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Archbishops refer row over Philip North’s nomination as Bishop of Sheffield to Independent Reviewer

31 March 2017


Vacant see: Sheffield Cathedral

Vacant see: Sheffield Cathedral

THE process that led to the nomination of the Rt Revd Philip North as Bishop of Sheffield, and the reactions to that nomination, have been referred by the Archbishops to the Independent Reviewer, Sir Philip Mawer.

Sir Philip was appointed in 2014 to consider concerns about the operation of the House of Bishops’ Declaration, which accompanied the Measure enabling women to be appointed to the episcopate (News, 24 October 2014).

In their letter to Sir Philip, sent last week, the Archbishops say that events in Sheffield have raised concerns about the operation of the Declaration, and the Five Principles embodied in it. They ask him to “consider and report on the operation of the Declaration” with regard to five aspects, including the process leading to the nomination and whether the nomination was consistent with the Declaration, the reactions to the nomination “in the Church and beyond”, and the response of the “institutional Church” to the nomination and the reaction. It also asks him to consider “what has been done in the Church, including in the diocese of Sheffield, to educate clergy and laity about the settlement agreed in 2014, and the effect of the Declaration within that settlement”.

The Archbishops write of their commitment to the Declaration, “and the overriding principle of mutual flourishing”, and of being “conscious that, in some discussion about the See of Sheffield, we have not always as a Church shown how we can disagree Christianly”.

The regulations published by the House of Bishops state that anyone can raise a concern with the Independent Reviewer “in relation to any aspect of the operation of the House of Bishops’ Declaration”. Notes on the operation of this procedure, published in 2015, state that anyone seeking to do this “will be expected to provide details of the precise nature of the concern raised and of the specific act(s) or omission(s) under the House of Bishops’ Declaration which has given rise to it. General expressions of unease will not suffice. To be capable of consideration by the Independent Reviewer, an expression of concern, such as a grievance, must be founded on hard evidence. And as with a grievance, that evidence must be capable of being shared with the other parties concerned.”

The notes state that, because of the “breadth of discretion” enjoyed by the Independent Reviewer, he or she is likely to “focus significantly on the question whether or not to exercise the discretion to investigate”.

Sir Philip must first decide whether or not the Archbishops’ request falls within his remit. The next step would be preliminary inquiries — looking at information already in the public domain — before speaking to “interested parties”. The Archbishops’ request raises questions about whether Sir Philip will be speaking to those who took part in the Crown Nominations Commission — a confidential process. His report will be made public. He has previously considered a concern from the group Women and the Church (WATCH) concerning Chrism masses (News, 7 August), and one from Forward in Faith concerning multi-parish licenses (News, 14 August). In both cases, he found in favour of those unable to receive the ministrations of women clergy.

Forward in Faith welcomed the decision to refer the matter to Sir Philip. Its chairman, the Bishop of Wakefield, the Rt Revd Tony Robinson, expressed a hope that his report would “correct the misrepresentation of the Declaration and of the Five Guiding Principles that has occurred”.

WATCH raised a concern about the process of the Sheffield appointment with the Independent Reviewer in a letter, dated 13 March. Its chair, Canon Emma Percy, said: “We have agreed that our concern will be considered as part of the wider review requested by the Archbishops. We therefore welcome this review.”

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