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The Philip North Sheffield fiasco — and the question that simply wasn’t asked

15 September 2017

Diocese of Blackburn

Withdrew: the Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North

Withdrew: the Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North

THE botched nomination of the Rt Revd Philip North to the see of Sheffield in January this year stemmed from one simple omission, a review has found. It did not occur to anyone to ask whether the diocese would accept a diocesan bishop who did not ordain women as priests.

As a consequence, Bishop North, a traditionalist, mistakenly believed he had the support of the diocese. Five bruising weeks after his nomination was announced by Downing Street, he withdrew, stating: “The highly individualised nature of the attacks on me have been extremely hard to bear.”

A fortnight after Bishop North’s withdrawal, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York asked Sir Philip Mawer, a former secretary-general of the General Synod, to investigate what had happened and make recommendations for the future. His review was published on Friday morning.

Sir Philip is the independent reviewer appointed to ensure that those who cannot accept the ministry of women bishops and priests continue to flourish within the Church of England according to the 2014 Settlement, which confirmed Five Guiding Principles — (in brief) that all orders of ministry are open to all, regardless of gender; that all who minister in the C of E must accept that this is the case; that this move is to be seen in relation to other Churches, some of which allow only men to be ordained; that those who cannot accept women’s ministry remain within the spectrum of Anglican teaching; and that this minority will be given pastoral and sacramental provision to enable them to contribute to mutual flourishing across the whole Church of England.

As a consequence of Bishop North’s withdrawal, traditionalists have questioned the Church’s commitment to the 2014 settlement and these principles, asking whether a traditionalist can ever again become a diocesan bishop.

Sir Philip said on Friday that it would be premature to reach this conclusion. It is still possible, he believes, for a traditionalist, “as for women bishops, to be appointed to any position”. But the Church needed to make up its mind whether it would live within the terms of the 2014 settlement, “which it signed up to”, or indicate that it was going to depart from it.

If the Church is to retain credibility with traditionalists, it needs to stick to the settlement, Sir Philip believes, but equally traditionalists “need to behave in ways that encourage the majority to support the settlement”.

One of Sir Philip’s key recommendations is that the House of Bishops needs to do more work on the theology that underpins the Five Guiding Principles, and on the pastoral implications of the settlement.

Sir Philip, having heard from 76 people in 40 meetings, dissects the process that led to Bishop North’s nomination and his subsequent withdrawal. In particular, he notes that the vacancy-in-see committee, which drew up a profile of the person desired by the diocese, did not discuss the possibility of either a woman bishop or someone who did not ordain women.

“It appears from all the evidence given to me that the assumption of most of those involved was that . . . the diocese was not yet ready for the appointment of a woman diocesan. The possibility of a non-ordaining bishop being appointed simply did not cross the mind of most people.”

Later in his report he states that this question is now put routinely. “Although some represented to me that posing the question will simply invite most, if not all, dioceses to say that they want a diocesan bishop who will ordain women, I cannot see that ignoring the relevance of the question will help anybody.”

This omission in Sheffield was only the first of the many factors that ended with Bishop North’s withdrawal.


Bishop North misled

At the second meeting of the Crown Nominations Commission (CNC), at which the candidates for Sheffield (three men and one woman) were interviewed, two CNC members representing the diocese assured Bishop North that his nomination would be welcomed. None the less, when offered the post, he took two weeks to agree, during which time, Sir Philip says, the confidentiality of the offer hindered him from consulting widely.


Failures of the CNC

There is currently a general review of the workings of the CNC taking place under Professor Oliver O’Donovan, and Sir Philip defers to this in his report. He does, though, report several concerns about the membership of the CNC (there was no ordained woman among the Sheffield diocesan reps), the relative weight given to different submissions, the voting method (in which abstentions essentially count as votes against a candidate), and the degree of confidentiality after a nomination has been agreed. He also reports, however, that the majority of the Sheffield CNC members were satisfied that correct procedures had been followed.


Poor preparation

Sir Philip points out that this would have been the first instance since 1994 that a diocesan who ordained women priests would be followed by a non-ordaining one. He writes of “the failure of all concerned to anticipate the likely reaction in the diocese of Sheffield to the news of Bishop North's nomination and to make preparations accordingly”. No support was offered to Bishop North beyond that regularly offered to new bishops — even though, in 2012, he had withdrawn his acceptance of the suffragan bishopric of Whitby after objections to his stance on women. (He was subsequently appointed Bishop of Burnley.)



The announcement of Bishop North’s nomination made no mention of his views of women’s ordination. None the less, they were not secret, and Bishop North asked for a meeting with the ordained women of the diocese, which took place on 7 February in Doncaster Minster. After an initial statement, he attempted to answer questions, but later described the meeting as “a savaging”. After the meeting, only the initial statement was circulated. Later, when criticism to the nomination was growing, Bishop North went on a retreat, and could be reached only through intermediaries, even by those, such as the Bishop of Doncaster, the Rt Revd Peter Burrows, who were attempting to fight the fires in the diocese.


Martyn Percy

On 24 February, the Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, the Very Revd Professor Martyn Percy, published an article on the Modern Church website taking issue with the position of The Society of St Wilfrid and St Hilda (hereafter The Society), a traditionalist body of which Bishop North is a member.

