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Women Bishops rally round Philip North in Sheffield row

03 March 2017


Close encounter: the Bishop-designate of Sheffield, the Rt Revd Philip North, is embraced by the Bishop of Stockport, the Rt Revd Libby Lane, at his consecration in February 2015

Close encounter: the Bishop-designate of Sheffield, the Rt Revd Philip North, is embraced by the Bishop of Stockport, the Rt Revd Libby Lane, at his c...

WOMEN bishops have expressed support for the Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North, after he was called on to withdraw acceptance of his nomination as Bishop of Sheffield.

The Bishop of Dorking, Dr Jo Bailey Wells, said that, on hearing of his nomination, she had “sensed the hand of God at work”, and regarded it as “the sign of a healthy Church: one that is learning to live in unity amid diversity, even in a situation where one member’s convictions are a source of pain to another”.

Concerns were raised about the translation of Bishop North, a suffragan in Blackburn diocese, shortly after the announcement was made on 31 January. WATCH issued a statement that spoke of the “sadness felt by many” (News, 3 February).

Last week, the Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, the Very Revd Professor Martyn Percy, proposed that Bishop North should voluntarily withdraw from nomination, as “an act of integrity, consistent with his beliefs, and with his wider concerns for the catholicity of the Church, and for the flourishing of pastoral relationships”. In an essay for Modern Church, he writes: “If your own diocesan bishop doesn’t think your sacramental ministry as a woman and a priest is actually efficacious, then your integrity comes under real pressure.”

One of Bishop North’s first acts after the January announcement was to meet women clergy on 7 February. A website, Sheffield Action on Ministry Equality, has since been launched by an editorial group that includes the Vicar of St Mark’s, Broomhill, the Revd Susan Hammersley (Letters, 17 February). It invites people “publicly [to] say they are wanting to be known as local activists”, and to sign a pastoral letter to Bishop North (names will not be made public).

The letter expresses “pastoral anxiety and distress”. The “principal concern” is his position as a traditionalist in a diocese that “is mostly not of that persuasion”. The letter questions “how unity and justice are served” by this.

It acknowledges his “heartfelt commitment to worship, spirituality, evangelism, and social justice”, but asks for an urgent meeting “for the sake of our mental and spiritual health for the opportunity to understand how your episcopate would not prove divisive, but rather, would further these gospel values in the life of the Church”.

In a blog on the site, Mrs Hammersley writes that “a world hungry for conflict is looking for a fight which we don’t want to fuel. . . We don’t want Bishop Philip North to suffer the humiliation and hurt that many of us have been through, in different ways.”

The notes from the 7 February meeting “recorded nothing of our deepest questions about how we would be able to share the cure of souls with a bishop who was, at best, ambiguous about our Holy Orders; the question of what Bishop Philip understood about the nature of our priestly ministry within our parishes; the question of how our pastoral and sacramental needs would be provided for within the diocese. Silence.”

She writes of the desire to “break the silence of misunderstandings”, and to understand why the vacancy-in-see committee had left the diocese open to receiving someone who would not ordain women. There was also a desire to understand the relationship between Bishop North and The Society and Forward in Faith, two traditionalist groups: “How free is Bishop Philip to make up his own mind about women priests? How appropriate is it for a diocesan bishop, not a suffragan bishop, to be aligned with a group which denies the priestly orders of women?”

Also sought was a “thorough review of the theology, efficacy, and use of the five guiding principles”, which were “currently being used to keep us silent” and contained an “imbalance of power”.

These principles are contained in the House of Bishops’ Declaration that accompanied the legislation permitting the consecration of women bishops. A call to reaffirm them on social media was issued by the Archdeacon of London, the Ven. Luke Miller, last Friday. Their reference to “mutual flourishing” was echoed by many who spoke in support of Bishop North.

“If the Church can’t witness to an ability to live together with difference, and be determined to look first for the flourishing of those with whom we disagree, then who can?” the Bishop of Repton, in Derby diocese, the Rt Revd Jan McFarlane, said this week. “Bishop Philip’s appointment is a perfect opportunity for the Church of England to say that what matters first and foremost is our faith in Jesus Christ, which means that we are brothers and sisters who put each other’s needs before our own.”

