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Anglican Observations

The recent selection, and then withdrawal, of Philip North as Bishop of Sheffield generated a lot of spilled ink and emotional-blood among Anglican commentators. North’s withdrawal seems to mean that it will no longer be possible for a ‘traditionalist’ who disagrees with the ordination of women to become a diocesan bishop, despite provisions that were intended to accommodate such traditionalists.

One of the more interesting responses was that of Elaine Storkey. Storkey laments the “appalling hounding, vilification and name-calling meted out to Philip North,” and regrets that he will not be bishop – despite being a strong advocate of women’s ordination herself. I have no axe to grind in Anglican arguments, but is has been interesting to trace how things came to this pass.

Storkey describes how, “The Women Bishops measure would not have gone through the General Synod without the co-operation of many traditionalists. I say co-operation, rather than agreement, because that is what it was.” It was that co-operating despite disagreement that was meant to preserve space for traditionalists in the Anglican church, but to me this looks a naïve hope.

There is an inevitable trajectory in these matters: first women become regular preachers of the word, which makes keeping them from ordination inexplicable. Once ordained, it is equally inexplicable to keep women from serving in any church office. Parallel to this same-sex relationships are increasingly accommodated and legitimised, then blessed and sacralised. And, finally, those who oppose such moves are themselves prevented from holding office in the church. This happens because the initial denial of functional differences between the sexes eventually erodes the foundation for any difference between men and women; in effect making sex (gender) something that is contingent rather than essential to the understanding of human personhood.

I am not here offering any value judgment about this trajectory: some mourn it, many celebrate it. My observation is simply that the end result seems inevitable. And while this particular instance applies to the Anglican church, the principle is true for all churches. There are parallel examples aplenty in the nonconformist/evangelical/charismatic waters in which I more normally swim. But for Anglicans, the direction of travel was effectively set when in 1992 the decision was made to ordain female priests. No one should be surprised about what has happened to Philip North: the fruit you harvest is always born of the seed that you plant.

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