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Fr North to be Bishop of Burnley

14 November 2014

diocese of blackburn

Northern delight: Fr Philip North visiting the Burnley and Pendle Faith Centre, last week

Northern delight: Fr Philip North visiting the Burnley and Pendle Faith Centre, last week

THE new Bishop-designate of Burnley, Fr Philip North CMP, has said that he never thought he would be called to episcopal ministry after he withdrew from the nomination as Bishop of Whitby after complaints about his position on women's ordination (News, 21 December 2012).

Fr North, who is currently Team Rector in the Old St Pancras Team Ministry, in north London, said on Monday that the episode two years ago had left him believing that he would stay a parish priest for good. "I was very, very hesitant about exploring episcopal ordination again, but the Church of England is in such a different position, I think," he said.

In 2012, he accepted the nomination to Whitby. But parishioners in the Archdeaconry of Cleveland complained that he would be the third traditionalist bishop in a row ( News, 14 December 2012). Fr North withdrew, despite having the support of the Archbishop of York, fearing that he would not be a "focus for unity". The see was later filled by the Archdeacon of Cleveland, the Ven. Paul Ferguson (News, 9 May).

Fr North now feels the C of E has changed, and said he had no doubts in accepting the office of Bishop of Burnley, in the diocese of Blackburn.

"The atmosphere is so different, at the guided conversations, at Synod, and [there is a] genuine compromise found on women bishops. There is a much better atmosphere and trust," he said.

He had no regrets. "No, I've had the most fantastic two years of my entire ministry. It's been a wonderful two years and it is a magnificent parish."

Fr North said that, while there was some "trepidation" among traditionalist Catholics as the appointment of the first women bishops to the C of E drews nearer, people were not "downbeat".

"I think there is a degree of trepidation as we start to learn how the new arrangements are going to work," he said. "There a lot of 'Wait and see'. My message to Catholics is 'Let's grab hold of it'. We have been issued an invitation to flourish so let's use some imagination to engage with the wider Church."

He has served in the north before: as a parish priest in Hartlepool and Sunderland. He pointed out some differences: "There is a phenomenon going on in the London churches where growth is almost the default mode. We are used to growing churches, but Lancashire is not there yet. There are big questions about the future in terms of clergy numbers."

In the Church Times's Health Check series earlier this year, Fr North wrote condemning the General Synod, of which he is a member, as "dysfunctional" and "dangerous", and argued that the C of E was ungovernable. The College of Bishops was "lumbered with a job that is impossible", he wrote (Comment, 6 February).

Does he still believe a bishop's job to be impossible? "I think the C of E is a very difficult organisation to run, and any bishop who thinks he has access to levers of power is starting from the wrong place," he replied, cautiously.

"The job is about love and influence and modelling. I don't think I am going to be in a position of command and control whatsoever. I hope I can be a pastor and servant who cares for clergy and congregations."

Joking that he would pass up any bureaucratic jobs to his diocesan, Fr North said that he believed bishops could be on the front line just as much as parish clergy.

"We need to recover the role of the bishop as chief evangelist. The battle for the Christian soul of the nation is won not from behind a desk but on the streets."

Fr North trained for ministry at St Stephen's House, Oxford, and worked as Priest Administrator at the National Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham before becoming Team Rector in the Old St Pancras Team in 2008. He is a member of the Archbishops' Task Group on Evangelism, and has been a member of the Company of Mission Priests since 1997.

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