Updates on Exeter and comment on Sheffield

Some months ago, I tried to make sense of the published account of the Bishop of Exeter’s Visitation to his Cathedral. The report contained a great deal of detail about the various clergy overseeing that institution. In the past, some of the details placed in the published report would not have seen the light of day. We may imagine that there were further issues that were not spelt out. Nevertheless, it was still a revealing account of life at Exeter Cathedral. My observations and comments were given in the blog post below. http://survivingchurch.org/2016/09/30/exeter-cathedral-issues-of-power/

After writing my post I was pleased to get a communication from someone in Exeter quite close to the action. He was able to confirm that I had been reasonably accurate in my speculations about the dysfunction of power at the Cathedral. Now today after six months we have received the dramatic news of the resignation of the Dean and the Precentor. The only new information is the suggestion that financial issues were also part of the problem at Exeter alongside the personality problems. When a cathedral cannot pay its way, then existing management will find it extremely hard to cope. Outside bodies, such as the Church Commissioners, may well have a voice in determining what should happen for the future. The departure of the Precentor is interesting. Was she by any chance involved in an overspending? This remains pure speculation but the departure of two members of the Chapter at one moment is significant.

There will always be problems at Exeter and at other cathedrals when lines of power become tangled up and confused. This, we suggested, was likely to happen as the result of the Cathedral Measure of 1999. I do not want to repeat what I said before on that topic. When you add a need for financial retrenchment to a possibly muddled division of responsibilities, you have a recipe for chaos. As I mentioned before, the role of the Dean of an English cathedral is a prestigious one and should attract men or women of the highest calibre. But, increasingly as these unfortunate incidents occur, the job of Dean at one of our cathedrals is going to be regarded as a poisoned chalice.

The other major drama is going on in Sheffield. Most of my readers will know the broad outlines of the story which has led Bishop Philip North to withdraw from accepting the nomination to be Bishop of Sheffield. A lot of unpleasant words have been said and those who criticised the appointment have been accused of vindictive personal attacks. Looking into the various components of the drama, I came across an account of the consecration of Philip to the Bishop of Burnley which took place a couple of years ago. In keeping with his Anglo-Catholic theological convictions, Philip was consecrated by three bishops who had retained their separation from any involvement with the ordination of women. These three bishops were thus ‘untainted’, having neither taken part at the ordination of women nor received the sacrament at the hands of a female priest. The Archbishop of York himself was present at the service but, having ordained women, he took no part in the actual consecration. Without going into any of the other arguments about the suitability of Bishop Philip to the see of Sheffield, I found this story very revealing. The way his original consecration was performed speaks volumes about his understanding of priesthood. These views are shared by a band of clergy who belong to a group called The Society. This position, to put a negative interpretation on it, seems to carry an unmistakable aroma of misogyny and fear of the female sex. Whatever pastoral gifts the Bishop might possess, it is hard to see how he could ever regard the numerous ordained women in his diocese as true colleagues. The Church of England does not seem to know how to react to the problem of reconciling opinions of people who take inflexible views. In this situation, we are dealing with a form of fundamentalism. In its conservative protestant variation, I have described fundamentalism as an opinion which cannot and does not enter into dialogue. The nature of Bishop Phillip’s consecration also seems to point to a similar intransigence. The inability to tolerate the touch of an Archbishop who had ordained women suggests an inability to tolerate possible sacramental and thus doctrinal contamination. This does not create a good environment for the Anglican desire for a state of ‘mutual flourishing’.

Fundamentalism whether catholic or protestant seems to have a deep problem with the status of women. We are not just talking about the theological and biblical arguments about their status. We are also describing what women actually feel when they enter some churches. In many conservative protestant circles women are forbidden to take positions of leadership. This is also true in the stance of many Anglo-Catholics. Something is going on here which is deeper than theology and the quoting of biblical texts. It is an encounter with prejudice which is rooted in the dark place of misogyny. When the experience of women is to feel second rate and second-best then this is an issue of power abuse. It thus comes into the purview of this blog. These posts will always name and resist such naked abuses of power in a church context.

In conclusion, I find myself siding with those who have opposed Bishop Philip for the see of Sheffield. We are not just describing not just the impossibility of a mutual flourishing of ideas, which is what the Church says it wants. We are talking effectively about a potential institutional disempowering of the female sex in the context of the religious life of our country. From the perspective of this blog that is not right. We continue to plead for a vision that God’s will that furthers the complete flourishing of all. Even though this is difficult to achieve in practice we should not be pretending that God shows any preference for half the human race. Let us be grateful for the variety we see in humankind – male and female, gay and straight, black and white and all the varieties of personality. God wishes all to prosper; woe betide any of us if we put obstructions in the way of full flourishing for all.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

17 thoughts on “Updates on Exeter and comment on Sheffield

  1. I suppose it could be argued that, in rejecting a woman’s sacrament, he is ‘working within the system’ in order to bring about change when he has the necessary authority/voice to do so. A parallel could be drawn between Lib Dem MPs that must ‘work within the system’ of FPTP in order to bring about PR.

