Opposition to Bishop North shows tolerance is wearing thin in the Church of England

Bishop Philip North (Church of England)

The earthquake that was female ordination in the Church of England is still producing aftershocks, decades after the first woman was ordained.

While it is settled that women can be ordained as deacons, priests and bishops, what is now controversial is the appointment of a bishop who does not believe in the ordination of women. This is highlighted by the case of Bishop Philip North, who has been appointed as Bishop of Sheffield, and who does not believe female ordination is possible.

Some people, such as Canon Giles Fraser, are annoyed about this, and want the appointment rescinded.

It is not easy for a Catholic such as myself to grasp what is at stake here. On the face of it, Giles Fraser and those who take his position are completely correct. Given that the Church of England has numerous female priests, how is it possible for Bishop North to preside over a diocese which has female priests, where he, as bishop, will be appointing them to parishes, while all the time believing they are in fact laywomen? There is a terrible contradiction here: he will be sending persons he believes not to be ordained to carry out the function of the ordained. This seems not just wrong, but absurd.

However, the absurdity goes even further than this. The Church of England ordains women, but at the same time, Bishop North, who does not recognise female ordination, is not a heretic in the eyes of his own church. This is because, when the Church of England decided to ordain female bishops, certain promises were made to opponents of the move.

There was talk of guaranteed “mutual flourishing” and “two integrities”. In other words, it is still possible to have two bishops in the same church who believe diametrically opposed things about female ordination. Or so the legislation promised. The trouble with that is, whatever the legislation may say, it remains a theological impossibility. You can have two bishops believing opposite things about female ordination – but they cannot be in the same church. They are, by the very fact that they believe such different things, out of communion with each other.

Still, it is sad for Bishop Philip North. After all, his position, not so very long ago, was the position of the whole Church of England. Now, thanks to the radical break with tradition that female ordination represents, he finds himself in not just a minority position, but in one which is deeply antipathetic to the majority. But the fact of the matter remains: the Church of England has changed, and Bishop North has been left behind by change, and those who have embraced the change feel little sympathy for him. He has failed to keep up with the new doctrine; and novelty is notoriously intolerant.

But what can anyone expect? Once you could agree or disagree with female ordination, as an Anglican. The opposition to Philip North’s appointment to Sheffield shows that the promised tolerance has worn thin over the intervening years. If Philip North’s appointment is blocked, then it will be a sign that there is no room for those who oppose the ordination of women in the Anglican Church any more. Even if it does go ahead, the signs for the future for opponents of female ordination look bleak: either this time, or at some future time, it will become a de facto rule that all new bishops will have to approve of women priests. That is the way the tide is flowing.

What are the implication for us Catholics? Let’s not be smug about this, but rather let us remember that Church unity is of the very greatest importance, and that de facto schism is the one thing we should most avoid. Unity, unity, unity!