Saint Hilda's House

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Should Bishop North Have Been Consecrated?: 'Tradition' and Misogyny in Places of Power in the Church

Bishop Lane and Bishop North share an embrace at the latter's consecration.

Bishop Lane and Bishop North share an embrace at the latter's consecration.

You can also read this piece in the St. Hilda's House Winter Quarterly.

Last week, the Rev. Philip North became the Rt. Rev Philip North.  Bishop North is a 'Traditionalist' with a capital 'T', who opposes the ordination of women in the Church of England on the grounds of tradition and Scripture; nonetheless, he shared an embrace with the also recently consecrated Bishop Libby Lane.  On the back of this, we posted an article on the St. Hilda's Facebook page in which Bishop North spoke optimistically about the future of the Church.  This article provoked some fervent (and I believe fruitful) discussion.

This post is an attempt to follow on from that discussion, and lay out a few arguments in a more extended format than Facebook comments allow.  To set the context: the majority of those who commented were opposed to the fact of Bishop North's consecration (or, at least, certain facts about it!), and I was not.  I'm going to try to explore in greater depth some of the stances taken and explicate as clearly as possible why I believe the consecration of Bishop North to have been a good thing, both politically and ethically.  My hope is not to close the debate, but to provoke further discussion.

(I write with some awareness that as a white, straight, privately-educated male I have never had to worry about the sort of institutional prejudices around which this debate is centred, and I thank my housemates for proofreading this piece to make sure I didn't write in too much ignorance on this front.   For another ever so slightly more informed view, I point towards these two articles by Bishop Sentamu, the first on the consecration of Bishop Lane, the second on the consecration of Bishop North.  It is also worth noting that Bishop North was not just consecrated in order to appease the Church's 'Traditionalist' wing: he appears to have been a strong candidate for Bishop in his own right.)

The Original Discussion, and the Sin in Question

As best I can understand it, the original discussion on Facebook centred around the question of whether or not someone hampered by a sin which constitutes a harmful impediment should be made a Bishop.  The particular sin in question here is that of misogyny, a misogyny grounded in a particular understanding of Scripture and tradition.  

One specific form that this misogyny takes is a refusal to recognise the spiritual authority of women as ordained leaders of the Church.  It is a harmful impediment because, in the words of my housemate Megan, it actively demeans to position of women in both the Church and broader society.  More generally, it feeds into a view of women which has had and continues to have a catastrophic impact on how they are treated and viewed by others and by themselves.  I believe that this misogyny is a sin.  I also believe that it is a harmful impediment:  as has been pointed out to me, the people who are most vulnerable in this situation are those women under Bishop North's authority, whether those who might already feel called to ordained leadership, those who might just want to be able to ask the question, or those whose presence in Church life will be demeaned due to prevailing atmosphere.  

I also believe that it is actively harmful to associate Bishop North's views with tradition, hence why I will use pejorative quotation marks throughout when referring to his 'Traditional' views.  I believe that doing so sets up a false picture of both tradition and Scripture, wherein to hold to these is to oppose the spiritual authority of women.  This in turn can lead to the argument in the Church (one I have in the past made myself) that if we wish to oppose those who hold views like Bishop North, we must therefore reject tradition and Scripture, and so to our ignoring and being ignorant of two of the Church's essential spiritual wellsprings.  Indeed, far from upholding tradition and Scripture, I believe that Bishop North's claiming of a 'Traditional' stance as one side of a polarising debate has led to a distorting and corrupting of our understanding of tradition itself, both in terms of our own tradition in particular and the nature of tradition in general.  I believe that the same holds true for Scripture.  Insofar as Bishop North claims tradition and Scripture for his 'Traditional' views, then, I believe that he is actively distorting the Church's understanding of the Word of God (insofar as it speaks through those sources), and I believe that this is a harmful consequence of sin.  (On a personal note, as an Anglo-Catholic I take umbrage at the suggestion that it must be characteristic of Anglo-Catholicism to oppose female ordination).

I am no fan of Bishop North's views, then.  I believe them to be both sinful and actively harmful.  Nor, I should add, am I a proponent of unity at any cost: almost a year ago to the day I wrote a piece for my own blog about the dangers of treating unity as an idol, and I still stand by the arguments I made there.  Why, then, am I arguing in favour of his being consecrated a Bishop?  Why would I argue for this man to be given a place of power in the Church, when I also believe his doing so will likely cause genuine harm (harm which, I should add, I will never have to fear being a direct victim of)?

How Can the Church Judge Itself?

Bishops Sentamu, North, and Lane.

Bishops Sentamu, North, and Lane.

My first reason is the slightly more ethical reason, relating to a norm of consensus which I believe holds even for cases where active harm might be entailed.  It relates to the ways in which the Church is capable of judging itself and its members; specifically, whether a Church which is divided should employ a standard of judgement in its decision making which assumes absolute unity according to the terms of one side of that division 

This is phrased somewhat opaquely, so I'll try and make the meaning clear.  First of all, the Church of England is divided on this issue.  It is nowhere near as divided as it once was, nor is it equally divided on all levels, but there is currently a real and significant division between (now just over) 2/3rds of the Church and the other 1/3rd (most of whom are in the laity).  

