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Sheffield debacle leaves traditionalists in limbo

17 March 2017


Early days: The Rt Revd Philip North meets people on 31 January, the day he was announced as the next Bishop of Sheffield

Early days: The Rt Revd Philip North meets people on 31 January, the day he was announced as the next Bishop of Sheffield

LIBERALS and traditionalists have called for action from church leaders after the Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North, withdrew from becoming the next Bishop of Sheffield in response to criticism of his nomination.

While senior figures, among them the Archbishop of York, have expressed sadness at Bishop North’s decision to decline his nomination to the see, both sides in the debate have said that more concrete steps must be taken.

Bishop North withdrew on Thurs­­day of last week after emer­ging from a period of prayer and reflection prompted by a campaign against his nomination (News, 10 March).

In a statement, he said that he had decided he could not be the next Bishop of Sheffield because it would be “counter-productive in terms of the mission of the Church in South Yorkshire, and my leader­ship would not be acceptable to many. . .

”The highly individualised nature of the attacks upon me have been extremely hard to bear.”

There was still “much to be done” in the Church of England in learn­ing how to disagree well, and toler­ate theological differences, he said.

The Bishop of Wakefield, the Rt Revd Tony Robinson, who helps lead the traditionalist Catholic group The Society, said that the House of Bishops, led by the Arch­bishops, needed to “restore confid­ence” in what was agreed two-and-half years ago.

“It’s important for the Church that we are clear about [the House of Bishops’ Declaration and Five Guiding Principles],” Bishop Robin­son said on Sunday on Radio 4.

Bishop North’s withdrawal did not have to mean that traditionalists would be blocked from diocesan appointment from now on, he said; but “We have to enter into some dis­cussions with others in the Church about what this means, and about how we can restore some confidence into what was obviously agreed.”

The chair of Women and the Church (WATCH), Canon Emma Percy, who had been opposed to Bishop North’s appointment as a diocesan, said that she also believed that the Five Principles and the whole women-bishops agreement should be looked at again.

“We have been asking for more clarity for a while now,” she said on Wednesday. “What do we mean by them, that’s the issue. What does mutual flourishing mean?”

The Bishop of Doncaster (repre­sent­ing the diocese of Sheffield), the Archbishop of York, the Bishop of Blackburn (Bishop North’s current diocesan bishop), and the conserva­tive Evangelical Bishop of Maid­stone were among those to express their sadness at the outcome.

Bishop Robinson said, however, that how traditionalists felt about whether they could be appointed to senior posts would depend on how the House of Bishops and the Arch­bishops reacted to Bishop North’s case. But, he said, “I don’t feel out on a limb: I feel part of the Church.”

Canon Percy said that accepting the Five Principles did not neces­sarily mean making it possible for those opposed to the ordination of women to become diocesan bishops.

“We accept the Church has agreed that we do the things that are necessary to enable those people to flourish,” she said. “WATCH has not argued against there being a continuation of Provincial Epis­copal Visitors.

“There is nothing in those Prin­ciples that says everybody gets to be a diocesan bishop. I don’t under­stand why mutual flourishing equals preferment. Most of us are not bishops.”

The question that had yet to be answered by the House of Bishops was what it meant for women priests to have a diocesan bishop who could not affirm their sacra­mental ministry, Canon Percy said.

Asked what this meant for tradi­tionalists who were currently dio­cesan bishops, such as the Bishop of Chichester, Dr Martin Warner, she said: “When Martin Warner retires I would look at whether or not you appoint some­body who ordains women.”

The real question was not about the appointment of traditionalists, but of women, she argued. “Our question has been, what are people doing to ensure that women flour­ish? We have changed the legis­lation, but not the appointments process. There have only been two women diocesan bishops, and none in the last year.”

The Bishop of Rochester, the Rt Revd James Langstaff, who guided the women-bishops legislation through the Synod, said that Bishop North’s appointment was entirely in keeping with the Five Principles.

He rejected Canon Percy’s sug­gestion that there was no clarity on the question of traditionalist dio­cesan bishops. “The Declaration (in paragraphs 11 and 12) clearly envisages the possibility of there being diocesan bishops who might not ordain women, and indicates the arrange­ments which should be made in such circumstances,” Bishop Lang­staff said in a statement.

These arrangements would be the “mirror image” of the provision made for those unable to receive the ministry of a woman bishop.

“It was precisely to meet circum­stances such as the nomination of Bishop Philip that we made these provisions. We all know that the 2014 settlement contains inherent tensions, and depends on the wil­ling­ness of all to act graciously. What has happened in relation to Bishop Philip is testing that.”

Forward in Faith said in a statement on Thursday that it had been encouraged by a “strong and widespread affirmation” of the 2014 settlement, and had been given hope that “some good may yet come out of an awful situation.”

It continued: “The statements made by Archbishop Sentamu and a number of other diocesan bishops are very helpful indeed. In due course, they will need to be accompanied by action to restore confidence in the House of Bishops' Declaration and to correct definitively the false statements that have been made about the Declaration, the Five Guiding Principles, and the beliefs of traditional catholics. The Executive Committee of Forward in Faith has begun to consider what actions need to be taken, and by whom.”

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