Bishop of Doncaster

Presidential address to Synod - 18 March 2017

As we are all now aware, following a period of prayer and reflection Bishop Philip decided last week that, for the sake of God’s mission in the Diocese, he should withdraw from the appointment as the next Bishop of Sheffield.

In the life of the diocese the past few weeks have been difficult and painful.  The appointment of Bishop Philip raised questions and concerns in the minds of many, both within the Diocese and the wider Church of England.  Others welcomed the announcement. 

Both those concerned about the appointment, and those fully supportive of it, women and men and across traditions, have experienced a sincere and deep sense of personal pain and hurt which we have tried to respond to through the listening exercises.  Alongside this there has been a corporate sense of pain across the whole diocese as we have struggled to hold things together in a spirit of unity, mutual respect and flourishing built on confident relationships, dialogue and a focus on God’s mission.  What is clear is that there was more than one narrative being expressed and it is important that in relationship with God and each other we find a way of continuing to graciously listen, love, and in a spirit of unity within our diversity, ask for healing, reconciliation and a way forward.

Much of the hurt and pain caused has been through the use of social and other media outlets.  Perhaps that was inevitable, but it has meant that as a diocese we have lived out our deeply held disagreements and concerns, which it is right to express, in the full glare of the media which has raised the temperature and tensions. A number of the latter emails and letters I received have been concerned about this most public airing of our differences. Eventually, of course, the media will lose interest in us, but we as a diocese must find a way of continuing in dialogue with each other.

There is clearly much to reflect on and there will, as I said in my statement last week, be time to consider what lessons there are to be learned over the coming weeks and months.  The national church will also need to continue to reflect and pray about the issues this has raised.

I would however like to take this opportunity of thanking all those who wrote to me or had individual conversations expressing their personal support for me in this most complex of times and as we seek God’s wisdom.  Your kindness and generosity to me has been greatly appreciated.  As I have said before it is my intention to support everyone as best as I am able, as we make this journey with God and in relationship with each other.

A lot of the questions I have been asked have been concerned about process and in some cases questioning the validity and legality of it.  It also become clear that not everyone is familiar with the Five Guiding Principles, mutual flourishing and New Norms, New Beginnings.  The nomination of Bishop Philip was made within the framework and processes agreed by General Synod which reflect the aspirations of the Church of England to be a broad church that embraces diverse traditions.

The Crown Nominations Commission, which is the nominating body, met in November to interview the candidates.  The CNC is a body with fourteen voting and two non-voting members.  The voting  are the two archbishops, or their representative, six members elected by the diocese and six elected by General Synod.  A third of the elected representatives were female.  The non-voting members are the Prime Minister’s and Archbishops Appointments Secretaries.  The appointment was made in line with the Five Guiding Principles which were included within the House of Bishops Declaration on the Ministry of Bishops and Priests which was part of the package on which the Measure and Canon made under it formed a part.

It has been established for over two decades, both within the Church of England and within the Anglican Communion that both positions, those who support the ordination and consecration of women, and those who in conscience cannot support that, are fully Anglican. 

For many years the Church of England wrestled with how to accommodate this commitment to supporting both positions while also permitting the consecration of women as bishops.  The Church’s first formal attempt to do this failed when the General Synod rejected the relevant legislation in November 2012. 

At the second time of asking, the Church of England did pass legislation to permit the consecration of women as bishops in July 2014, after a process of reflection and dialogue to learn the lessons of its previous failure.  The package that was agreed, and passed into law, in 2014, was founded on a declaration by the House of Bishops, approved by the General Synod.  The declaration comprised five guiding principles, and above all a commitment to “mutual flourishing” for all traditions within the Church.

The declaration specifically provides that:

  • A diocesan bishop may be either a bishop who does, or who does not, ordain women;
  • A diocese may express a view, prior to a diocesan see being filled, as to whether the diocesan bishop should be someone who does or does not ordain women;
  • In every case where the diocesan bishop does not ordain women, there should be at least one bishop in the diocese who does ordain women;
  • Senior leadership roles within dioceses should continue to be filled by people from across the range of traditions.

Those provisions are part of the “mutual flourishing” that is central to the declaration and to the package.  The declaration also recognises that “there will need to be sensitivity to the feelings of vulnerability that some will have that their position within the Church of England will gradually be eroded and that others will have because not everyone will receive their ministry.”  It appreciates that the practical working out of these arrangements may not be easy, for the Church as a whole or for individuals.  To reject the Five Guiding Principles is to reopen the settlement made by the Church of England in 2014 which enable both supporters of women’s consecration, and those opposed it, to flourish alongside each other within the church.

In the document New Norms New Beginnings which was commissioned by Bishop Steven recognised that this journey within the diocese would not be easy. It said “working towards a Diocese where all can flourish and enjoy the highest possible degree of communion will take a significant commitment from every member of the church and will rely on consistent and clear leadership.  It will be important for the Diocese to explore ways of embedding the Guiding Principles within our culture.  It will be important to find periodic ways of auditing where we are as a diocese against the Guiding Principles and to hold one another to account on our fulfilment of them”

As I have reflected on the past few weeks and on where we are as a diocese I have been helped by a re-reading of Bishop Tom Wrights commentary on Philippians 2:1-4 “So if our shared life in the King brings you any comfort; if love still has the power to make you cheerful; if we really do have partnership in the spirit; if your hearts are at all moved with affection and sympathy – then make my joy complete.  Bring your thinking into line with one another.  Here’s how to do it.  Hold on to the same love; bring your innermost lives into harmony; fix your minds on the same object.  Never act out of selfish ambition or vanity; instead, regard everybody as superior.  Look after each other’s best interests, not your own”. 

