Oh for the wings of a dove: the Bishop of Sheffield and the betrayal of communion

Real music buffs will be able to tell me which is the most well-known anthem text in the choral repertoire, but surely ‘O for the wings, for the wings of a dove …’ must be in the top ten?

We all know the feeling of wanting to ‘fly away and be at rest’ to ‘escape far away and take refuge in the desert.’

Following the recent General Synod, and the subsequent distress at the nomination of Philip North as Bishop of Sheffield, no Anglican could be blamed for having such feelings.

Interestingly, the psalm which these words come from is a psalm of betrayal.

“If this had been done by an enemy
I could bear his taunts.
If a rival had risen against me,
I could hide from him.

But it is you, my own companion,
my intimate friend!
(How close was the friendship between us.)
We talked together in harmony
in the house of God.”

So much of the anger about the Synod report not taken note of, stemmed from a sense of betrayal. These were people we had trusted, shared conversation with, talked together in the house of God with and this is how they treat us!

We can only be betrayed by those we have trusted, loved, cared for.

Perhaps the distress over Bishop Philip’s nomination has the same root? A diocese which has actively engaged in the search for equality and social justice. A church in which the battle for the ordination of women seemed to be over. Bishops and others committed to equality and doing this! This feels like a betrayal of communion, of intimate Gospel relationship.

Those who do not receive the ordination of women as priests and bishops also feel betrayed. They had been promised ‘mutual flourishing’ equality in the church, an honoured position, a place at the table, and now when one of their bishops is made diocesan there is uproar. The promises seem worthless, the assurances hollow.

This moment is the greatest test that mutual flourishing has faced so far. It is an issue far beyond the Diocese of Sheffield, it concerns all of us.

I am profoundly committed to the ordination of women to all orders of ministry in the church, and rejoice to belong to a church which has reached the point that we have. However, I believe that if Philip were to withdraw from his acceptance of the see it would be a catastrophe for us. When would we ever be able to trust synod again? How would those not able to receive the ministry of women be able to be at home in our church? It would make synodical process and agreement meaningless and we would be left with chaos.

When General Synod agreed the five guiding principles it did an extraordinary thing. Easy, as one friend in Sheffield said to me this week, to write down, but hard to live with. The Church of England has always been ‘an ecumenical experiment’. More so than ever on this.

So, some thoughts on ‘communion’.

Like any Catholic priest I believe I exercise priesthood on behalf of a Catholic bishop. This bishop should always be mentioned by name in the Mass. The Anglican custom is to do so in the intercessions. If the bishop is not named then I normally insert intercessions, including the bishop’s name, into the Eucharistic Prayer in the Roman way. Bear with me while I say more about this and about the practice at the Taize Community – that other great ecumenical experiment.

In the western church the normal practice is to pray for ‘N our Pope and N our bishop’ expressing both the universal and local aspects of catholicity. Some Anglo-Catholics pray for ‘N our Archbishop and N our bishop’, others add ‘N the pope’ before that. I have always pondered carefully on whether to say ‘our’ or ‘the’ pope and have settled on ‘our’ pope. He is the only pope there is, he is the only universal pastor. Although my communion with him is deeply impaired it is the common unity of all Christians with the successor of Peter that I long for, it is from the church of the west that our little church is carved, the rock from which we are hewn.

My recent experience is of regularly celebrating Mass in a church, in vacancy, that is under the care of the bishop of Beverley. The Missal and concelebration cards are carefully marked, ‘Francis the Pope, Glyn our bishop and Paul the bishop of Liverpool’, and those are the words I use when thereIt is Paul who licenses me and who on every other occasion I pray for as ‘Paul our bishop’. But, and this is significant, I only pray for ‘Paul our bishop’ when I am in the diocese. In any other diocese, I pray for the bishop of the place, in the first few weeks of this year that has meant praying for ‘Richard/Michael/Peter/Rachel/Christopher/Julian/Nicholas … our bishop’.

When I am at Taize I concelebrate each day with Brother Pierre-Yves, an ancient Reformed pastor. When I first did so I asked who I should name and asked the name of the bishop of the diocese (normally in France I pray for the bishop of Europe). He told me that Taize is an ecumenical community and so therefore not relating to the bishop of the diocese but to the wider church, and we name ‘N the Pope, N the Patriarch of Constantinople, N the Archbishop of Canterbury, N the General Secretary of the World Council of Churches’.

What I am trying to suggest is that ‘communion’ is much more messy than nice legal definitions might imply. Am I a priest of the presbytery of Beverley? Clearly not. But neither am I a priest of the presbytery of Gloucester or Leeds or London or wherever.

The reason that communion is so much more messy is that our practices of who we will and will not receive communion from, and who we think is a priest or isn’t, are so inadequate, because all our ‘communion’ is impaired by the falleness of the world and will not be made perfect until the end of all things. The fundamental communion that we all share is baptism, we are members of one body: at that level I am as in communion with the Pope as I am with any Pentecostal pastor or Presbyterian elder. The incompleteness of that communion is the ecumenical imperative that should drive us to repair and restore communion whenever we can and maintain what communion we can even in the direst circumstances. Still deeper than the communion of baptism is the communion of substance, we share a common humanity because we are all derived from the first human being, if we didn’t all share that human-ness we could not be saved by Jesus. God himself came to restore that communion by sharing in our human-ness.

The communion that is shared by those who receive and those who do not receive the ordination of women is fragile. God calls us to walk towards each other not away from each other. This means living with the messiness, the deeply unsatisfactory provisionality of it all. This week I was due to celebrate the Ash Wednesday Mass at the parish under the care of Bishop Glyn. Worried that I wouldn’t make it on time because of train delays into Liverpool I happened to be speaking on the phone to my closest priest-friend in the diocese. ‘Well, I can’t cover for you.’ She said, and indeed she couldn’t. I am reminded that for her my fragile communion with Bishop Glyn and those who do not fully receive the ordination of women must seem like a betrayal. I have to ask myself if I am colluding with sexist structures? Psalm 55 which provides us with that haunting text ‘Oh for the wings’ is a violent and angry psalm. The anger felt in Sheffield and elsewhere is entirely to be expected. The importance of Bishop Philip’s appointment is to keep that conversation going. I don’t know anyone better than him to do so. Can we make mutual flourishing work? Can we demonstrate good disagreement to the world? For the moment it seems that we can see ‘nothing but strife in the city’. But the communion of the Holy Spirit is deeper than our divisions. May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God be with us in that conversation.


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