The Philip North affair, quite understandably, continues to excite comment in the Church of England. The following is a text of a letter which I sent to Fr Philip, as he then was, shortly after the debacle over the See of Whitby.
I read your two articles in New Directions with sadness and astonishment. They contain so much which is true, and yet draw such bizarre conclusions from those indisputable facts.
‘The Church of England has a wonderful way of dealing with challenging or new opinions…which is to domesticate them by labelling them as one of the traditions or constituencies which make up a diverse church’. Just so.
But you go on: ‘ A new group or movement is given its own little space, and allowed to go on saying what it thinks as long as the others have equal space.’
Not so. Precisely the opposite has been conclusively demonstrated by the prolonged dispute over the ordination of women as priests and bishops. Provision which might have accorded ‘equal space’ in the matter has been systematically eroded and shows no signs of possible re-instatement. The majority in this matter are like vegetarians: after you have prepared them a nut cutlet, they do not have the grace to offer you a pork chop. For them ‘principle’ trumps tolerance every time!
I do not see, moreover, why you should think that greater involvement in the life of the Church of England at deanery, diocesan or national level is a prophylactic against that gelding- by- assimilation which you have so accurately described. ‘We must spurn safe places and ghettos’, you say – as though that were a courageous and adventurous thing to do. But since the CofE has made it clear that there is no alternative, the gesture can hardly pass muster as either. You are simply repackaging reaction as action.
‘The Holy Father has put an offer on the table…and we have said no .That means that we have re-committed ourselves to an Anglican future.’
But again, not so. Your own flirtation with the episcopate has surely taught you the anomalies of the present situation. Full integration into the corporate and sacramental life of the Church of England is no longer possible for those who refuse the ministry of women priests and bishops (and, prospectively, the men they ordain). The constitutional fiction upon which the catholic movement subsisted in the two decades after 1992 – that the matter was reversible and that the CofE could opt to return to the status quo ante – has been demonstrated to be just that: a fiction.
‘We change, leave or die’, you conclude. Since you have ruled out the life-giving option (though you never say precisely why) you have only two options left. In all probability they will turn out to be the same thing.
With all good wishes,