The Bishop of Newcastle, the Rt Revd Christine Hardman, said on Tuesday that the integrity of the appointment process was “undermined if it is subject to campaigns which seek to overturn decisions which are carefully and prayerfully made. I wouldn’t have expected my appointment as the Bishop of Newcastle to be challenged by those who take a different theological view to my own.”

Dr Wells was among several women who testified to a positive working relationship with Bishop North: he had been “the epitome of grace and respect in regard to my ministry”. Rebecca Feeney, who is training for ordination at St Stephen’s House, described working as his pastoral assistant at the parish of Old St Pancras as “the most incredible and affirming experience”.

Others questioned the five principles, and the extent to which flourishing was truly mutual.

“It seems that the hierarchy of the Church has deep pastoral concerns for those who cannot accept the ministry of women, and no real pastoral care for women who find their ministry fundamentally undermined by the theological views of the one with whom they are to share a cure of souls,” the Chair of WATCH, Canon Emma Percy, who is married to Dean Percy, wrote in a blog on Friday. “Is it time to ask whether these five guiding principles actually promote the mutual flourishing of the whole Church?”

A statement from Sheffield WATCH asked Bishop North to “either decline his nomination or renounce his membership of both Forward in Faith and The Society”.

It spoke of the “concern and pain” in the diocese, where women faced “the prospect of their priestly ministry not being fully accepted by their chief pastor”. The House of Bishops’ Declaration was “asymmetrical”, the statement said, and did “nothing to alleviate the sense of exclusion felt by women and men who are committed to equality and justice. No guidelines have been offered to women clergy who face the prospect of a bishop who cannot fully accept their ministry.”

About one third of the priests in the diocese of Sheffield are women. The Team Rector of Great Snaith, the Revd Eleanor Robertshaw, said on Tuesday that calls for Bishop North to withdraw his acceptance had “saddened” her. “If a woman had been appointed to Sheffield, and traditionalists had called for her to rescind the appointment, then many women and men, ordained and lay, would have been outraged. Under the five guiding principles and mutual flourishing, then, it is just as outrageous for people to call for a traditionalist to rescind.”

She spoke of “positive and supportive” contact with The Society. “I have no reason to think that this will not be the case with Bishop Philip.” The five principles were “difficult”, she said, but “without them the legislation on women bishops would have never got through Synod. . . We have to expect that we will also have traditionalist bishops; otherwise, how is everyone flourishing? . . . I firmly believe that God has called Philip North to this diocese because he has the right skills to lead us into the future.”

Among those who have spoken in support of Bishop North are 32 women priests in the diocese of Blackburn, who signed a letter to the Church Times this week. Many of them had had “concerns” about Bishop North’s views when he was appointed Bishop of Burnley, they wrote, “but in the two years he has been here he has worked incredibly hard to make sure that all people feel more than included in the life of the diocese. . .

“This one theological difference aside, he has created a real buzz about the diocese, and we view the prospect of his departure with sadness, but will keep him and all the people of Sheffield in our prayers.”

The lead signatory is the Women’s Ministry Adviser for the diocese, Canon Fleur Green. On Wednesday, she confirmed that a request to write the letter came from Church House, but that the contents were based on what she had said in a conversation held last week. She had sent it to women clergy, “giving them opportunity to sign it should they wish to”.

The Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, attempted to offer reassurance in an article for The Yorkshire Post published on Saturday.

“Women clergy in the Diocese of Sheffield will not only be accepted, but will be encouraged, inspired, and furthered in their ministry by their new Diocesan Bishop, he wrote. “However, there remain those who question the integrity both of the agreement reached by the Church of England, and of Philip North himself. And that simply won’t do.”

Bishop North is due to be elected by the Dean and Chapter on 25 April. In 2012, he with­drew his acceptance of his nomina­tion as Suffragan Bishop of Whitby, in the diocese of York, after pro­tests at position on women’s ordination. He said at the time that it was not possible to be a focus for unity (News, 21 December 2012).

In a pastoral letter to the diocese of Sheffield published on Tuesday, the Bishop of Doncaster, the Rt Revd Peter Burrowes, acknowledged concerns and said that he was responding pastorally as best I am able".

Bishop North had told him that he would be "taking some time for prayer and reflection on retreat. Having heard the criticisms and concerns, alongside the support and affirmation, he rightly feels he needs to spend time in prayer. He will not be making any public statement or entering into further correspondence at this time. I hope you will allow Philip this space and as such direct any further communication to me until the end of his retreat."

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