This weekend the Church of England is facing a further crisis of confidence in its leadership and its own ability to hold the full range of competing and often contradictory views contained within it. That the church is in some sort of self-inflicted crisis is not news in itself but this time the division runs very deep indeed.
The current Bishop of Burnley, the junior Bishop Philip North, was due to be promoted to be the much more senior job of Bishop of Sheffield. The Crown Nomination Committee (the group of establishment grandees who choose Church of England Bishops) had met, the Archbishops had deliberated, they sent the recommendation to the Prime Minister, the Prime Minister sent the recommendation to the Queen, the Queen being told this was the choice of the church and No 10 had given her approval. The establishment of the church in all its bureaucratic stately ponderousness had wheeled into action and delivered a result. Within the rules and the agreements the hierarchy has carefully constructed Philip North was a good choice.
Philip North is generally popular with all those with whom he has worked. He is in all respects an admirable choice for a senior job in the Church of England – in all ways, except one: he will not ordain women to be priests. Bishop Philip belongs to the smallish Catholic tradition in the Church of England which does not accept women can be priests. In this the position of the Anglo-Catholic part of the Church of England is in line with the mainstream Catholic and Orthodox churches, which form the overwhelming and mainstream Christian tradition around the world. In England however this position places him in a relatively small minority within the Church of England. What the leadership of the Church of England failed to understand was that the world has changed. Popular social media driven uprisings have impacted the worlds of business, media, voluntary activity and most recently politics. In the cloistered and protected world of the church’s leadership it was never taken into account that such a thing could happen to them. Failing to learn the lessons from their recent humiliation in the General Synod on the question of marriage the church’s leadership is struggling to come to terms with a world where simply issuing views and decisions from on high is no longer a tenable approach to leadership.
This is not the first time a nominee for Bishop has had to withdraw because of popular pressure. The talented and able Jeffrey John was nominated to be a Bishop by Rowan Williams. If the leadership of the Church of England does not learn the lessons from this latest episode swiftly its credibility and authority will be seriously damaged – and the next test is just around the corner.
Richard Chartres has just retired after 20 years as Bishop of London. He has steered the country’s largest and most diverse diocese through two decades of change and tumult. An imposing and often inscrutable figure he has managed to hold the huge differences found in the churches across his diocese together through sheer force of a strong personality. His traditional approach often belied a willingness to embrace new forms and formats, whilst nurturing and encouraging more traditional approaches. His approach to the sensitive issue of ordination was to ordain all London candidates to the diaconate, the first stage in the process to becoming a priest, but no-one to actually being a priest. He left that process to his junior Bishops. He had therefore established a practice that enabled him to side-step the issue of whether he would or would not ordain women. This enabled all parts of his diocese to accept his ministry and leadership as Bishop. This less than elegant position held across the diocese out of respect to him as a person and because it was generally understood his was a time of change and transition. He did much to oversee the appointment of women to senior as well as parish jobs in his Cathedral, St Paul’s, and across his diocese.
The next Bishop of London may well not be able to follow the same practice. If the campaign to reject the ministry of Philip North has set a precedent the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Crown Nominations Committee, would be foolish indeed to place before the Prime Minister a candidate who was not willing or able to ordain both women and men to the priesthood. Indeed if they did it is an open question whether the Prime Minister might not exercise her right to ask them to think again. The Archbishop and the Committee cannot afford another debacle. Their authority and credibility are both on the line. The decision about who they should ask the Queen to make the next Bishop of London just became much harder.