It’s a Man’s Church

Rhian Taylor charts the ebb and flow of empathy for Philip North over his aborted appointment as Bishop of Sheffield.

It’s a Man’s Church

After considerable controversy Rev Phillip North resigned from his forthcoming appointment as the Bishop of Sheffield. This was due to criticism that as a member of Forward in Faith and The Society, organisations that don’t accept women priests and bishops, he would not be able to adequately support the clergy in Sheffield, a third of whom are women. The immediate response to his resignation seems to be a call to greater tolerance and a concern that this response has not shown enough tolerance to those of a traditional perspective…

On Sunday morning in my parish church, which is of a liberal persuasion, I listened to my vicar express his sadness about the resignation and make a passionate plea for more tolerance. It’s a compelling argument and one it seems very difficult to take issue with if you are of liberal persuasion. However, as I’ve reflected on this situation I wonder if it not as straightforward as it seems.

On the day of the resignation I watched with interest the media and Facebook fallout to the news. The people I saw reacting were unlikely to have agreed with Phillip North’s position on women but were truly disappointed about his resignation. What I noticed, however, is that the comments focussed on what a nice man he was, how well he got on with the women he worked with, and how it was a shame he wasn’t going to be able to utilise his skills and abilities in this role in Sheffield. In observing these comments what I was struck by is the connection between arguments that were often made in the past about racism: ‘She can’t be racist, she has lots of black friends.’; ‘he’s so nice to black people’.

We now know how inadequate these arguments are when we think about racism. Discrimination, whether it is racism or sexism is not just about our personal interactions, it occurs on a cultural and structural level too. In terms of the issue at hand- it’s quite possible for someone to be personally very kind and approachable to women, yet still be propagating cultural views that are diminishing of women as well as upholding and supporting institutional discrimination. I would suggest that this analysis might be relevant to Phillip North. On a personal level, he is kind and approachable yet he is a member of Forward in Faith an organisation that doesn’t believe women should be priests or Bishops. Their most recent publicity leaflet says ‘To be present when a woman presides at the Eucharist can be painful, because this visible mark of the Church’s disunity conflicts with the nature of the Sacrament of unity’. My understanding is Philip North will not receive communion if a woman is presiding. He also won’t receive communion if a male priest is presiding and they have been ordained by a woman.

But what do we do as people who find these views highly objectionable. I am aware that those in Forward in Faith justify their beliefs using theology, as of course people did with their racist world views. Does that make them untouchable to legitimate challenge? Why shouldn’t I name them as sexist views? People challenging the appointment have being strongly criticised for speaking up. There is a palpable sense that we are not being tolerant enough of the conservatives, and as Christians we should be tolerant to all. Phillip North has said he has felt personally attacked. That’s a real shame. These are nuanced arguments, and twitter, where everything is done in 140 characters, is not a place to express nuance. However, the line between the personal and public is a complex one. I also imagine that it would feel very personal to a woman priest in Sheffield if her Bishop refused to accept communion from her.

The narrative that we should be more tolerant is a very effective tool for reducing dissent, particularly when used with women. We have been socialised from early childhood not to upset people; to be kind; not to express our anger. It’s a narrative which silences us. Even as I write this, I am acutely aware of who I might be upsetting.

It is very noticeable to me that the level of empathy for one man’s situation is so much stronger than the level of empathy for the many women. This is an indication of just how patriarchal this institution still is. It is extremely difficult for women to work under a Bishop who denies the validity of their vocation. I know enough women who have had been in this situation to know how undermining and diminishing this can be, not just to their career, but to their whole personhood. I wonder if people see how ironic it is that there is so much dismay that Philip North is missing out on using his talents as Bishop, without considering that it is the impact of traditionalists views that have led to several generations of women facing similar restrictions and disappointments.

It’s always worth being very cautious in saying what Jesus might have done in a situation, but what strikes me about many gospel stories is that Jesus was known for being challenging rather than being tolerant. He didn’t tell the Pharisees that he wanted their mutual flourishing; that his disciples should not upset each other and that they should all work on things slowly together. Jesus called them out on wrong thinking and wrong actions. He was provocative. He was forward thinking. He turned over the tables in the temple.

The reality is we are not endlessly tolerant to all views, nor should we be. We have moral standards and we draw lines beyond which the right thing to do is to challenge and stand up for what we think is right. As a society, we are no longer tolerant of racist views, and neither should we be of sexist ones. I feel embarrassed to be part of a church which seeks exemption from the equality laws of our country, and I wonder how the church will ever be relevant to this generation when it continues to do this. No-one likes giving up power and privilege: that is why legislation can be helpful in ensuring people move forward. The real responsibility for the situation in Sheffield lies with those who made this appointment, not with Phillip North himself. However, in my view it is the right outcome that he will not be Bishop of Sheffield.

