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This time it’s personal

22 September 2017

A BISHOP accepts a new post, and then withdraws. This will always be an individual case, a unique chemical reaction between one person’s character and a set of particular circumstances. As Sir Philip Mawer’s report on the Sheffield affair makes clear, the diffidence of the Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North, played a significant part in the five weeks between 31 January and 9 March this year, when Bishop North accepted an invitation to become the next Bishop of Sheffield, and then withdrew. It will be recalled that, before being appointed Bishop of Burnley, Bishop North had declined the see of Whitby after opposition to the appointment of a traditionalist was organised. Surprised and unconvinced about his nomination to Sheffield, Bishop North needed persuading that he was wanted. What met him, instead, was a concerted questioning about how a bishop who regretted the Church of England’s action in ordaining women to the priesthood could related theologically and pastorally to the women priests in his care. It was a question, Sir Philip remarks, that should have been considered before, when the women-bishops legislation was passed and the Five Guiding Principles — intended to assure traditionalists that there would be no curtailment to their ministry in the Church — were framed and accepted.

Had this been done earlier, general principles could have been debated openly, and the robustness of the 2014 settlement could have been tested. Once Bishop North had been nominated, however, it was no longer possible to debate principles without its being taken personally. Bishop North believed — with his experience in the Blackburn diocese behind him, and the precedent of the longstanding “London Plan” convention before him and his new flock — that his deeply held views on the ordination of women and the Catholicity of the Church were no hindrance to his relationships with women priests. Thus, to question those views was, inevitably, to question his integrity, however well-meaning and gently expressed those questions were. Such is the nature of social media, and the passion that this issue has generated in the Church over the years, that not all the questioning was gentle.

The existence of a 74-page analysis of the affair indicates that the row in Sheffield has a significance beyond the diocese. Since the day in March, the question that has been asked by traditionalists is: “Will someone who cannot accept the ministry of women priests ever again be offered a diocesan episcopal post?” Sir Philip is too diplomatic to give a view, but his urging of an examination of the assumptions and consequences of the 2014 settlement suggests that the answer may be no, unless a more widespread understanding of the requirements that the settlement makes of a bishop, and his or her clergy, is reached. This will not be easy: even if there is no one individual under scrutiny, principles do not exist in some neutral ether. It will always be a personal matter.

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