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Next Bishop of Sheffield, Philip North, pledges to be 'Bishop for all'

03 February 2017


Celebrating together: Bishop North joins (from left) Cath Lawson, Jessica Jeal, aged 8, and Fiona Jeal, at a Messy Communion at Blackburn Cathedral, the weekend before last

Celebrating together: Bishop North joins (from left) Cath Lawson, Jessica Jeal, aged 8, and Fiona Jeal, at a Messy Communion at Blackburn Cathedral, t...

THE Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North, nominated as the next Bishop of Sheffield on Tuesday, has spoken of his determination to be a “Bishop for all” in a world that is “horribly divided”.

In an address at Sheffield Cathedral on the day of the announcement, he argued that the Church’s commitment to mutual flourishing meant that it could “stand against the voices of hatred and intolerance and despair simply through the quality of our own relationships in Christ”.

An outspoken priest, who has accused the Church of “abandoning” urban estates (News, 19 February), and “jumping on to the middle-class Est­abl­­ishment bandwagon of outrage and horror” in the wake of the EU referendum (Comment, 2 December), he spoke of being kept awake at night by the fact that 92 per cent of the county was “yet to know Jesus as Lord”.

This was the most important issue facing the Church, he said on Wednesday. “That’s all that matters, and we need to sort other things out to focus on that.”

A member of the Archbishops’ Task Group on Evangelism, Bishop North has been a strong advocate of the Renewal and Reform programme. The diocese of Sheffield has a vision to increase congregations by 20 per cent by 2021 and has pledged to invest £1 million in a project to grow work with children and young people.

“If we are to grow rather than disappear, we need to cast away fear,” Bishop North said. “It is not our job to save the Church because it’s not ours to save. . . It is not our anxiety or our paranoia or our fear that will capture imaginations with the Gospel. It is our joy in Christian living.”

After the announcement, Bishop North met leaders of the Muslim community in Rotherham. This community was “under a lot of pressure”, he said, and the Church had a “key role to play in building friendships”. It was “alarming, the parallel lives that are lived in some of our English towns and cities”.

In addition to encouraging local vocations in the north of England — a “very, very good place to work” — he spoke of the “massive” importance of encouraging vocations from working-class communities. Current structures for selection were “wrong” he said and there was a need to make “radical changes” and be “much more willing to take risks”.

On his appointment as the Bishop of Burnley in 2015, Bishop North became the first traditionalist bishop to be appointed since the passing of the women-bishops Measure (News, 6 February, 2015). In 2012, he withdrew his acceptance of the post of Bishop of Whitby after protests at his traditionalist stance on women, saying that he would not be a focus for unity (News, 17 December, 2012).

WATCH raised concerns about the translation of Bishop North to Sheffield. Its chairwoman, Canon Emma Percy, said: “Whilst we acknowledge the strengths he will bring to the role, with his experience and passion for urban ministry, evangelism and work with young people, we also note his stance on the ordination of women.

“We are aware of the sadness felt by many in Sheffield that they will now have a Diocesan Bishop who will not ordain women. Sheffield is a diocese with a large number of women clergy, and we sincerely hope that the new bishop will promote a culture in which ordained women will feel validated and encouraged to flourish

“We also note that once again a man has been appointed to a vacant diocesan post. We have concerns that the current appointment system makes it harder for women to be appointed as diocesan Bishops.”

At his unveiling, Bishop North acknowledged that there would be those who “for theological reasons will have misgivings . . . I want to make it absolutely clear that I am determined to be a Bishop for all, and will love, care for, appoint, and develop the ministry of all clergy, female or male, Catholic and Evangelical, and all points in between.”

He had asked to meet women clergy in the diocese “as soon as possible”, he said to discuss concerns and talk through “ideas about how we can work closely together to develop and enhance women’s leadership across the diocese.” Trust needed to be earned, he said, “and I would ask you fervently to give me the chance to do that.”

On Wednesday he spoke of “really good, close working-relationships” with women priests in Burnley, and of the “very good precedent” set by other traditionalist bishops working with women clergy. Although he had a “number of ideas” about how to work with women in Sheffield, he wanted to speak to them first, before commenting in public.

Sexuality was an “important issue for us to get right in order to address the 92 per cent,” he said. With regard to last week’s report from the House of Bishops, he welcomed the call for a change in language, enabling the Church to be “more affirming of same-sex relationships”, but also its “standing up for tradition”.

“I don’t believe we have the authority to make changes to the doctrine of marriage,” he said. “I would certainly utterly condemn homophobia, and hope that the churches of Sheffield are places where gay people felt welcome and could meet with Jesus Christ.”

After training at St Stephen’s House, Oxford, Bishop North served for ten years in the diocese of Durham, in Sunderland and Hartlepool. He spent six years at Priest Administrator of the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham before taking up parish posts in north London.

His arrival in Sheffield would be “a bit like coming home”, he said this week. His grandfather played football for Doncaster Rovers, his mother was brought up in the town and he spent much of his childhood in the area.

He will be installed at Sheffield Cathedral in June 2017.

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