When “mutual flourishing” becomes bad bullying: C of E Archbishops launch investigation

by Barbara Gauthier


In May 2014, the Church of England gave its approval to women bishops.  Part of that agreement involved General Synod agreeing to the Bishops' Declaration, which would respect the theological positions of those opposed to women's ordination and assure them of a place in the new Church of England that would allow them to "flourish" alongside those in favor of women bishops.  Under the "mutual flourishing" protocol of the Declaration, conservative Evangelical Rod Thomas was then appointed and consecrated in September 2015 as the Bishop of Maidstone.


In January 2017, Philip North was selected by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York as the first Anglo-catholic diocesan bishop to be appointed since the Church of England authorized the ordination of women priests in 1994.  However, North's appointment was met with intense opposition from liberal activist clergy within the Diocese of Sheffield and elsewhere in the church.  Martyn Percy, Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, issued a very strong statement openly questioning North's suitability to serve as a diocesan bishop because of his opposition to women's ordination.  Others soon joined the chorus denouncing both the Archbishops' decision and the notion of "mutual flourishing."   Despite strong personal support from three women bishops and other female clergy, North eventually succumbed to the intensely personal attacks being leveled against him and stepped down.


North's appointment was to have been a demonstrative triumph of ++Welby's new theological vision of "good disagreement" as a way of living together by absorbing theological diversity as a positive development towards a new post-modern definition of church unity.  The Declaration's notion of "mutual flourishing" was that all theological positions are to be encouraged and given a place of honor in the church and provided with safe spaces to pursue their own ministries.  This is not at all what happened and what was supposed to be a sterling example of "mutual flourishing" was quickly tarnished with incidents of outright public bullying designed to denigrate, shame and compel North to either denounce his theological views or renounce his appointment outright.  North withdrew from his nomination as Bishop of Sheffield.


What became very clear is that ++Welby's "good disagreement" is not working.  The Bishops' Declaration of "mutual flourishing" has turned out to be a one-way street that leads only to the flourishing of progressive factions.  Moreover, these same outspoken liberal minorities have found the promise of "mutual flourishing" to be a most useful weapon in the persecution of  conservative minorities holding opposing views: "since your beliefs would prevent us from flourishing, therefore in the name of 'mutual flourishing' you must be prevented from preventing us from flourishing."

Things have now gotten so bad that  ++Welby and ++Sentamu have announced that they are launching a probe into this fiasco, in which an episcopal appointment that was supposed to be a positive demonstration of "mutual flourishing" has led instead to the nominee being hounded out of office.  The  Archbishops have called upon Independent Reviewer Sir Philip Mawer to conduct an investigation to determine the process by which these individual personal attacks on North ended up forcing him to withdraw his nomination in direct violation of the C of E's "overriding principle of mutual flourishing":


Archbishops Justin Welby (left) and John Sentamu.


The recent events surrounding the nomination of Bishop Philip North as Bishop of Sheffield, including his withdrawal from the process, have understandably raised great concern amongst many in the Church of England. The status of the House of Bishops Declaration of June 2014 has been questioned by some and its meaning has also been challenged.


We have therefore written to Sir Philip Mawer, the Independent Reviewer under the Declaration on the Ministry of Bishops and Priests, (Resolution of Disputes Procedure Regulations) 2014, to address the concerns that have arisen in the Church following these recent events. We attach our letter to Sir Philip, in which we reaffirm clearly our commitment, and the commitment of the House of Bishops, to its Declaration, to the principles contained in it, and to the overriding principle of mutual flourishing.


Finally, in this period of Lent, as part of our preparation for the glorious celebration of the extraordinary grace of God in the events of Holy Week and Easter, we call on all those in the Church to pray openly for the flourishing of those with whom they disagree, to demonstrate the mutual love which we are called to share and to proclaim confidently in word and deed that in Christ we find our true identities, and the overcoming of those things which in ourselves we find so divisive."

+ Justin Cantuar:            +Sentamu Eboracensis


The Archbishops are convinced that Declaration itself has not failed.  Therefore the problem must be blamed on either a faulty process of implementation, a colossal misunderstanding of exactly what is meant by "mutual flourishing", or a failure to convey that information adequately to others, particularly in the Diocese of Sheffield.  In other words, it's a procedural glitch that needs a bit of tweaking and not the result of the mutually incoherent and fundamentally unworkable premise of ++Welby's proposed "good disagreement" paradigm.


This same sort of specious reasoning was also apparent in paragraph 63 of Bishops Report, where they solemnly set out their own attempt at squaring the theological circle:


... the House of Bishops has affirmed that stable, faithful homosexual relationships can “embody crucial social virtues” of fidelity and mutuality. One challenge is therefore to explore how that affirmation in the case of both celibate and non-celibate relationships might be more fully articulated in our theological ethics and better communicated in our pastoral and missional practice, while maintaining the current doctrine of the Church of England on marriage and relationships. Nor can this challenge be separated from the Church’s response to the prevalence of stable, faithful heterosexual relationships other than marriage in our society.


This impenetrably obtuse proposal was rejected by General Synod.  One might be led to wonder if these strong reactions in the wake of North's appointment and his subsequent withdrawal may be an indication that the Church of England itself is now preparing to reject the Archbishops' own definition of "good disagreement" as a bringing forth of "mutual flourishing" through "radical inclusion."   This trajectory of verbal gymnastics is quickly developing into an ecclesiastical version of Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky", with clearly recognizable English grammar wedded to incomprehensible semantic meanings.


Sir Philip Mawer's report is expected to be completed in about two months.


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