Many readers here will know of the recent controversy in the Church of England. The Crown Nominations Commission nominated Philip North to be the next Bishop of Sheffield. But Philip North believes that women cannot be priests. And when he was ordained bishop, no one who had ordained a woman laid hands on him. So that would mean the CofE would have had a diocesan bishop who believed that a lot of the people termed “priests” in his diocese are “priests” (as in – lay people dressed as priests attempting to do priest things), not priests.

Long story short: the controversy that erupted concluded with Philip North withdrawing his acceptance.

There is analysis everywhere about this. And I don’t want to debate those details here. If you want to debate the Philip North story, there’s plenty of places to do that.

I want to dig a little deeper.

There’s an interesting analysis of the story being about believing that sacraments actually mean what we say they mean.

There’s also analysis that this controversy models the inability of holding together those for and those against blessing committed same-sex couples. Again – there’s plenty of places you can discuss committed same-sex couples.

But, in this post, I want to dig yet a bit deeper. For, I think, this is about authority. Who or what has authority in Christianity? Who or what, for example, can decide whether women can be priests or not?

It is all very well to have a business model of Christianity where those who are likeminded stay together within one church organisation, one denomination. This model would say, to shift the example into the business model, that my desire to sell digital watches does not fit within our company of wind-up watchmaking and my group will have to separate and form our own independent company. But, is that really the model for how we want to view the faith of following Jesus? Isn’t there some sort of authority that can say authoritatively: yes or no – watchmaking, from now on, includes digital watches?

The Bible-alone as authority clearly doesn’t work. Bible-alone people often cannot agree with each other. Even on pretty basic stuff. Of all authority options, Bible-alone is the fastest dividing. They are the ones who most follow the above business model of Christianity.

Then there’s Bible-and-tradition. Well that’s quickly divided into: tradition just refers to the history of different interpretations of the Bible; and those that see the Bible within the church’s tradition. Either way, I don’t see a strong, clear, single authority.

Roman Catholicism can reply with a pope-as-authority approach, which seems to work best of all within the Christian spectrum. The irony, currently, is that those who are most strongly the advocates of the pope-as-authority approach don’t like the current pope and often argue against what he is teaching. Sure, we can focus on infallible teaching, but it’s pretty difficult (read impossible) to find an infallible list of infallible teaching.


Might we dig another level deeper… to a level that many may not want to entertain, but it just might strike us as we lie awake in the darkness of the night…

When we want Christianity to be a revealed religion of a list of truths that we can tick off, do we struggle to describe what the list includes and what it excludes, and how such a list is produced?

What do you think?

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Top Image: Revelation at the Mount Horeb in an illustration from a Christian Bible card published by the Providence Lithograph Company

Cartoon source

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