A Focus for Unity? by The Revd Sue Hammersley

Staff TeamWe believe that our bishop should be a focus for unity but if we use the language of exclusion then are we not compromising our own values?

Here at St Mark’s we long for the church to be truly inclusive, but we find it just as difficult as anyone else to live alongside those whose beliefs conflict with our own. Is it right to push forward an inclusive agenda if the consequences of this are to exclude others?

How do we make sense of the nomination of a bishop whose theological convictions seem so out of step with the direction of travel of this diocese? We are being urged to trust Bishop Philip, to explore together what “mutual flourishing” might mean in this context. Some of us, men and women, feel utterly compromised by the idea of being out of communion with our diocesan bishop simply on grounds of gender, and we struggle to make sense of how this can work. Others in this congregation hold this tension much more easily because they have a deep love and respect for those around them whose ecclesiology is different.

My argument is with the Church of England, not the bishop-designate. Bishop Philip has received plenty of letters, outlining all sides of the argument. I would suggest that the time for writing directly to him has now passed. The Church of England has made a clear statement that it is, “fully and unequivocally committed to all orders of ministry being open equally to all… The Church of England has reached a clear decision on the matter.” (The Five Guiding Principles). This is a good situation in which we can rejoice!

The difficulties come when we look at how this works out in practice. The principles ensure that those who cannot receive the ministry of a woman are still able to thrive within the Church of England. Parishes can maintain their autonomy by choosing to only receive male priests who have not been ordained by a woman and they can also apply for Alternative Episcopal oversight. Their pastoral and sacramental needs are fulfilled without compromising the integrity of the woman who is their diocesan bishop, she can retain her authority by delegating certain responsibilities.

However, when the diocesan bishop comes from one of the conservative wings of the church the consequences are less clear. The Five Guiding Principles are asymmetrical. It is not clear how these parishes register their concerns. How do they ensure that the integrity of their priest is not undermined? They can’t appeal for alternative episcopal oversight, partly because their diocesan bishop’s orders are not in question but also because their suffragan bishop can perform the duties of ordination, confirmation and chrism which are required of a diocesan bishop. And yet there still remains something deeply unsettling.

There is an imbalance of power which is stark and needs challenging. When the diocesan bishop is not in full communion with parishes in his diocese, how can he share the “cure of souls” with their priests?

There is an urgency to understand what’s happening within the Diocese of Sheffield, not because we are trying to exclude anyone but because we are setting a precedent for the rest of the country. There is a structural injustice here which undermines the integrity of the whole church. Some of us feel called to speak out about this, others want to move forward and work it out with our new bishop, many of us flip between these two positions. We are blessed here at St Mark’s with a team of clergy whose views are not identical, perhaps we can model something important, that we do not have to agree with one another in order to discover our inherent value in the body of Christ.

We are here for you, please let us know if you would like to talk this through.

The Revd Sue Hammersley

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