    I’m not saying that is what happened here, just that it could be argued.

    1. Are you saying that Bishop North is trying to bring in an era of prejudice against women? And I’m not sure that saying it’s like PR is helpful! Bringing in an era of prejudice isn’t much like anything else!

      1. I made no such suggestion. Perhaps you didn’t notice the final sentence?

        “I’m not saying that is what happened here, just that it could be argued.”

        Also, I didn’t say it was like PR. I said a parallel could be drawn in the way that both sides could be argued to be ‘working within the system” to bring about the change they desire.

        I thought it was quite clear. Apparently not.

  2. Thanks for both points. Regarding Exeter, misogyny, female disempowerment and personality issues come in all shapes and forms… The now former Dean of Exeter came to preach for Candlemas at one of our churches a while ago. He used the prophet Anna as an occasion to expatiate on the supposed fact that there are still always annoying old women hanging around cathedrals making a nuisance of themselves. I’m not even exaggerating the tone of his comments. I wasn’t the only one there who took a very dim view of the shocking sexism and ageism from someone in his position combined with the travesty of the text and misuse of the power of the pulpit.

    1. And he had a female Precentor? That’s interesting. Was she his “cover”? “Oh no, I’m not prejudiced against women, I’ve got a female precentor”! And why are so many gay men prejudiced against women? Fear of the unknown? I’m currently much irritated by the “inclusive church” people near me who are very into equality for gays, are ok with female ordination, but think you can only have boys singing in a choir!

  3. Haiku. I had not indicated that sexism was a problem at Exeter so you are adding something new! Sexism is however at large in the somewhat precious ‘boys-only’ culture of the very high church clique. It is wrapped up in theology but, as I have suggested, a lot of keeping women out of the sanctuary in catholic circles has the aroma of misogyny about it. If we go back far enough for an explanation, we find the horror at menstrual blood set out in Leviticus. I can’t give a reference off-hand. This reason for excluding women is also set out in an Orthodox volume known as the ‘pydalion’ or ‘rudder’. Women are unclean so they cannot partake of the holiness of the altar and the sacramental actions that take place there. Even today we find this condescending attitude towards women based on an irrational loathing. It is not rare!

  4. Thanks for this Stephen. Anyone who misuses power should be properly dealt with. Usually with the church they are not interested. Could it be that as usual, it’s just either money or sex? So action was only taken once it became clear they had made a mess of the money? And you’re right about Philip North, too. How would they feel if a female bishop started only ordaining women? Or a Cathedral decided to drop the boys in a choir and use girls instead? We need to stop ordaining men who don’t accept the ordination of women. Let them join another church.

  5. Couldn’t get the address you give to work. Could you put it in as a hyper link please? I’d like to re-read your earlier post.

    1. Thanks. It worked perfectly. I had to collar a passing nine-year-old to show me, too! I had already tried the typing in thang, but it didn’t work, although I did check it most assiduously. The (now former) Dean’s “vision” that you spoke of in your earlier piece may just have been his wish list, and impressed everyone. But if you have no plan in place to put it into action, it’s just day-dreams. It’s a sad business, though. I have no time for bullies, nor for those who knew and did nothing, but it’s still sad.

  6. With Sheffield, the interesting question is how the female clergy there (1/3 of the total) felt. I haven’t been able to find a definite answer, but I think they were mostly happy with Philip North, despite his views on women. The problem seems to have been external to the diocese – Martyn Percy in particular. He’s a liberal, so for once evangelicals were not to blame (egalitarian evangelicals such as Pete Broadbent and Elaine Storkey have made public their sadness at North’s withdrawal and condemned the campaigning against him).

    1. Obviously, he’s not a monster. But if you are female and live in his Diocese you’re going to have a difficult time. And if you feel called to ministry, he would simply support anyone who said you weren’t without checking that perhaps the other person is not being so scrupulous. No, there are plenty of churches that think women are only suited for babies and scones. Of course, you don’t get to be a Bishop if you join the local house church!

      1. What evidence do you have for that? My understanding is that he’s actually treated women well so far. It’s simply not possible for a bishop to be biased against female ordinands – there would be uproar.

        1. Well, I don’t think everyone who should would necessarily get as far as being an ordinand. And how do you get on with someone who thinks you’re either a liar or a fantasist? And I’m afraid you’re very naïve if you think it’s likely that anyone would attempt to stop a Bishop. Only money and sex. Basically partly because they don’t care about bullying, and partly because it’s very hard to prove anything else. No uproar, I promise you. That’s why we have this blog!

  7. I think the discussion about Philip North has probably gone as far as is useful on this blog. From my point of view the arguments that accuse another side of making insults means that it is hard to see what are the real issues. Theology goes out of the window when emotions run high. That seems to be what has happened in this discussion, both here and elsewhere. In my post I tried to stick to facts. I may have to monitor the discussion from now on.

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