unequivocal love and liberation to those who are oppressed, victimised and marginalised.

One of Michel Foucault's (1926-1984) great contributions to modern philosophy was to see the connections between language, power and identity. Foucault argued that languages were distinctive cultures, and that this structured meaning, and patterned our experience of reality. Social constructions of reality meant that power works through knowledge; and to a large extent language underpins this. The capillaries of our social bodies are controlled, constrained and constructed by the language we use – in effect, Foucault's concept of discourse. That is to say, language organises our external and internal worlds. It 'frames' our values, meaning and identities.

There is a real sense in which the debate over the debacle in the See of Sheffield, and the subsequent report by Sir Philip Mawer, represent a clash of languages and cultures. It is not a binary clash, either. There are several conflictual cultures at work buffering up against one another. Conservative Catholics; accommodating liberals who want to make concessions to conservatives; campaigning liberals who don't want to make concessions; gender binaries and dialects; progressives and traditionalists; theologians and those representing party interests; and then an institutional culture that can't resolve the disputes, so resorts to the language of arbitration, but refuses to make a judgement on the theological merits of cases involved in the disputes.

Like a true arbitrator, Philip Mawer attempted to treat all the theologies in play as equals (and lapsing only occasionally into erroneous value judgments such as 'nuance'). He was, after all, the designated officer chosen by the Church of England to decide on the 'Sheffield See' dispute, and try and settle key differences between parties. He stuck to the facts, and carefully avoided taking sides. But he writes as an insider, not an outsider. So his 'independence' is to some extent tainted by the very culture he tries to reason with.

But there is a difference between an 'independent' Report, and one that emerges out of a culture of internal arbitration and is penned by an insider. We can see this distinction of perspective if we look at the recent independent report by Dame Moira Gibb on the sexual abuse perpetrated by Bishop Peter Ball. Here, we encounter the robust review of an outsider, offering an eviscerating critique. As a social-worker (and I suspect as a woman too), she is able to say some penetrating and prescient things to the Church about its attitudes and behaviours in respect of safeguarding and sexuality. Mawer's review does not have that kind of independence of mind. Thus, subjects such as institutional sexism are not even raised, let along tackled. Mawer's 'balancing' of women in the Church with the convictions of a small dissenting minority points to a work of internal arbitration, not an 'independent review'.

This leads to the present problem, namely the Church of England's inability to distinguish between quality and efficacy in competing theological convictions and beliefs, which leads to some unfortunate ecclesial compromises. Thus, despite having a General Synod that votes on issues – not just on the basis of personal preferences, but also on the basis of the quality of theological arguments that convict and persuade – the actual decisiveness of such processes are robbed of their power by supplementary concessions.

This is unusual, slightly specious, and somewhat un-Catholic behaviour on the part of the Church of England. All the great Councils and Synods of the Church, for the best part of two thousand years, have deliberated, debated and then voted on matters that threatened to divide the Church. There were no post-vote accommodations for the Gnostics in the second century; or for the Arians in the fourth century. These groups had argued their cases on the nature of Christ - and they lost those arguments. A decision was made. The Church chose the path of the orthodox, better-quality, more persuasive theological arguments. That is what Synods and Councils do.

The Church of England did exactly the same with women priests in 1992, and women bishops in 2013. One cannot pretend the result was really a 'score draw'. It wasn't. Yet accommodations and provisions were nonetheless made in 1993, to those who could not in conscience accept women priests. Reparations for those defeated is honourable and good, conveying important and authentic signals about future hopes of togetherness. But it ends there.
One cannot, as I think Philip Mawer's arbitration unconsciously scripts, pretend that these competing convictions were and are of equal theological value and weight. If they were, the voting would tell us that, and there would be stalemate, and no women priests or bishops in the Church of England.

The fact that women priests and bishops now exist proves beyond a shadow of doubt that the Church of England worked through this theological and ecclesial disputation – and with principles and methods utterly consistent with the great Councils and Synods of the wider Catholic Church.

So, what is there left to resolve? Quite a few things, as it turns out. To conclude, I list eight. In so doing, I register my concern that the institutional sexism of the Church of England is not being adequately addressed by our Church leaders. Indeed, organisations like Forward in Faith and The Society, with their gender-based discrimination, no longer enjoy widespread public support; and their stances impede the wider communal witness of the church.
First, if 'traditionalist' Anglo-catholics think women can't be sacramentally efficacious bishops, then the men and women they are ordain are not 'real' clergy either. This is the official position of organisations like The Society and Forward in Faith. But if this is so, men and women ordained by women bishops can never be 're-ordained' – legally or otherwise – even if they choose to be. They are permanently consigned to laicisation. Those who really believe that women bishops are not 'real', need to address how (i.e., method) those that women bishops do ordain can become 'real' clergy.

