The female 'taint'? Why some bishops won't be laying hands on Philip North

Archbishop of York John Sentamu has called for "gracious restraint" at the consecration of Philip North.Reuters

Rev Philip North will be consecrated as Bishop of Burnley on February 2. It will probably be a cheerful enough occasion, but it is being overshadowed by a row about who exactly gets to lay hands on him. He is a traditionalist who doesn't believe in women priests or bishops, and no bishop who has ordained or consecrated one is going to touch him. Supporters of women's ministry are deeply, deeply unhappy.

I can see their point of view.

Quite. The Church of England has agreed to have women bishops and the first, Libby Lane, will be consecrated on Monday. However, a fair chunk of Anglicans still aren't happy, and North is one of the bishops who will minister to them. It is very important for them that he is 'untainted' by any association with someone who has done something as theologically outlandish as ordaining a woman.

'Taint'? That's a rather strong word.

Indeed it is, but that seems to be what is going on. Church of England traditionalists believe in a literal succession of episcopal authority dating back to the first apostles, in which each generation consecrates the next. For the whole system to work, every consecration has to be validly performed by someone who was himself validly consecrated. They don't want to run the risk of someone questioning North's consecration.

But why are women the sticking point? Some Anglicans believe all sorts of things.

That's a little unfair, though a survey in October did find that two per cent don't even believe in God. But gender is regarded as a special case. Traditional Anglo-Catholics believe that the decision to have women priests and bishops should be made only by an ecumenical council, not by one 'branch' of the Church acting by itself.

Do they really believe that the consecration wouldn't 'work' if a bishop took part who'd laid hands, so to speak, on a woman?

The Church of England has never signed up to the 'taint' idea and the Archbishop of York has categorically rejected it: "Any suggestion that the arrangements proposed for the consecration of the Bishop of Burnley are influenced by a theology of 'taint' would be mistaken," he said yesterday.

Oh, really? So why aren't tainted bishops laying hands on Philip North?

It does look on the face of it as though he is protesting a little too much. But he is drawing a subtle distinction between what he and the Church actually think – that it doesn't make any difference – and what some of the future Bishop North's flock might imagine, namely that it does. The archbishop (not North himself) called for "gracious restraint" at the laying on of hands, so that bishops who might be regarded as tainted – though neither North nor the archbishop appear to think they are – don't get involved.

So is this a generous pastoral response to the genuine difficulties some sincere Christians feel over women's ministry, or a shameful betrayal of the principles of equality for which women have fought for decades?

Beats me.

Well, at least there will be women bishops now.

Yes. But this controversy shows that there are still quite deep divisions over the issue and they aren't going to be solved just by the majority vote in the Synod. It is yet another issue – sexuality is another, of course – over which people of strong convictions are going to have to bite their tongue for the sake of unity. Arguably, everyone is doing their best.