Tom Wright tells the story of actors in a play needing to know exactly what each one is doing so that it fits together otherwise it becomes a circus act.  On stage, the actors were not out for their own individual glory at each other’s expense.  The play worked because everyone worked together with the same object in mind.  That’s a bit like what Paul is urging on the church in Philippi.  That he says is what the church should be like.  There is an old Jewish joke that says if you’ve got two rabbis you’ve probably got three opinions.  This is often how it feels in the church. 

As our own debate has highlighted there are big theological differences.  There are hurts and pains, some stemming from past experiences, some caused by recent events.  It raises the whole question of how we can live together in the way Paul indicates, how can we think the same, loving each other completely, regarding everyone else and their opinions as superior to our own.  To many this may seem impossible or at least a very long way off. 

The answer, as Paul points out, must be that everyone must be focused on something other than themselves and we know very well that is Jesus Christ, the King, the Lord and God’s mission to transform his world.  This is the ministry and mission to which God has called us all, clergy and laity, women and men and whatever our tradition. 

This passage is about unity and its motivation.  It’s about our own inner lives and conviction and the practical outworking of it. 

Our motivation should be because we want to live this way.  We know the comfort that comes from belonging to the body of Christ, the Christian family from being in Christ Jesus.   As we live in that family we should endeavour to grow in love more and more however difficult that may sometimes be.  That love should sustain us especially in the most difficult times of our relationship.  As the spirit filled people of God we should be desirous to work together more and more in a single direction as focused through our diocesan vision We have been called to grow a sustainable network of Christ-like, lively and diverse Christian communities in every place which are effective in making disciples and in seeking to transform our society and God’s world”

The inner life of unity is however perhaps the thing that seems most difficult.  How can we possibly bring our thinking in line with each other?  Unity by itself cannot be the final aim.  As Tom Wright points out unity is possible among thieves, and many other types.  What matters, he goes on to say, is that Christians, like the actors, all focus single-mindedly on the play, on the divine drama that has unfolded in Jesus Christ the King and is continuing now in the final act with themselves – ourselves - as characters.  Bringing their thinking, he says, into line with each other wouldn’t be any good if they were all thinking something that was out of line with the Gospel.  Our inner lives must reflect the Gospel.  We must all remain fixed on the facts about Jesus Christ and the meaning that emerges from them.  We are called to perform the extraordinary feat of looking at one another with the assumption that everybody else and their needs are more important. 

Tom Wright tells another story “I remember once going to lunch with a friend who had invited about twenty or thirty people.  Some of them were quite well known public figures.  As he said the grace at the start of the meal, he also said, very firmly.  Remember: the most interesting person in the room is the one sitting next to you!  Multiply that up a bit into a congregation, and you’ll get somewhere near what Paul is saying”.

So where are we as a diocese?  We are in a difficult and complex place with no clear guidelines as to how we move forward because no other diocese has been in this place before.  Are we damaged by the recent disagreements?  Yes, we are, but not terminally.  I have heard people say that mutual flourishing as a concept in the diocese is now set twenty years back.  I hope and pray not.  I sometimes wonder if I am being naïve.  I have been accused of pastoral platitudes, but I believe passionately that we are called to focus on the Good News, and I do sincerely hope and pray that even with our differences we can find a way of living together in unity and respect focused, as Paul reminds us on, Christ and God’s mission.  If we can’t then we really do have to do some real soul searching about what we are about as a diocese and as God’s people called to serve the whole of the Sheffield diocese and its people who are themselves a diverse and mixed community.

This will not be easy, I do not underestimate the real pain and hurt that has and continues to be felt across the traditions by women and men, clergy and laity.  We may never get to the point of total agreement and we certainly won’t if we do not remain fixed on Christ but I also believe that the final goal of living together in unity focused on the Good News and the transformation of people’s lives must be worth the effort.  We are called to make this journey together in joy as women and men, seeking mutual flourishing and in the highest possible degree of communion.

In the meantime, the Archbishop of York will in due course submit the name of an alternative candidate for the diocese.  

And I close as I did in my press statement, by reiterating what the Archbishop said to us all “We should use this time of Lent as a period of penitence, repentance and reflection both individually and corporately.  It is my sincere hope and prayer that such a period would act as the basis for reconciliation across the diocese as we rebuild relationships or trust and confidence and refocus on God’s mission and our vision for growth and the transformation of communities.  We should continue to pray for each other and Bishop Philip and also for the next person chosen by God to be the new Bishop of Sheffield who will be coming into a slightly different diocese than it was a few months ago.  I will also continue to pray for you all.


Background information:

New Norms New Beginnings

GS Misc 1076, General Synod, Women in the Episcopate

 

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Comments

Comment by Nick Jowett on 4.30pm 19th March 2017 Bishop Peter has acted with great wisdom and sensitivity through this whole unfortunate process and 'held' it extraordinarily well. But what now needs investigating is just how and why the possibility of appointing to a diocesan position someone from a minority tradition was handled without reflection on the inevitable conflict it would arouse, without, it appears, it even being discussed in the Vacancy in See or Crown Appointments, let alone in the wider diocese, and well before any name was in the frame. Undoubtedly there would still have been great unease about such a possibility, even in the abstract, and some of us would have continued to oppose it, but, with long and careful and sensitive preparation for what was clearly a brand new scenario that very few had thought would happen (even if they should have), it could have been possible to make it happen - and might still be in another diocese. But just to throw a traditionalist bishop at a mainstream diocese without any warning - frankly, what did they expect?
Comment by Sioned-Mair Richards on 10.47am 19th March 2017 Thank you.

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