He wrote: “Women are not recognised as ‘real’ priests or bishops; men ordained by female bishops are therefore not to be regarded as ‘proper’ priests either.” Consequently, Bishop North had a choice: he could either leave The Society; “Or, he can fully own the official position of The Society, in which case his clergy are in a most difficult place, with a diocesan bishop effectively not recognising many of their sacramental ministries.” A report in The Guardian the same day gave this argument national exposure.

Sir Philip says that, in the view of those in the diocese who were attempting to manage the divided views, the appearance of the article was the equivalent of “pouring petrol on the flames”.

He writes: “Up to the publication of the article, there were signs that the diocese was thinking its way through the implications of the nomination and that it could proceed. After the appearance of the article there was, in their view, no such chance.”

Speaking on Friday, Sir Philip said that part of the problem was that Professor Percy’s intervention landed in a vacuum: “women in the diocese were asking themselves what would be the pastoral and practical implications of the nomination, and there was no authoritative source to which they could turn.”


A misreading of Bishop North’s view

Bishop North declined to correct the assumption that he agreed with all the views expressed by The Society, believing that further elucidation would serve only to focus more attention on this aspect of his ministry.

A key passage in Sir Philip’s review is a direct quotation from Bishop North about his position:

“The basis of my own objection to women’s ordination is the authority and unity of the Church. In my view the Church of England is part of the one holy catholic Church of God and that imposes limits on what it can and can’t decide unilaterally.

“Extending the historic threefold order to women constitutes a major doctrinal change and thus, whilst it may be the way the Spirit is calling the Church, it is an action that the Church of England does not have the unilateral authority to undertake. Thus it is one that undermines the unity of the Church.

“This means that I feel the need to stand aside from it and thus in conscience cannot ordain women to the priesthood.

“However the nature of my objection does not cause me to doubt the validity of those orders that the Church of England bestows on female candidates and I hold their ministry to be transformative and grace-filled. I also accept that there are two legitimate, theological views in the Church on this and so am very happy to sponsor female candidates for ordination.

“That is where I stand. However, there are many traditionalists who take a different view from me and look at validity in different ways. I serve them and am happy to do so and would fight very hard to preserve not just their place in the Church but their right to be appointed to senior office within it.”


Other points made by Sir Philip

  • Sheffield diocese, under Dr Steven Croft, had done more than most to explain and propound the Five Guiding Principles. A survey by the present secretary-general discovered that 23 dioceses had done no more than write to clergy and discuss the settlement at the diocesan synod. Some had not even done this. No material has been made available by any of the National Church Institutions.
  • There was considered criticism of one central member of the CNC, Jane Patterson, for not withdrawing from the Commission for this nomination, given her membership of a church in central Sheffield. The effect of her remaining on the CNC was to give the diocese, in effect, a seventh representative, and a conservative Evangelical one at that (though, had she withdrawn, the convention at present is to replace like with like).
  • Sir Philip says that women priests in the diocese of Sheffield felt that, while attention had been paid to the flourishing of those opposed to their ordination, little had been given to theirs. Questions about how a non-ordaining bishop would relate to them, particularly at a celebration of the eucharist, went largely unanswered. Sir Philip says that the responsibility for this silence is shared by Bishop North and the House of Bishops.

Sir Philip was asked what he would say if he had Professor Percy and Bishop North in the same room. “I’d say: ‘Far more unites you than divides you — a lot more, and the contribution that each of you makes to the Church of England is part of the richness of the Church.

“‘I realise that acceptance [of the other’s view] is another step forward, but greater understanding of where the other is coming from — some real dialogue in which people listen as well as speak — is what is required throughout the Church.’”

On Friday, Bishop North issued a statement thanking Sir Philip “for the time he has taken to compile this wide-ranging and comprehensive report, and for the sensitive way he has tackled a hugely complex task.

“This is an important piece of work for the whole Church and deserves careful and prayerful study; and I hope that people will reflect closely on its findings in the coming days and weeks. Instant reactions are usually unhelpful and I do not propose to add anything further at this time.

“I will be praying for Bishop Peter Wilcox as he prepares for his installation later this month at Sheffield Cathedral; and for the future flourishing of the diocese of Sheffield as it seeks to share God’s message of hope and forgiveness with the people of that wonderful part of Yorkshire.”

Professor Percy also welcomed the report, and praised its measured tones — and also that “the report makes it clear that there is further theological work to be done.”

He remarked, though: “The report cannot resolve the fundamental conundrum at the heart of the matter: if a bishop can’t receive their own clergy’s sacramental ministry as unequivocally efficacious, you can’t expect that same episcopacy to be received without significant questions and some resistance.”

Sir Philip concludes his review: “The story of what happened in respect of the Sheffield nomination is not populated by villains but by people who were simply seeking to do their best according to their own understanding of their responsibilities and in the light of their Christian conviction.”

Sir Philip urged people to read the whole of his report, which comes with appendices.


Listen to the Editor, Paul Handley, discuss the implications of Sir Philip Mawer’s review and where the Church of England goes from here in the latest episode of the Church Times Podcast here


READ MORE: Theology and pastoral practice need further work, Mawer review into Philip North affair concludes 

Click here to see a timeline of the episode from start to finish


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