AFTER weeks of protest at his appointment, the Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North, has decided he cannot be the next Bishop of Sheffield.
Downing Street has just announced that Bishop North, who has spent the past few days on retreat, has withdrawn his acceptance of the nomination to the see, made at the end of January (News, 3 February).
“It is with regret and sadness that I have decided that I am unable to take up the nomination as Bishop of Sheffield,” he said in a statement.
“It is clear that the level of feeling is such that my arrival would be counter-productive in terms of the mission of the Church in South Yorkshire and that my leadership would not be acceptable to many.”
Bishop North apologised to those who would be disappointed by his decision not to accept his nomination, saying that there was “much to be done” in learning how to disagree well in the Church of England, and tolerate theological differences.
“The highly individualised nature of the attacks upon me have been extremely hard to bear. If, as Christians, we cannot relate to each other within the bounds of love, how can we possibly presume to transform a nation in the name of Christ?”
Bishop North’s statement ended by stating that he would take some time off to reflect and pray about “the events of the past few weeks”, and hoped that he would be able to “hear God’s voice speaking to us in the wilderness, drawing forth order and beauty from the messy chaos of our lives”.
Statements about Bishop North’s decision were issued by the Archbishop of York, the Bishop of Doncaster (representing the diocese of Sheffield), and the Bishop of Blackburn, where Bishop North will remain a suffragan bishop.
The Archbishop of York said that he understood and accepted Bishop North’s decision, but with sadness. “What has happened to Bishop Philip clearly does not reflect the settlement under which, two-and-a-half years ago, the Church of England joyfully and decisively opened up all orders of ministry to men and women.”
It was now time for the Church to spend Lent — a season of penitence and repentance — reflecting upon whether it was serious about its commitment to “loving one another and to mutual flourishing within the Body of Christ”, Dr Sentamu concluded.
The Bishop of Doncaster, the Rt Revd Peter Burrows, remarked: “This has clearly been a difficult and painful journey for the diocese over the past few weeks as it has also been for Bishop Philip.” There would be time in the coming weeks and months to reflect on the outcome. The Archbishop of York would, “in due course” submit the name of an alternative candidate.
Bishop North’s present diocesan, the Bishop of Blackburn, the Rt Revd Julian Henderson, said that he was overwhelmingly sad about the outcome, but would welcome Bishop North back to the diocese, and looked forward to his ongoing service as a “gift”.
The Bishop of Wakefield, the Rt Revd Tony Robinson, who leads the Society, a traditionalist grouping, said it was “a cause of great regret” that the Church, and the diocese of Sheffield, would not benefit from Bishop North’s leadership and advocacy for the poor as a diocesan bishop.
The episode has caused a “wound” in the Church, Bishop Robinson also said. “The implications of what has happened for the stability of the settlement that enabled women to become bishops in the Church of England — and also for the integrity of the whole process whereby the Church of England discerns that God is calling someone to a diocesan see — are a cause of grave concern.”
Forward in Faith (FiF), the traditional Anglo-Catholic network, said in a statement that traditionalist being appointed to diocesan sees was an "integral part" of the 2014 settlement on women bishops: "The House of Bishops' Declaration imposes no stained-glass ceiling on mutual flourishing."
In the coming weeks, FiF would attempt to correct what they described as "false statements" about the Declaration and the Five Guiding Principles. "We hope that this can be done in partnership with those who bear responsibility for the Church of England at national level," the statement concludes.
The conservative Evangelical Bishop of Maidstone, the Rt Revd Rod Thomas, said Bishop North's withdrawal was a "body blow" to the concept of mutual flourishing, which was at the heart of the women bishops settlement.
Without "urgent action" to demonstrate the effectiveness of the House of Bishops' Declaration, the Church will have simply "given in to those who hounded Philip North out of office".
In a statement, the campaigning group Women and the Church (WATCH), which had been among the groups opposing Bishop North’s nomination, said that they were praying for everyone involved in the situation.
“We know that the debates over the appointment of a non-ordaining bishop to Sheffield have been deeply painful and divisive for all involved,” the statement continued.
“We have always been clear that this is a theological debate and not personal, yet we know that this is not always how comments are heard. It is our role in WATCH to ask the question ‘How do women flourish in the Church?’ and we have done so mindful of the mission of the church and its witness to the wider community.”
Canon Emma Percy, the chair of WATCH, added that she was a shame that the debate had occurred around an individual rather than a principle: “We are sad that it has happened this way.”
As well as WATCH, the Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, the Very Revd Professor Martyn Percy, and a new group, Sheffield Action on Ministry Equality (SAME), had all opposed Bishop North’s nomination to Sheffield.
Most of their concerns centred on whether Bishop North, a traditionalist Catholic who does not support the ordination of women as priests or bishops, could lead a diocese where a third of clergy were women (News, 3 March).
SAME said in a statement that they lamented how the Church seemed not to understand the "depth of concern" that their diocese had around Bishop North's initial appointment.
All in the C of E should take responsibility for a process that has caused so much pain, they said. "We pray for Bishop Philip that he may fully recover from an ordeal we believe he should never have had to face.
"This is a sad moment for the Church of England but we hope and pray that, in time, greater wisdom will emerge."
Bishop Burrows later said in a BBC interview that SAME had acted "with integrity" and had not made any personal attacks on Bishop North.
Two days after Bishop North announced his withdrawal, the diocese of Sheffield published minutes from an earlier meeting he had had with women clergy in February.
According to the document, Bishop North acknowledged and apologised for the pain caused to some by his nomination, but insisted that while he could not personally ordain women, he was not opposed to female leadership in the Church.
"Canonically ordained means a priest is a priest is a priest and a bishop is a bishop is a bishop," Bishop North is summarised as saying. "The issue is not purely sacramental or about validity."
In response to the growing criticism of Bishop North’s nomination, a number of women bishops had come out in his support, including the Bishops of Dorking, Repton, and Newcastle.
A letter from 32 women priests in the diocese of Blackburn, where Bishop North has been a suffragan since 2014, also backed his translation to Sheffield (Letters, 3 March).
Bishop North had been due to be elected by the Dean and Chapter on 25 April. This is the second time he has stepped back in response to criticism: in 2012 he withdrew his acceptance of his nomination as Suffragan Bishop of Whitby, in the diocese of York, after similar protests. He said at the time that it was not possible to be a focus for unity (News, 21 December 2012).