Consciences, Convictions and Consequences: A Brief Response to the Review of the Nomination to the See of Sheffield

Sheffield Cathedral. The appointment of the traditionalist Bishop of Burnley to the See of Sheffield sparked a backlash from supporters of women's ministry.Ian Parkes/Wikimedia Commons

Last week saw the publication of Sir Philip Mawer's long-awaited report, reviewing the nomination of the Bishop of Burnley to the See of Sheffield – and his subsequent withdrawal as the nominee. There are many things to commend in the report. It has taken soundings from most quarters of the Church of England. It has listened attentively to, and reflected back to the Church of England an episode that was deeply unhappy (with ongoing issues still to be addressed and resolved). It has highlighted significant failures of process and multiple misunderstandings.

It has done this in consistently measured tones. It has, arguably, pasteurised some quite raw rhetoric in the interests of creating a degree of pastoral homogeneity. Crucially, it has concluded that in future, all candidates for vacant sees will now be asked directly whether they will or will not ordain women.

Mawer notes (para. 112): 'Since the events in Sheffield, the Appointments Secretaries have ensured that the guidance they provide to dioceses does include this point. That is a welcome development. Although some represented to me that posing the question will simply invite most, if not all, dioceses to say that they want a diocesan bishop who will ordain women, I cannot see that ignoring the relevance of the question will help anybody.'

The report, however, also reveals how far the centre of gravity in the Church of England has drifted from the general public and contemporary culture. We are informed that 'prominent voices question(ing) the nomination included those of Lord Blunkett and the MP for Sheffield Heeley, Ms Louise Haigh' (para 66). This is a highly significant issue for public theology and an established Church – not least for its public witness and Christian credibility. The sentence above, however, is the only mention of this exceptional, probably unparalleled intervention by a former Labour Government Minister and Peer, and a serving Member of Parliament. The intervention merited some serious discussion, and not merely a fleeting mention. The report reveals a Church talking to itself, relatively deaf to wider culture.

The centre of gravity for the report lies in several interlocking loci. First, how the Church seeks to manage an unresolvable ecclesial conflict, and its competing theological convictions. The report is at pains to stress how the way ahead can (somehow) be managed. The document doesn't go into the deep theological divisions that underpin the issues. But it should be obvious by now – 25 years after the vote to ordain women to the priesthood at the November 1992 General Synod – that the weight of theological arguments for and against the ordination of women are not of equal value, and so cannot easily be 'balanced' in any ecclesial context. And even if the Bishops and General Synod like to think that these arguments are of equal weight, the rest of the Church of England, general public and wider culture don't seem to agree.

The issue is plain. How does the Church of England protect and affirm a (small) dissenting minority? A minority, moreover, who aren't able to impose their dissenting views on a non-consenting majority?

Second, that 'normative' voice in the report, and in the Church it speaks for and of, is essentially an adult male supporting the ordination of women, but also trying to affirm, appease or compensate those who are, in conscience against women's ordination. Hence, paragraph 115 states that 'the difficulty about this latter suggestion' (ie, the proposal to reserve a place for an ordained woman on the CNC) argues that 'if there is to be a reserved place for a woman, why not set aside reserved places for others too?'. Women, despite being half the population, and a majority of our churchgoers, are being presented as part of this group known as 'others' – supplementary interest groups and minorities.

Third, the issue of discrimination on grounds of gender in the report still receives little attention. Indeed, the term 'discrimination' is not used in the report once, except when quoting my own writing. 'Sexism' and 'sexist' get a single mention each – again, only quoting those who are protesting against gender–based discrimination. The report fails to acknowledge that gender – just like age, sexuality or ethnicity – is regarded by the law and wider society as a 'protected characteristic'. That is to say, people can do little about who they are. But faith–based convictions are hardly in the same category. True, religious beliefs do enjoy some measure of protection under the law. But that protection does not extend to allowing those beliefs to be imposed on others – and especially without their full and clear consent.

Sheffield Action On Ministry Equality protested Bishop Philip North's promotion to the See of Sheffield.SAME

That is why, of course, local congregations, the wider public, and many clergy, were right to question and challenge the nomination of any person to the See of Sheffield, who could not affirm his women clergy, and their full sacramental validity and efficacy. The law, and indeed the Church, will defend the right to that person's conscience and (his) views. But there is no case for entitling or privileging those who hold such convictions. And most especially, to place persons with such views in positions of oversight above others – who in turn would be adversely affected and impacted by such discriminatory views. (Assurances of 'affirmation' for those who might be impacted are simply inadequate, and they entirely miss the point. The remedy against discrimination cannot be compensatory gestures and pastoral assurances, if inequality is allowed to remain in place.)

Fourth, the report seems to accept, uncritically, the ecclesio-logic of those opposed to the ordination of women. The sacramental efficacy of women priests and bishops is clearly doubted by proponents of 'traditionalist' views, and in no uncertain terms (para. 72). But the rationale for this is doubtful:

'The basis of...objection to women's ordination is the authority and unity of the Church. The Church of England is part of the one holy catholic Church of God and that imposes limits on what it can and can't decide unilaterally. Extending the historic threefold order to women constitutes a major doctrinal change and thus, whilst it may be the way the Spirit is calling the Church, it is an action that the Church of England does not have the unilateral authority to undertake (para. 141).'

