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Sir Philip Mawer’s review of Sheffield fiasco suggests 2014 settlement is revisited

22 September 2017

diocese of sheffield

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

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

THE Church of England needs to revisit the 2014 settlement that gave reassurances to the traditionalist minority at the time of the women-bishops vote, Sir Philip Mawer says in a review of the botched nomination of the Rt Revd Philip North to the see of Sheffield (News, 17 March).

Sir Philip, a former secretary-general of the General Synod, 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. His review, which was requested by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, was published last Friday.

It proposes the setting up of a review group, with a balanced membership, to distil good practices in the dioceses and provide resources for dioceses, parishes, and theological institutions.

“The process will require leadership and it will take time. If it can be successfully carried out, it may not only help the Church as it engages with other internally divisive issues (notably that of human sexuality) but help model ways of coping with conflict to the wider world.”

Sir Philip, having heard from 76 people in 40 meetings, finds that the Bishop North débâcle stemmed from one simple omission: it did not occur to anyone to ask whether the diocese would accept a diocesan bishop who did not ordain women as priests. 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.

Other factors that, Sir Philip says, contributed to the Sheffield débâcle include: Bishop North’s being misled by two CNC members into thinking that his nomination would be welcome in Sheffield diocese; concerns about the membership of the CNC (including the lack of an ordained woman among the Sheffield diocesan reps), voting method, and the degree of confidentiality after a nomination has been agreed; a failure to prepare properly for the reaction to the appointment of a diocesan bishop who did not ordain women priests; and misunderstanding about the basis of Bishop North’s objection to women priests.

Recommendations: Sir Philip Mawer

The part played by the Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, the Very Revd Professor Martyn Percy, is also considered. The Dean published an article on the Modern Church website in February taking issue with the position of The Society of St Wilfrid and St Hilda, a traditionalist body of which Bishop North is a member. A report in The Guardian on 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”.

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 last 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 writes that he consulted Canon Jeremy Worthen, secretary for ecumenical relations and theology, for his opinion. Canon Worthen remarks: “It is no longer possible to speak in a straightforward way about the Church of England holding ‘full sacramental communion’ within its own life, or with other Churches.”

Thus, Sir Philip argues, the House of Bishops must give its attention to the theological challenges posed to the 2014 settlement by Dean Percy and other theologians. The Faith and Order Group might be involved.

For his part, Sir Philip suggests that the Five Guiding Principles do not rule out the nomination of a diocesan bishop who does not ordain women priests. The concept of the bishop as a “focus of unity” relates to the office, he suggests, rather than the individual; besides which, bishops minister collegially.

Sir Philip also believes that more work needs to be done to meet the pastoral challenge when a non-ordaining bishop is nominated to a diocese, as when a woman bishop relates to those male clergy in her diocese who are unable on theological grounds to accept the sacramental validity of her orders.

Sir Philip identifies shortcomings in the Crown Nominations Commission process, which he refers to the review group led by Professor Oliver O’Donovan. In particular, he raises “the extent to which the cloak of confidentiality currently surrounding the work of the Commission can be relaxed in order to ensure the degree of preparation for the announcement of a nomination commensurate with the controversy it is likely to arouse.”

He also challenges traditionalists to refrain from giving the Five Guiding Principles “almost totemic significance”, interpreting them in a “quasi-legalistic way”. In addition, with equal rights come equal obligations, he says. “These include the need to speak of each other in terms of regard and affection rather than disdain or condemnation.”

Sir Philip’s review appears to have allayed many of the concerns of traditionalists. A statement from Forward in Faith welcomed the report and its recommendations, and pointed to the fact that Sir Philip had “no doubt” that Bishop North’s appointment was consistent with the Declaration and Five Guiding Principles.

The statement continues: “As Sir Philip says, the Settlement was a package. We note that the Measure and Canon which permit the ordination of women to the episcopate form part of that package. As Sir Philip comments: ‘Try to unpick the package and the basis for the settlement is immediately called into question’. . .

“In the last three years — and indeed for some time before that — no priest who publicly espouses the traditional catholic position on holy orders has been appointed as an archdeacon, dean, or residentiary canon in the Church of England. The Bishop of Burnley is the only such priest to have been appointed as a bishop in the three years since the 2014 Settlement was concluded. A positive response to Sir Philip’s challenge will only be credible if the House of Bishops and its individual members successfully address this deficit.”

A statement from WATCH said that its chair, Canon Emma Percy, and vice-chair, the Revd Stephen France, had raised with Sir Philip “a number of significant concerns about the process of the nomination and made suggestions to enable this process to be improved in the light of this nomination and more generally.

