A truly horrible thing has happened and I feel more like weeping than ranting or wranting. How can Christians, Anglicans from the church in which I had spent my life until two years ago, behave as they have been behaving to Bishop Philip North, who has withdrawn from his nomination as Bishop of Sheffield? He doesn’t support the ordination of women, though many women clergy with whom he has worked as Bishop of Burnley, speak, not only highly but also very warmly, of him. He is a rarity, simply an old fashioned bishop, a shepherd of his sheep, and not to be tolerated in this modern world.
When I left the Church in Wales I felt a bit like a rat leaving a sinking ship. Now I realise, not just the C in W but the entire Anglican church throughout the British Isles has already sunk without trace. Is there is anything left of the broad Anglican church I grew up in? If so it has been bullied out of sight.
I was planning to wrant about the Welsh bishops’ decision to scrap Confirmation—just like that, on a nod.
After Philip North’s decision I thought I would write about that instead. But I have had an interesting thought—well, interesting to me, and perhaps to other people. The two things are clearly connected.
Let me reminisce. Fifty years ago children were prepared for confirmation aged about 15 or 16. I was studying for my ‘O’ levels at the time and, in those days, many in my class would leave school that same summer. It was a great opportunity. We were in the habit of studying, we had reached a sensible age and it was a possible last chance to instil some knowledge of Anglican theology into our minds.
In a 6 to 8 week course with the local Rector, no mean scholar, we learned the fundamentals of our religion, and studied the different services in detail, and how they were constructed and why. We also studied the catechism and the 39 articles. For ‘Homework’ we had various books to read, including ‘Blue Lagoon’ by H. de Vere Stacpoole, which initially appalled my father, because of the sex in it. Since it was first published in 1908 you can imagine how racy it was. At our confirmation service the girls all wore white dresses and veils.
I don’t think there were white dresses, and certainly no veils when my daughter was confirmed thirty years later but she did have some proper training and my elder son was at a boarding school, which took care of everything.
Ten years on and, with hindsight, I can see the writing was already on the wall. My youngest son was a choir boy in our local church so he was well schooled in the discipline of the services and was absorbing quite a lot of the theory as well. I remember listening to a conversation as I drove a carload of choir boys to church one evening around Easter time.
First boy: Well, of course the tomb was empty.
Second boy: Had to be, didn’t it. He’d risen.
That’s OK I thought.
But then several other Mums in the church we attended demanded confirmation classes for their daughters, five of them, aged between 7 and 10. I didn’t recognise what was happening at the time, but I do now. Their girls felt ‘victimised’. They were being treated like babies. They were being deprived. A mere blessing at the altar was demeaning. My son was encouraged to join them and, to my shame, I didn’t have the guts to say no.
However, a few days before the actual Confirmation service, he came home from the rehearsal and announced that he couldn’t go through with it. His stumbling block was the command to turn the other cheek. In his opinion that was a gift to the bullies, many of whom he’d already encountered. I was overjoyed. He was confirmed as an adult.
What has this to do with today? I think we have seen a terrible dumbing down, year after year, in the fundamental knowledge of what it means to be an Anglican. Virtually no Christian teaching in schools. Here in Wales not confirmation classes to impart even a minimal of Anglican truth. Now, in the 21st century, not only the laity but also many of the clergy are woefully ignorant.
And those who recognise the fact of their ignorance and limitations react like most weak people—they bully.
Consider the hounding of Philip North. Isn’t it striking that the very people who have complained the loudest about persecution and victimisation in the past are in the forefront of the noisy attack on an educated and deeply spiritual man? As Christians, surely they should have been able to put their bitterness and resentment behind them and show us, and Philip North, understanding examples of generosity, tolerance and patience. No, not really. There is a gaping hole in the soul of the Church in England and a lot of it has to do with ignorance.
Last year the Bishop of St Asaph authorized a podcast by some of his team to explain the Church’s teaching on the Trinity.
Speaker One, a cleric, and the Director of Ministry.
“God is three persons – Holy Spirit, Father and Son. God is three and one. I don’t know how that can be but God is a mystery. I know that’s a bit of a cop out.”
Speaker Two, the Diocesan Training Officer “I think we over complicate it a bit. I used to think that God came first, then Jesus and then the Holy Spirit because that’s the way it’s kind of taught in church.” She went on to explain that her Vicar at the time that she thought that, pointed out that at the creation the Holy Spirit was already there in Genesis. ‘And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.’ Her comment on this sounds more like a child in a Sunday school than a member of the bishop’s team. “This is a bit of a freaky thing for me, that the spirit had been around because I thought it had only arrived at Pentecost.”
What sort of bishop thinks that is proper teaching? Almost certainly a modern bishop, totally outclassed by someone of the stature, integrity and learning of Bishop Philip North.