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Bishop of Newcastle stands down from LLF over ‘serious concerns’ about interim adviser

01 February 2024

The Bishop of Newcastle, Dr Helen-Ann Hartley

The Bishop of Newcastle, Dr Helen-Ann Hartley

THE Bishop of Newcastle, Dr Helen-Ann Hartley, is standing down as one of the co-chairs of the Living in Love and Faith (LLF) process. She has expressed “serious concerns” about the recent appointment of a new interim theological adviser to the House of Bishops.

In a statement published online on Thursday morning, Dr Hartley said: “It has become clear to me in the last 48 hours that there are serious concerns relating to the recent process of appointing an interim theological adviser to the House of Bishops.”

Dr Hartley and the Bishop of Leicester, the Rt Revd Martyn Snow, were appointed last November to co-chair the LLF process, and last week wrote an article for the Church Times setting out their hope for a “reset” of the process (Comment, 26 January).

In Thursday’s statement, however, she said: “What has transpired in the last 48 hours has had a critically negative impact on the work Bishop Martyn and I were seeking, in good faith, to do. My role as co-lead bishop for the LLF process is now undermining my capacity to fulfil my primary calling, to lead and care for the people and places of the diocese of Newcastle.”

On Thursday afternoon, Bishop Snow released a statement saying that he would remain in his role if several provisos were met, including that a replacement co-chair, and a second interim theological adviser, were appointed (News, 2 February).

Earlier in the week, the Vicar of All Saints’, New Longton, the Revd Dr Thomas Woolford, a tutor at Emmanuel Theological College, was announced as the interim secretary to the Faith and Order Commission (FAOC) and adviser to the House of Bishops, before a permanent post-holder takes up the position in September.

After his appointment, an article by Dr Woolford, published in 2019 on the website of Church Society, a conservative Evangelical organisation in the C of E, began to be circulated on social media.

In the article, Mr Woolford wrote: “I think it would be disastrous and desperately wicked if the Church were to prepare blessings for things we must not bless, alter the canons to accommodate worldly thinking, give up the standard of chastity for ordained office-holders, or sanction false teaching.”

Speaking shortly after Dr Hartley’s announcement, Dr Woolford distanced himself from the tone of the article. “I’m still a conservative on blessings and on sexuality; so that part hasn’t changed,” he said. “But I’d put a lot of things differently in light of the journey that we’ve been on in Synod and in the wider Church.”

He emphasised that the article had been written for a conservative readership, and pre-dated the conclusion of the discussion stage of LLF and his election as a General Synod representative for the diocese of Blackburn.

He said that he had asked for the article to be taken down when he was appointed to the FAOC post, as he did not want it to “distract” from his work. An archived version of the article is still available online.

The article argued that one should not stay in an “apparently apostatising Church of England” because of “missional advantages” or a hope that “we could yet turn it around.” Instead, he wrote, “I invite you to stay . . . and die. Stay and die because, frankly, that’s what Jesus would do (and did).”

He went on to write that “death”, in this context, would “likely take the shape of being removed from office”.

On Thursday afternoon, the Bishop in Europe, Dr Robert Innes, who chairs the FAOC, said that Dr Woolford’s was an “advisory role, not an executive role”.

“He is an adviser among other advisers, and advisers come from an appropriately diverse array of positions,” he told the Church Times, and emphasised that it was a six-month interim appointment.

“It’s testament to the very febrile nature of the Church at the moment that the appointment of a temporary adviser attracts so much interest and controversy, and I do regret that.”

He described Dr Woolford as a “a very able theologian indeed”, who understood that he had to “behave in a neutral way”.

Asked whether he was aware of the 2019 article before the appointment was made, Dr Innes said that he was not, but echoed Dr Woolford’s remarks about its being written in a “very particular context”.

“It was a good few years ago, and if he was in role now he would express himself very differently, and he understands a need to retain a neutrality on the issues,” the Bishop said.

Dr Woolford confirmed to the Church Times that, on taking up his new post, he had resigned his Synod membership, and would not be at this month’s group of sessions.

In February last year, he proposed an amendment to the LLF motion to the effect that an incumbent and PCC would have to have voted in favour of using the Prayers of Love and Faith before any service of blessing could be held in the parish.

The amendment succeeded, by one vote, in the House of Laity, but fell in the Bishops and Clergy (Synod, 17 February 2023).

Some of those who had been critical of Dr Woolford’s appointment expressed disappointment on social media at Dr Hartley’s decision to resign.

The Revd Dr Charles Bell, a self-supporting minister in the diocese of Southwark, wrote that her resignation was “really sad yet unsurprising. There are forces at work to destroy the limited progress we have made on LLF — first the outrageous rollback and ignoring of Synod, then +Europe appointing an entirely inappropriate theological adviser.”

The Rector of Great St Bartholomew, Smithfield, the Revd Marcus Walker, however, wrote that the news was “doubly sad” as Dr Woolford was “someone whom I can disagree with but (a) have robust debates with (and we did not two weeks ago, on this issue!) and (b) remain good friends with. Which is how it should be.

“We need to work out how to be able to work with, debate with, trust, and love each other through this very difficult season. And perhaps we need to do it in the reverse order from how I put it: love then trust then debate then work with.”

On Thursday afternoon, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York issued a joint statement thanking Dr Hartley for the “commitment and work she has put in to LLF, as well as her vision for moving forward more creatively. We are very sorry she is stepping down, but respect and support her in her decision.

The statement includes a paragraph about the tone of the LLF debate: “Although, of course, we continue to support robust debate around these issues where there is disagreement in our church, we are dismayed that sometimes this has also included unjust and inappropriate personal attacks.

“As followers of Christ, the manner in which we conduct our debate is as important as the debate itself. We are grateful to Bishop Helen-Ann and Bishop Martyn for their call for a change in tone, and their encouragement to reflect on how we all conduct ourselves in this conversation.” 

Click here to purchase tickets to the Church Times webinar on LLF: Put asunder

Tuesday 20 February 2024 | 6pm GMT

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