This division, moreover, cannot be universally characterised in polemical terms: it is not simply a matter of those who oppose the ordination of women believing that women are inferior to men when it comes to matters of spiritual leadership in an uncritical fashion (I say this from experience).  This is not to say that we should therefore accept the presence of misogyny, nor that we should not call it misogyny, nor that we should not call it sin: it is to say that the Church of England's institutional misogyny is a far more complicated affair than particular people holding particular views for particular reasons, such that those in the majority cannot responsibly characterise those who disagree with them either as simply not having thought about the issue hard enough or as being simply bigoted at heart.  

A consequence of this, in my mind, is that the majority cannot therefore summarily discount this minority from being active and vocal members of the Church of England.  As such, when we speak of the Church of England, we speak of this third as well; for my part, I speak of those neighbours who I really wish were other than they are.  Wrong as they may be (and I do believe them to be badly wrong), therefore, the fact of their presence prohibits the Church as a whole from using the opinions of the majority as its blanket standard; their presence ensures that the majority is not the whole Church, and therefore that this majority cannot assume the authority to make decisions on behalf of or claim to be the voice of the whole Church.  

(If this means that the Church itself is in part a sinful body, then so be it: as far as I can see it always has been and always will be, as a matter of necessity and even as it is the body of Christ on earth.  The fact that some of us see ourselves (myself included) as trying to work against the particular sin of a particular minority is neither here nor there: this tends to be the tenor of Church politics.  I also believe that the fact the Church has historically been at its very worst when it has tried to actively purge itself of sin is instructive here.  There is, moreover, no more dangerous response to this point than 'yes, but we're right, and this is sin we're talking about'.)

How does this relate to Bishop North's consecration?  Because the Church is divided over whether or not his 'Traditional' misogyny constitutes a sinful and harmful impediment.  I believe it does, and I believe that about 2/3rds of the Church believe so too.  There is not enough consensus, however, for the majority to claim the ability to judge on behalf of the Church as a whole on the basis that they possess the greater moral sense, and so not enough consensus to ground the claim that the Church of England should not have consecrated Bishop North on the basis of harmful impediment.

Now, this would be different if Bishop North could be shown to be trying to hold the Church hostage to his views (to use slightly inflammatory language).  If he were saying that though the majority cannot claim its standard as the standard for the whole Church, the minority can and should do so, then we would have a Bishop who was trampling over the very principle according to which he was consecrated in a Church within which he represents the minority.  

This has not, however, been the case.  In researching for this piece, I came over a piece detailing Bishop North's reason for turning down a prior call to be Bishop in Whitby; namely, that he felt his consecration would harmful to the Church's efforts to effect reconciliation and dialogue between opposing camps.  That is not a symbolic gesture: it belies a genuine humility not often associated with the 'Traditionalist' wing.  Similarly, though he does not in principle recognise the validity of Bishop Lane's consecration, his words following his own consecration showed him to be willing to set aside the authority of his own personal judgement in the name of the decision of the wider Church body.  He has not said that he will leave the Church if it goes against his views (and if he had done, I think the Synod would have been right to vote as it did anyway and bid him farewell); he has shown himself willing to engage in dialogue and compromise.

He has not, of course, changed his opinion, and this opinion does (to my mind) constitute harmful impediment.  All the same, he has shown himself willing to work and live within a Church that disagrees with him, and to follow the Church's rulings even when he thinks otherwise.  This is not a happy ending: it is, however, a situation within which the Church itself can undergo the happy and arduous business of encounter and reconciliation between divided parties, wherein sinners (all of us genuine and harmful sinners) can seek to work together to do God's will in the world despite our differences.

Encounter and Transformation

Which brings me to my second and more political reason for supporting Bishop North's consecration: the fact that this consecration ensures that we have not reached the end of the argument within the Church about the spiritual authority of women.  

Now, this might not seem the happiest of facts.  After all, shouldn't the argument be over?  Isn't it ridiculous that we could even be having this discussion?  Well, yes, it is ridiculous. The fact remains, however, that whatever should be the case, it is the case that there is still enough disagreement between relevant parties for there to be a discussion and an argument.  The fact remains that if the argument were ended now, all that would have happened is that the minority would have been defeated, the majority would have won, and we wouldn't have to deal with the uncomfortable facts that a) we still disagree, and b) we are still called to love and work with each other despite our disagreement.  What Bishop North's consecration ensures instead is that we can still have this argument, that we can still work with those who disagree with us, and that we can still encounter each other in the context of the Church.  We are not, in short, in the position that the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church in North America find themselves in, where there is no dialogue, where the only argument is over property rights, and where the possibility of transformation through encounter with each other is more or less non-existent.  

Would you want this man in charge of your Parish Council?

Would you want this man in charge of your Parish Council?

