Philip North and the sham of good disagreement

It seems that there are some within the Church of England who like to make a big noise about ‘good disagreement’ when it suits them, but aren’t really committed to it. The sad case of Philip North over the last few weeks has exposed that. (If you don’t know any of the background, you can read about it on the BBC).

Many articles and analyses have been written about this subject, so I won’t waste my words here but get to the point. Good disagreement means more than simply ‘I will tolerate your presence so long as I never have to put up with you and I get my way all the time’. Most of the concerns around Philip North’s consecration as bishop were to do with ‘equality’ – ‘how, given the church’s march towards equality, can we have a bishop who doesn’t ordain women?’

The problem is, this does not take into account the views of Philip North (and others like him) on equality. Although he is coming from an Anglo-Catholic perspective – and I would differ substantially from him on many points – his objections to women priests and bishops would be based on similar ground to mine (as a complementarian): a Biblical anthropology of male and female, founded on Genesis 1-3 (which I talk a little about here) and explained further in the rest of the Scriptures. The point is not that we do not believe in equality – the point is that fundamentally our views of equality must be in submission to what God thinks equality is.

And herein lies the problem. Martyn Percy, and others, have a particular view of equality. Philip North, and myself, and others from our respective constituencies, have a different view of equality. That’s the thing. We disagree. Good disagreement requires disagreement, right? You can’t then go and say “well, seeing as my view is the correct one, we should ban anybody who has the opposite view…” That’s not what good disagreement is supposed to mean!

When the women bishops legislation was introduced in 2014, it was passed by synod with five guiding principles. All clergy in the CofE should agree with these principles. The basic idea is that the CofE has reached a “clear decision” that women can be ordained priest and bishop, and that all clergy should accept that decision – women ordained as such are lawful office holders – but the last two points say this:

  • Since those within the Church of England who, on grounds of theological conviction, are unable to receive the ministry of women bishops or priests continue to be within the spectrum of teaching and tradition of the Anglican Communion, the Church of England remains committed to enabling them to flourish within its life and structures; and
  • Pastoral and sacramental provision for the minority within the Church of England will be made without specifying a limit of time and in a way that maintains the highest possible degree of communion and contributes to mutual flourishing across the whole Church of England.

The language of ‘mutual flourishing’ is important: as I understand it, this meansĀ “we disagree, but we don’t want to stifle the minority and give it every opportunity to flourish.” I don’t see how that fits with the hounding of Philip North. By all accounts he is committed to mutual flourishing and working with people who he had disagreements with – those who have worked with him in Burnley say that he is committed to women’s ministry. Philip North seems to understand good disagreement. I’m not sure his vocal critics do.

It seems to me that ‘good disagreement’ is a phrase which a lot of people like to use, but don’t really want to live with its consequences. Good disagreement means appreciating that other people might disagree with us quite fundamentally on some issues. When the CofE has formally gone down a road of good disagreement on this issue, what hope do we have when many clergy reject it?