One item of news in todays social media feed relates to an Anglican bishop I have never heard off turning down a position to become an even more senior Bishop in a diocese I never knew existed. “THE designate Bishop of Sheffield blamed personal criticism for dramatically stepping aside last night following a damaging sexism row about his longstanding opposition to female clergy on theological grounds. Citing the nature of the abuse that he had received, Philip North – the current Bishop of Burnley – accepted that it would be “counter-productive” to take up a high-profile role that he accepted from the Queen as recently as January 31. “There is clearly much to be done on what it means to disagree well and to live with theological difference in the Church of England,” said the 50-year-old whose conservative views prompted criticisms that he would not be able to command the confidence of female clergy already serving in the Diocese of Sheffield. “The highly individualised nature of the attacks upon me have been extremely hard to bear. If, as Christians, we cannot relate to each other within the bounds of love, how can we possibly presume to transform a nation in the name of Christ? I hope though that this conversation can continue in the future without it being hung upon the shoulders of one individual.”
In many ways, this is something I might easily skip over in favour of the latest Alex Jones revelation concerning the “American Civil War” and other items of noteworthy news. But instead I choose to take stock because this item of news relates to a subject I am extremely passionate about and that is the Unity of the Church as set out in the prayer Jesus prayed just before going to the Cross, in John 17. I am not an Anglican as I have often painstakingly pointed out, but I do have a lot of Anglican friends (High, Low and in-between) and no doubt for some this bombshell is particularly disturbing. For centuries now Anglicans have maintained a semblance of unity despite differences but because of the differences some have wondered how long this can continue. The issue of homosexuality is maybe the one that is most problematic but that of woman ministry is another as this story suggests. I have stated my views in earlier blogs and it would be easy to excuse myself from the debate because I am NOT an Anglican and I go to a church (Reformed Baptist) that in the main does not think gay is ok or women should lead.
Yet I cannot be a disinterested party because I believe the prayer of Jesus that THEY (the real Christians irrespective of their denominational affiliation) should be ONE, and clearly as this case illustrates that is NOT what is happening here and, as with all sorts of manifestations this scar ridden writer has been involved in during his sojourn among Christians across the ecclesiological spectrum, elsewhere too. If I were to nail my colours to the mast, I am sympathetic with the views of J.N.Darby (1800-1882) who taught the church was in ruins, leading him to reject all notions of Apostolic succession or any other church leadership model. Sadly, his views ended up creating all sorts of other problems, not least to bigoted schism of the worse sort. My other confession is while in all conscience I feel it unlikely I can become a fully satisfied Anglican, because of theological concerns, there are many Anglicans I admire and whose counsel, wisdom and fellowship I value and there is a lot in Anglicanism I quite like, such as the Book of Common Prayer, something that I was reminded of as I picked bits out of it when I was called upon to lead a funeral service two weeks back and before that when I have attended the occasional Communion service.
Regarding Philip North, I quite get why he has turned down his promotion and, while it is difficult as an outsider to pontificate on events and nuances I have no hitherto knowledge off, I sense he made the only decision in the circumstances, some being vitriolic attack, he could make. But I cannot help reflecting it is a sad day for the church when lesser men and woman adept at maintaining the Anglican fudge have made it, this man couldn’t and along with it has to endure all sorts of personal attacks for acting according to conscience. My own perhaps naïve observation regarding the matter is that if the church is to have bishops, those who occupy that position are spiritual people who are able to lead and not have to rule themselves out because their views do not go along with the norms of present day thinking or vocal opponents. I should add though in passing that my own views do not quite align with the High Church view of male priests and in the course of my own spiritual sojourn I have come across many fantastic lady vicars.
It is unlikely I will get to meet with, let known counsel, Philip North, although I will no doubt continue to rub shoulders with Anglicans, some of who are my friends. I am not into pious platitudes and cannot say whether events like these are a price worth paying for remaining an Anglican whose views may align more to North’s than those of his detractors. One thing I do know, the grass is NOT necessarily greener for those outside the Anglican communion. I would remind such folk that John 17 remains a good starting point for reflection and the unity Jesus spoke about was essentially spiritual and not one of church politics. As far as fellow Christians goes, we are called to love one another (and the World will know we are Christians by our love). Jesus also spoke about building HIS church that Hell itself cannot thwart, giving gifts to each of us to bring to the real Church (them who have resolved to follow the Master) and we are merely HIS unprofitable servants.