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Philip North’s nomination to Blackburn was legitimate, reviewer concludes

12 April 2024

Geoff Crawford/Church Times

The Bishop of Blackburn, the Rt Revd Philip North, addresses the General Synod in London in February

The Bishop of Blackburn, the Rt Revd Philip North, addresses the General Synod in London in February

A REVIEW, published on Thursday, of the appointment of the Rt Revd Philip North as Bishop of Blackburn has concluded that his nomination followed the proper processes, but makes several recommendations how these processes could be improved.

Campaigners had raised concerns about Bishop North’s views on the ordination of women, which, he has said, is an area on which the Church of England should not be at variance with the wider Church (News, 15 September 2017).

A submission by the campaign group Women and the Church (WATCH) centred on concerns about how having a bishop who did not ordain women could undermine clergy in the diocese, and the diocesan bishop’s function as a figure of unity.

The submission, with other testimony, was considered by the Independent Reviewer for the House of Bishops Declaration, Maggie Swinson — who also currently chairs the Anglican Consultative Council (News, 17 February).

At the time of his appointment, Bishop North told the Church Times that the diocese, in which he previously served as the Suffragan Bishop of Burnley, had “worked out how to make it work” (News, 13 January).

This involved working with the “outstanding female clergy of this diocese”, including sponsoring them for ordination, he said. “That’s the work of relationship-building, which is critical if mutual flourishing is going to be something that is real.”

Besides articulating concerns about Bishop North’s suitability as a diocesan bishop, because of his stance on the ordination of women, WATCH’s submission argued that the consultation process leading to his nomination had not been properly followed.

Ms Swinson declined WATCH’s invitation to call for a moratorium on the appointment of bishops who did not agree with the Church of England’s decision to ordain women, emphasising that the House of Bishops Declaration “still envisages that all orders of ministry are equally open to all, whether or not they are able to receive the ministry of women as bishops or priests”.

She did, however, recommend that changes be implemented to help to improve confidence in the appointments process.

Introducing her report, Ms Swinson said that “perceptions of events and meetings vary, in some cases significantly,” although she had “no reason to think that any of the parties is not telling the truth as they experienced it”.

The WATCH submission argued that the election of the Bishop of Lancaster, Dr Jill Duff, as chair of the vacancy-in-see committee, amounted to a conflict of interest, owing to her long association with Bishop North. Both served as suffragan bishops in the diocese.

“My conversations leave me in little doubt that the presence of a person who is, in effect, line manager of ordained and some lay attendees, and who has an interest in the appointment process because the new bishop will have authority over them, will probably stifle open contribution from those individuals, and does not make for a ‘safe’ space,” Ms Swinson writes.

While finding no deviation from the regulations, she concludes that “the principle of who chairs a vacancy-in-see committee would benefit from review in light of the potential conflicts of interest which have been identified here.”

Sir Philip Mawer’s review of the process by which Bishop North was nominated to the see of Sheffield in 2017 — a position that he eventually declined — recommended that the 2014 settlement giving reassurance to traditionalists which accompanied the legislation should be reviewed (News, 22 September).

WATCH’s submission to Ms Swinson contended that this work had not been fully completed — something that she acknowledges in her report, recommending that that “resource is identified to take the necessary theological work forward”.

WATCH also argued that the consultation process had been insufficient, and had not adequately sought opinions on whether the new bishop should be someone who would ordain women.

Ms Swinson concludes that “a sense of haste was evident in respect of the consultation”, and that one person to whom she had spoken said that the process had been more rushed than those that they had experienced in other dioceses.

She concludes, however, that there was no breach of the regulations in respect of the timeframe of the consultation, and that the process was not unduly short when compared with examples from other dioceses.

None the less, she acknowledges that the process did feel rushed to some people, and suggests that more clarity “might go some way to averting perceptions of pressure”.

Ms Swinson’s report reveals that, within the consultation process in the diocese, “Bishop Philip’s name was the one most commonly mentioned”, and notes that those involved were well aware of his position on the ordination of women.

The vacancy-in-see committee voted “by a significant majority” not to specify whether the next bishop should be someone who ordained women, and Ms Swinson notes that a member who had voted the other way was later elected to be one of the diocesan representatives on the Crown Nominations Commission that nominated Bishop North.

In her final recommendation, Ms Swinson suggests that the scope of the Independent Reviewer’s jurisdiction be reconsidered. “It would not be unreasonable to expect that some review mechanism should be available to those whose ministry the bishop does not accept.

“Such a mechanism should not isolate female clergy from the life of the diocese but should provide for them in a reciprocal manner to the review arrangements already articulated in the Declaration.”

After Ms Swinson’s report was published last week, the group Forward in Faith — which represents traditionalist clergy and parishes in the C of E — queried this last recommendation, the review of the work of the Independent Reviewer.

“It is not clear to Forward in Faith from the contents of the report exactly what deficiency in the current arrangements would be met by such a change,” the statement says.

It suggests that WATCH’s submission demonstrates that the Independent Reviewer is able to consider complaints from those on both side of the debate, and cautions against reviews’ being undertaken because of parties’ “simply not agreeing with, or feeling uncomfortable with, the contents of the Declaration”.

The declaration, it says, “quite rightly seeks to promote the flourishing of all parts of the Church and to uphold and protect the minority position in the Church of England”.

Last Friday, the chair of WATCH, the Revd Martine Oborne, writing on the Via Media blog, characterised the report as “gently excoriating” of the process in Blackburn, highlighting the recommendations made by Ms Swinson.

“The matters raised are not abstract theological arguments but impact on the lives of women in both ordained and lay ministry. The continued unfairness in the Church of England creates an unjust and unsafe environment for the many women who continue to work so hard and graciously in all our dioceses,” she wrote.

A spokesperson for the diocese of Blackburn said: “We welcome this clear affirmation of the processes followed by the vacancy-in-see committee during the vacancy.

“The diocese of Blackburn remains firmly committed to seeing all of our clergy and lay leaders, female and male, flourish in the call that God has given them.”

Read more on this story in this week’s Letters

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