So what, we may ask?  Why should we accept harm as the cost of encounter?  I cannot answer this conclusively.  I can only point to David Horton, Chairman of the Dibley Parish Council.

Now, for those who have not seen The Vicar of Dibley, David Horton (MA Cantab) is the stereotypical Church of England dinosaur; an old money, upper class male entirely resistant to change of any sort.  He is everyone's favourite reactionary misogynist.  His reaction upon finding out that the Rev. Boadecia (seriously, look it up) Geraldine Granger has been appointed Vicar in Dibley is one of horror.  He seeks to have her removed.  He seeks to undermine her authority.  He plays the proper village villain.  

The strange thing, however, is that this reactionary dinosaur is eventually transformed by his relationship to the Rev. Granger.  He is not completely transformed, of course: he remains an old money, upper class male entirely resistant to change.  He does, however, still change, and over the course of this changing the qualities hidden by his intransigence are allowed to shine through.  He is shown to be not just a sinner, but a child of God in his own right (to pick one moment, his reaction to seeing her choice for a new window for the Church is one of the most powerful pieces of TV I've ever seen).  Had he been removed from his position, however, had his sin seen him cast down from the Parish council, this transformation would not have occurred.

Now, it may be a serious problem with my argument that my case study is a fictional character.  As it is, I believe that David Horton is a fiction grounded in truth.  I believe that the reason the CoE has been able to change its position on the ordination of women bishops is because its David Hortons retained a place in the Church after the ordination of the first female priests.  I believe that a significant factor in their retaining a place in the Church was because they retained a place at each level of the Church.  I further believe that this change is more powerful because it involved a changing of mind over and above a changing of the guard.  Finally, I believe that the ordination of Bishop North shows that this process of transformation through encounter is not at an end: that even on this divisive point, many of those who disagree are willing to encounter each other as members of the Church (at every level) knowing that in doing so they place themselves at the risk of both harm and transformation.  

I make no bones about it: I would like Bishop North to change his mind: I do not agree to disagree.  Indeed, were I in a position to do so, I would try and change his mind myself, through argument and through encounter.  I also believe that I would be transformed through such encounter; that aspects of my own sin (pride and sanctimoniousness, for example, which have been and remain harmful impediments of mine, all too evident in this piece) would be chipped away as I was forced to engage with Bishop North face to face.  

As it is, I am not in that position.  Thanks to his consecration however, there are those that are, not least Bishop Lane herself, who showed the courage of her Christian convictions by embracing a man whose views she has every reason to revile.  And thanks to his consecration, we are now at a point where the argument can continue on to that point of personal transformation so wonderfully embodied by David Horton, as opposed to remaining just a victory in the Synod.  

(It should be noted, of course, that encounter can easily lead to acrimony instead of affection.  Grace must be present, and we must do our best to try and be gracious to those we meet, even and especially to those we violently disagree with.)


I now feel in a position to make my overall claim: that if we make personal political agreement a condition of occupying particular positions at the table, we in fact neutralise the possibility of arriving at meaningful agreement.  I believe that this holds even and especially where the effect of disagreement is harm, and where to hold a particular position on an issue can constitute a harmful impediment.  I therefore believe that we must hold to a particular view of Church consensus where the majority cannot eradicate the views of the minority from power, even in cases where that minority is thought to be sinfully mistaken by the majority.  I therefore believe that we should work hard to create the space for gracious encounter within the Church, even and especially with those whom we might wish we didn't have to call our neighbours.  For it is in this space that agreement might ultimately be reached; an agreement premised upon mutual transformation, as opposed to suppression.

I do not, of course, believe this point holds unconditionally. There are cases where particular disagreements render dialogue impossible, such as when a church campaigns for the fatal criminalisation of homosexuality.  Nor should we sacrifice all in the name of encounter: the Church was right to consecrate Bishop Lane, even at the risk of alienating those who were unwilling to countenance such a decision.  In this instance, however, where those I believe to be sinners have shown themselves willing to break bread with those they believe to be sinners, I believe the point holds.  And in this instance, I believe the Church was right to consecrate Bishop North, a man who holds divisive views, in the name of a broader unity.

I will conclude by noting that one effect of the view of Church consensus outlined above is that it allows us to be a Church which serves Christ together while we disagree.  After all, we do disagree, and the argument shall continue; but while that is happening, we shall also continue trying to live out the mission of the Church as it is given to us in the person of Jesus Christ.  For his part, Bishop North has shown himself willing to be more obedient to his sense of that mission than his allegiance to 'Tradition', and I imagine he will do good work in Burnley because of this.  Bishop Lane, meanwhile, seems to have been chosen precisely because she is a walking embodiment of that mission.  And if we can continue to worship Christ together whilst disagreeing and arguing about so much else, if obedience to His mission can compel us to encounter each other in love as members of the Church, even in genuine division, then I think that there is hope for us yet; for insofar as we are united on that front, there is every chance that Christ Himself will work on us to bring us into loving community even as we continue to disagree.