Rhian Taylor is a university lecturer and attends a PCN local group.

Image: Bishop Philip North preaching at his installation as Bishop of Burnley. Credit: Church of England in Lancashire


1 On 29/03/2017 John Churcher wrote:

The following quote from the article is the key as far as I am concerned: “The reality is we are not endlessly tolerant to all views, nor should we be.  We have moral standards and we draw lines beyond which the right thing to do is to challenge and stand up for what we think is right.” Thanks Rhian for your thoughtful and challenging blog.

2 On 31/03/2017 Alan Race wrote:

It is very good to have our attention drawn back to the main problem in all this which is the continuing patriarchy in church, soomething which is plain to see once you see it. Trouble is it has such a long history. And I like your point that empathy for one man cannot compare with the lack of empathy for so many women. But here’s the rub as well: it is often many women clergy who fail to push the structural patriarchy analysis and take the route of pastorally supporting the “downtrodden male”. How to tackle this?

3 On 31/03/2017 Bonnie Evans-Hills wrote:

Thank you for reminding that women, in general, and with few exceptions, continue to be prevented from opportunity to fully use hard-earned skills and natural talent. I was struck by the number of people who articulated dismay at the ‘loss of North’s talents’ - forgetting that he is still a bishop, still a priest, still a deacon, still a child of God serving the church. It is part of life that we experience disappointment, are turned down for jobs, find that our views are unacceptable to those around us - and sometimes discover we are considered to be unjust. Yes, it hurts. I think it behoves any one of us to enter a process of discernment in such situations, to discover whether such accusations have merit. It may be that process reveals a stronger conviction, and it may be we discover our own failings. But I do know what it is to work under a structure that lacks support for ones calling - whether it is because of gender, or race, or difference in tradition or priority. It is soul-destroying, and destructive of the wider atmosphere of the church we seek to serve. There is something in Alan Race’s accusation - those who are downtrodden are wary of treating others as they have been treated. But yes, this idea of ‘fairness’ has been used as a weapon to silence dissenting voices, voices that have struggled for too long to be heard in the first place. There is a threat in losing what little has been gained. But that little is worth nothing if holding onto it means losing the full voice God created us to use. This is not about trodding on others, but about taking our rightful place alongside rather than behind.

4 On 06/04/2017 Sonya J Wratten wrote:

Many thanks Rhian for your excellent piece. I hope you shared it with your vicar and I hope it challenged him. I’m an intolerant person, woman and priest of gender views held by people such as Philip North and I’m very proud of that. I believe that clergy with such views should not be ordained let alone hold office as Bishops. Rosa Parks did not apologise (as far as I know) for remaining in her seat nor did those that walked on Selma alongside many, many other cases in history where prejudice was not tolerated at any level whether dressed up in ‘good manners’ or in roaring at one another in the streets. Thomas Merton left his hermitage because Rosemary Radford-Ruether said he was not angry enough at the state of the world in the 1960’s and the institution of the RC church. He listened and came out with his anger to make it known, non-violently of course. We need less tolerance and more righteous, effective anger over many issues of inequality in our present times.

5 On 24/04/2017 Adrian Alker wrote:

I, too, am grateful for Rhian’s excellent blog on the Philip North affair. I particularly endorse the comment “The narrative that we should be more tolerant is a very effective tool for reducing dissent”. At the time , even in my former church in Sheffield, there were people willing to accept him being their bishop weighing his positive concerns for the poor, his record of work on white working class estates, against his views on women, as if the former gave brownie points which could be used to somehow compensate for his membership of The Society.

His withdrawal was gracious but also a necessary victory for the cause of ending institutional discrimination in the C of E.
Now we need to tackle those 5 ‘Principles’!

Adrian Alker

6 On 01/05/2017 John Cottingham wrote:

It worries me that, in so many areas of life, the liberal viewpoint is being given the status of the inevitable.
We feel that we have a God given right not to be offended and if, God forbid,somebody has views that we really don’t agree with,they must be suppressed or howled down in some way. 
This in defending a faith which was founded on
a crucified Son of God; mocked, spat on, flogged, and exucuted. His reported response ‘Father forgive them for they know not what they do’.
Don’t we need to learn to live with and respect those that we profoundly disagree with?
Just in case I give the impression of holding ‘antediluvian’ views on this matter, I’m a happy Methodist and attender of Quaker meetings where gender in ministry is simply not an issue.

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