“Since it has been possible for women to be part of the episcopacy in the Church of England sadly only two diocesan nominations have been made.”

Dean Percy 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 was asked what he would say if he had Dean 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.’”

Bishop North said in a statement last Friday: “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.”

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.


A débâcle unfolds: a Sheffield timeline

12 April 2016 The Bishop of Sheffield, Dr Steven Croft, is announced as the next Bishop of Oxford.

6 July First meeting of the Sheffield vacancy-in-see committee (its members previously elected by the diocesan synod)

30 August Second meeting, at which the members consider and commend the Statement of Needs drawn up by a drafting committee. This speaks of the need for a “focus of unity”, but also about someone able to understand the needs of those on outer estates and former coalfield parishes. The meeting also elects six of its number, five men and one woman, to serve on the Crown Nominations Commission (CNC): a traditional Catholic, two broadly affirming Catholics, and three broadly open Evangelicals. An ordained woman stands but is not elected.

1 November First meeting of the CNC: the six diocesan reps and the six central reps, plus the Archbishop of York and the Bishop of Chelmsford (standing in for the Archbishop of Canterbury). They consider the Statement of Needs, and a memorandum from the two appointments secretaries summarising the result of their consultations in the diocese. They also draw up a shortlist, agreed by secret ballot, which includes Bishop North, two other male candidates, and a female candidate. Two of the CNC disclose that they are personal friends of Bishop North.

28-29 November Second meeting of the CNC, at which the candidates are interviewed and have to deliver a homily, a presentation, and a safeguarding statement. The successful candidate needs to gain ten of the 14 votes. It is clear, Sir Philip says, that Bishop North “secured the support of a clear majority of the diocesan as well as of the central members of the Commission”.

December Bishop North’s name is recommended to the Prime Minister. Bishop North is told of his nomination. He considers for two weeks before accepting.

28-29 January 2017 Bishop North phones senior figures in Sheffield diocese to tell them of his nomination.

31 January The nomination is announced by 10 Downing Street. Bishop North takes part in orchestrated appearances in the diocese which reportedly go well.

7 February The Doncaster Minster meeting with ordained women from the diocese. Bishop North speaks for about 20 minutes, and then answers questions, largely along the lines of “How can my ministry be affirmed by my diocesan bishop if he doesn’t think I should be a priest in the first place?” Bishop North explains he will follow the example of the Bishop of London and ordain both men and women as deacons, but neither as priests. The Dean of Women’s Ministry thinks the meeting has gone reasonably well; Bishop North considers it “a savaging”. He agrees that an account of the meeting can be circulated, but only on his opening remarks.

24 February Martyn Percy, Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, publishes an article on the Modern Church website, triggered by an account in the traditionalist New Directions of plans by The Society of St Wilfrid and St Hilda to issue identity cards to its member priests. The Dean writes: [According to The Society] “women are not recognised as ‘real’ priests or bishops; men ordained by female bishops are therefore not to be regarded as ‘proper’ priests either. . . Bishop Philip faces a clear choice here.” He can 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”.

25 February The Archbishop of York responds to the Dean in The Yorkshire Post: Bishop North’s nomination was consistent with the 2014 settlement, he writes, and his integrity “remains unimpeached in the midst of debate”.

25 February The formation of Sheffield Action for Ministry Equality (SAME), a forum to reflect the concerns of people in South Yorkshire, lay and ordained, unhappy about the nomination.

27 February Professor Percy writes in The Yorkshire Post that Bishop North is “a fine person but he should decline to be the next Bishop of Sheffield, and here’s why. He cannot, in his conscience recognise, value and affirm the sacramental integrity of one-third of his clergy. Such a position has no integrity.”

28 February Bishop North begins a pre-Lenten retreat and is contactable only through a few intermediaries.

3 March A letter in support of Bishop North, written at the suggestion of the Church House communications unit and signed by 32 women from Blackburn diocese, is published in the Church Times. Other contributions to the debate, either in correspondence to Bishop North or on social media, are not so positive.

9 March Downing Street announces that Bishop North has withdrawn the acceptance of his nomination. He writes: “The highly individualised nature of the attacks upon me have been extremely hard to bear.”

7 April Downing Street announces that the Dean of Liverpool, the Very Revd Dr Peter Wilcox (second on the CNC’s list), has been nominated to the see of Sheffield.


Leader comment

Listen to the Editor, Paul Handley, discuss the implications of Sir Philip Mawer’s review in Episode 26 of the Church Times Podcast

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