It is odd to single out ordination as the factor in the 'authority and unity' of the One Holy Catholic Church (ie, Roman Catholic and Orthodox). The official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church on the sanctity of life – conception, contraception and so forth – and the proper ordering of family life are major non-negotiable tenets of Catholicism. The Church of England departed from such positions decades ago – 'decide(ing) unilaterally' – that managing the size of a family through artificial means (ie, contraception) was not wrong or sinful. Roman Catholic orthodoxy disagrees. So why do traditionalist Anglicans choose to ignore one major Roman Catholic doctrine, but select others? Indeed, there are many other 'essential' Roman Catholic doctrines and teachings that Anglicans have not assented to for centuries. So it is somewhat specious to draw a line in the sand with women priests and women bishops.

'Confused and muddled'

The Church of England – and this is inchoately reflected in the Mawer report – is confused and muddled by the ethical principles that might underpin the holding together of a dissenting minority opinion and the majority public consensus. Three brief examples will suffice here, to illustrate this point.

First, most orthodox Sikhs wear the dastaar – the turban-like headgear being an article of faith that connotes identity, spirituality and piety. As a religious-ethnic article, it qualifies for exemptions under the law. Many countries in the developed world will permit Sikhs not to wear crash helmets on motorbikes. But the law does not allow a Sikh motorbike instructor to insist that any who take lessons from him or her discard their helmet, and wear a dastaar instead. Sikhs have liberty of conscience – but not the right to impose this on others. There are limits to the liberty of conscience. Thus, many developed countries don't permit the wearing of dastaar on building sites in place of hard hats. Because here, more than one person's safety and wellbeing might potentially be compromised by an individual wanting to exercise their liberty of conscience. In the same way, a minister holding to complementarian views on the place of women in church, marriage and ministry, cannot order their local church school on the same basis. Parents, pupils and staff would not consent to the imposition of such a theonomy.

Second, we turn to food. It would be reasonable to go to a family restaurant and only order and eat vegetarian food. But it would be unreasonable to complain about the other diners who were eating meat or fish. It is reasonable to request a vegetarian option at a steakhouse; no good steakhouse would be without such choices on the menu. It would be unreasonable and rude to go a vegetarian restaurant and request a rare–cooked steak. It would be reasonable to take over a restaurant and manage it as it was, attracting the same custom, especially if it was the only one of its kind for miles around providing a service. But less reasonable for this new manager (please note, not the owner) to refuse to offer simple food that was once on the menu, because it troubled the manager's conscience. It would not be reasonable to differentiate between diners, dividing the vegetarians from the meat eaters at tables. Or, to exalt those on special diets at the expense of the majority of other customers.

In both of these examples, there is something here to note about permissiveness and the liberty of conscience in a broad society. The needs and requirements of a minority, as we can see, are honoured and provided for. No one orders a steak in a vegetarian restaurant in the same way that no one ever seriously asks, 'Where is the female celebrant?' at a Forward in Faith church. Minority views are protected and can be affirmed. But the will of this small minority cannot be determinative for the majority – and on the turf of general public, so to speak.

This brings us to smoking – our third example. A declining minority of people smoke cigarettes. Smoking remains lawful. But restrictions on smoking in enclosed public spaces is legislature that came into force 10 years ago now. Society reached a mind on how the personal choices of a few might infringe the liberty of all. Smoking in public spaces was no longer a private issue – a matter for the conscience or manners of the smoker, to make a judgment on how nearby non-smokers might react. Smoking in public is generally deemed to be 'anti-social', and the legislation recognises that one person's liberty to smoke infringes the well-being of others.

Discriminatory views on grounds of race, gender and disability are similar. You may think what you like in private, but you can't implement such views and practices on the public. So, smokers remain free to light up in private. But they are no longer free to share (or inflict) their habit on the wider public. Smokers effectively lost their familiar freedoms – so that wider society could gain equality of experience with fresh air in enclosed shared spaces.

We don't seek to balance the losses of privilege for smokers by yielding them some new public space. We don't say, 'Well, we banned smoking in all pubs, but as reparation, you can now smoke in certain restaurants.' Or, for that matter, set about re-designating all trains as smoking zones once again, and reintroduce specified non-smoking carriages. Nor do we suggest that smokers can light up in your private space – hitherto smoke-free. It is not 'illiberal' to regard 'designated smoking zones' inside restaurants as anti-social. Nor is it 'illiberal' to resist new requests for shared spaces being opened up for smokers, in order to compensate for their loss of old customary public places.

As for passive smoking and public spaces, the claim that smokers only impact their own health has been widely refuted. In the same vein, a male bishop opposed to women priests will invariably have a widespread impact on the 'air' of the whole diocese – clergy and laity alike – quite independent of any personal or public compensatory gestures they attempt to make. That's because theological positions are inherently influential and powerful. They are liminal and subliminal; explicit and implicit. Theology affects mood and morale. Even privately-held theological convictions will send unconscious coded signals that shape culture, churches and congregations: communicating acceptance or rejection, faith or doubt. So we need to know that our bishops fully affirm the ministry of all their clergy – and irrespective of their gender.