Second, the presumed essentialism of gender binaries currently faces serious scrutiny. Across the Anglican Communion, there are now several cases where male priests are transiting to become women; and some involving clergy women transiting to become men. Does an individual who is ordained carry their ontological change with them, and lose it the moment they become female, or gain it at the moment they become male? Will organisations like Forward in Faith or The Society be able to tell us at what point a person's valid ordination either evaporates or crystallizes in the process of gender transition?

Emergent social constructions of reality on gender and transgender have less room for essentialism, and greater room for flexibility and fluidity. It is ironic, really: gender is now becoming more ambiguous. Yet an expression of Christianity that sacralises ambiguity can't accommodate this.

Third, the reality for the Church of England is that organisations like The Society and Forward in Faith constitute a 'dissenting minority'. The care that these organisations and their followers receive needs be consonant with that – and the status of the dissenters neither deflated nor inflated. Equality and unity does not mean that all theological convictions need to be treated as equivalent. They are not. And that is what a Synod, Council, debate and a voting process tell us: some convictions are better than others. Yes, actually, more right than wrong; and others, more wrong than right.

Fourth, if the Church of England wants to avoid a split on the issue of gender, or indeed on sexuality, it needs to pay careful attention to its current social construction of reality, and to the historical lessons from its past. The Church of England has a poor record in avoiding splinters, fractures and minor schisms. This is partly because of its rich tradition steeped in irenic polity. It wants to accommodate everyone. But sometimes, this is done at too-greater an expense: it mutes its own voice, and correspondingly negates its own power.

Fifth, in a world of populism and shrill soundbites, nuance from the Church would be a welcome gift to public life. But ambiguity is no substitute for nuance. Few will be persuaded of the ecclesio-logic that says women can be affirmed as leaders in the Church, but then not regarded as 'real priests'. Few will be taken in by the affirmation that women celebrating the Eucharist can 'somehow' mediate grace, yet also be told that their sacramental ministry, though legal, is not unequivocally efficacious. This is a sacralisation of ambiguity that merely 'platforms' doubt.

Sixth, it can't have escaped most people's notice that there is an absence of theologians drawn from the academy who are willing to defend the gender-based discrimination that is propagated by organisations like The Society and Forward in Faith. There don't appear to be any significant theological voices from the public sphere (i.e., universities) who are marshalling arguments in favour of (so-called) 'traditionalist' convictions. This in itself is telling, and further underlines a pressing problem for organisations like The Society and Forward in Faith. It would seem that this dissenting minority now lacks an intellectual power that would give it significant weight rooted in any theological salience, and might therefore merit any balancing with other competing convictions.

Seventh, in view of all this, we have a partial sociological account for the apparent slight upward 'spike' in ordination candidates who hold to 'traditionalist' views. As the business of ordained ministry becomes more professionalised, scrutinised and rationalised, we can expect that some will seek solace in theologies that emphasize alterity, mystery and ambiguity. It is the easiest way to avoid the common forces that now 'police' professions (to borrow again from Foucault). But rather like the rise of the Romantic Movement in late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, and in response to urbanisation and industrialisation (replete with alienation), the trend we currently observe will be short-lived.

Eighth, the Church of England needs to be warier of terminology such as 'minority'. The label is not so much a head-count, as an audit of those who lack power. In the Sheffield diocese, it was left to ordinary congregations and clergy to challenge and resist – unheeded and unaided by the hierarchy of the Church – the imposition of a bishop who would not have recognised the priestly ministry of a significant number of the clergy.

Mawer's Report assumes that the few people who hold 'traditionlist' theological convictions be accorded 'minority status', and in the process granted equality. Yet such a move would oppress the silent majority (women clergy and their congregations) who are powerless in such situations, and in many respects, far more akin to a minority group.
Meanwhile, the proverbial censer of 'traditionalist' Anglo-catholicism swings on its arc from left to right, forever oscillating between ambiguity and clarity. One minute, women are not to be regarded as 'real' priests, and never can be. And the next minute, there might be some grace in what they offer at the altar, after all. Which is it? Members of The Society and Forward in faith seem to hold to both positions, simultaneously.

And all the while, our clouds of incense rise from the censer, testifying to that ultimate mystery that lies beyond us all. This kind of Anglo-catholicism was once a spiritually mesmerising movement within the Church, and it drew many of us in. There was something of the scent of a heavenly mystery, perhaps? But this same movement now just leaves most of us baffled and perplexed. Far from it being a nuanced expression of faith that echoed of epiphany, we are merely left observing a very different, earthly puzzle. Namely, the convictions of a dwindling minority expressing their own unresolved double-mindedness.

The Very Rev Professor Martyn Percy is Dean of Christ Church, Oxford