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Blackburn can make mutual flourishing work, its bishops agree

12 January 2023

Campaign group Women and the Church criticise the nomination of Bishop North

Sara Cuff

Bishop North addresses students at St Christopher’s C of E High School, Accrington, on Tuesday morning

Bishop North addresses students at St Christopher’s C of E High School, Accrington, on Tuesday morning

BLACKBURN has “worked out how to make mutual flourishing work”, albeit with “work still to do”, says the Rt Revd Philip North, who on Tuesday was named as the next Bishop of the diocese (News, 10 January).

The Suffragan Bishop of Lancaster, Dr Jill Duff, and the Dean of Women’s Ministry in the diocese, the Revd Anne Beverley, have both paid tribute to Bishop North. “He has never held back the flourishing of women in Blackburn; quite the opposite,” Ms Beverley told the Church Times.

The campaign group Women and the Church (WATCH), however, criticised the nomination of Bishop North. In a statement on Tuesday, they said: “Parishioners need to know that their priest is affirmed by their diocesan bishop as being able to carry out priestly duties without question, and all priests need to know this too.”

Bishop North has previously said that he believes the ordination of women to be an area on which the Church of England should not be at variance with the wider Church. “The nature of my objection does not cause me to doubt the validity of those orders that the Church of England bestows on female candidates and I hold their ministry to be transformative and grace-filled,” he said (News, 15 September 2017).

In 2017, Bishop North was nominated as the next Bishop of Sheffield, but decided to withdraw his acceptance after a campaign of opposition to his nomination on the grounds of his stance on women’s ordination (News, 9 March 2017).

Speaking on Wednesday morning, Dr Duff said that she understood the pain of those who criticise the appointment of Bishop North, but that “he’s not caused that pain.”

Dr Duff, who chaired the diocesan vacancy-in-see committee, and suggested that the clarity in the process helped to avoid a repeat of what had happened in Sheffield.

She said that a vote was taken on whether the diocese wanted to appoint someone who ordained women, or for the post to be open to applicants who did not, and decided “overwhelmingly” to leave it open.

Reflecting on the events in Sheffield, Bishop North said on Tuesday that one of the differences this time was that he had worked in the diocese for eight years, and “we’ve worked out how to make it work.”

He said: “I’ve worked very closely with outstanding female clergy of this diocese; I’ve sponsored many of them for donation; I’ve appointed them to posts; I’ve been there for them in tough times; they’ve been there for me in tough times.

“There’s good relationships and good friendships and good trust, and that makes it very different [from when he was nominated as Bishop of Sheffield]. That’s the work of relationship-building, which is critical if mutual flourishing is going to be something that is real.”

Bishop North said that the diocese could perhaps “model what it means to live with difference, and to ensure that the love we bear for one another outweighs those differences”.

Mutual flourishing was about relationships, he said, but also “clear strategy to ensure that everyone’s gifts are unlocked. That’s what this is about in the end: it’s about the mission of the Church, and women and men equally being able to use their Spirit-given gifts in ministry.”

Bishop North gave as an example some of the work that he had been doing in conjunction with Ms Beverley, which includes setting a target of having women fill 30 per cent of posts in the diocese, and improving maternity-leave provision so that priests on parental leave do not personally have to arrange cover for their church.

On Wednesday morning, Ms Beverley said that she and Bishop North “disagree theologically on some things, but we agree on an awful lot more”.

She said that Bishop North “understands that mutual flourishing means that his need to be right is less than somebody else’s need to flourish”, and that he had “always been good with women across Blackburn: he supports them and he encourages them in their ministry, he licenses women in roles, and promotes women to senior leadership roles”.

Bishop North said that the practical arrangements were yet to be worked out, but that it was likely that, after his installation as Bishop of Blackburn, he would ordain all the deacons, while suffragan bishops would ordain priests.

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