Philip North, an Anglo-Catholic bishop opposed to women's ordination and Libby Lane, the Church of England's first female bishop, meet regularly to pray.Twitter / Peter Ould

That said, there have been generous compensatory measures for the minority dissenters. The provision of Provincial Episcopal Visitors (so called 'Flying Bishops') allows for dissenting congregations to be well catered for. This is prudent provision for a minority group. But as for the rest of the Church of England, please note that the guidance from the secular world is that cultures only begin to shift in organisations, corporations and institutions when the leaders, board of executives or directors exceeds around 35 per cent in terms of female representation. (See McKinsey & Company. Women Matter 2012: Making the Breakthrough, July 2012). Women bishops currently number less than 10 per cent of our total number. In fact, the number of women bishops is about the same as the number of bishops who oppose women priests and women bishops.

In terms of power and parity today, the faith-based opinions of a few in the Church, and amounting to opposition to unequivocal equality, does not mean that the opponents of gender-based equality should now somehow still expect to be met halfway in this debate. Gender equality is either equality, or it is nothing. It is not 'illiberal' to oppose gender-based discrimination. The Church is not committed to accepting every shade of opinion as equally valid.

A commitment to equality often demands the sacrifice and self-denial of a minority, for the wider common good of all. Sometimes, such sacrifice is notreciprocal. Indeed, establishing of equality can require one group to sacrifice a great deal for the other – possibly even all their power and privileges. In return, the beneficiaries of this may sacrifice little or nothing for their newly-found equality.

For example, it could never be 'illiberal' to oppose the appointment of a pro-Apartheid politician as the new chief government minister for education. It would simply be rational to object to such an appointment, quite independent of the qualities and gifts that individual has. The Apartheid regime divided educational opportunity according to the colour of people's skin. The new South Africa does not, and assumes all should be educated equally, independent of ethnicity. There's no half-way house.

In the same way, history records the agonies of Western Christians and their convictions on slavery during the 18th and early 19th centuries. How could the institution of slavery – condoned in both the Old and New Testaments – be contrary to the will of God? Who were these 'other' Christians to condemn what God seemed to condone? The natural ordering of races seemed as natural to many of our forebears in the 18th century, as did the superiority of men over women in the 19th and early 20th century, which denied women suffrage.

But the 21st century is an emergent Age of Equality. And if the Church of England can't commit to the unequivocal equality of women – who are, after all, half the population – then it will always be difficult to attribute conviction and weight to other equality-based interventions on social policy and wider welfare matters by the Church. Our public mission will continue to be slightly crippled. The culture of the Church needs to embrace equality unequivocally. We have to be clear that although our Church is sacred space, it is also a very public place. Our Church is the public's spiritual body; it needs to correspond to the best standards in public life.

The Church is a 'community of contrast'; it is not of the world. So it is called to operate with and incorporate far higher standards and values than those the world would normally settle for. The main question against the Mawer report is ultimately this: does it put the Church before the Kingdom of God?

The Church of England's ecclesial modus operandi – short–term treaties that try to keep the peace by compromising others – seems to be some way off the 'ecclesial community of equality' imagined by the Apostle Paul: 'There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, nor male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus' (Galatians 3: 28). Jesus did not institute the Church, but he did constitute a Kingdom Community. In using the word 'constitute' here, I mean he embodied and lived out 'Kingdom values', showing partiality not just towards the poor and marginalised, but also and especially towards women of all kinds (Jew, Gentile, etc.). If we are, as the Archbishop says (quoted in para. 95 of the report), 'to (remember) at all times that our identity is in Christ alone', then we remember too that our common humanity is rooted in the equality Christ taught, and the early Church caught, by raising up women who led churches, missions and ministries – Phoebe, Tabitha, Junia and Priscilla – and many more besides.

A laudable goal for gender equality and justice in the Church of England would aim for one third of our bishops being women before any more 'traditionalists' are appointed to any diocesan sees. Moreover, we should work towards half our bishops being women by 2037 – 50 years after women were first ordained as deacons. We still have many, many miles to travel on such a journey. Our current equivocal attitude to women in the Church can only slow that journey down even more, and it might even send us backwards. Instead, we really do need to move forward – in faith.

There are some who believe that the 'mutual flourishing' the Church of England seeks is simply a permissive licence to promote a kind of 'internalised ecumenism'. But if a bishop can't receive their own clergy's sacramental ministry as unequivocally efficacious, you can't expect that same episcopacy to be received without significant questions and some resistance.

As for 'mutual flourishing', I do believe in it. I believe it can work. I also believe that the term 'mutual' means that the faith and beliefs that really matter to the Church are held in common, and that there is generous, gracious reciprocity between all parties. But the term 'mutual' simply cannot mean that all convictions are equal, valid and valuable. Once the Church of England has grasped that most basic principle, we might all begin to move on. And, I daresay, flourish.

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