Selection of controversial Sheffield bishop ‘showed a lack of understanding’

The Rt Rev Philip North
The Rt Rev Philip North

The search is on for a new Bishop of Sheffield - after the cleric picked for the role turned the job down amid controversy over his opposition to women becoming priests.

The Rt Rev Philip North, who had been expected to be elected in April, will remain as the Bishop of Burnley, and the name of an ‘alternative candidate’ will need to be put forward by Dr John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York.

Before declining the role, Mr North had been urged to hold face-to-face meetings with clergy and parishioners to address concerns over his stance on ordaining women as priests.

A group - Sheffield Action on Ministry Equality - was set up, and the Labour MP for Heeley, Louise Haigh, described the bishop designate’s views as ‘troubling’.

And yesterday, bishop’s clothing in Suffragette colours was placed on the Women of Steel statue in Barker’s Pool by activists.

In a statement tonight, the SAME group said the diocese was in ‘a period of mourning’.

“We lament the church’s lack of understanding of the depth of concern which people around the diocese have felt over this appointment.

“We pray for Bishop Philip that he may fully recover from an ordeal we believe he should never have had to face.

“This is a sad moment for the Church of England but we hope and pray that, in time, greater wisdom will emerge.”

It is the second post Mr North has withdrawn from. In 2012 he declined the job of Bishop of Whitby, following similar unease.

The 50-year-old is affiliated with a Church of England group called The Society, which does not recognise women priests.

In Sheffield, he would have ordained female deacons, but would not have officiated at the ordination of women as priests.

Instead, another bishop would have presided.

Dr Sentamu said Mr North was a ‘gifted’ bishop who focused on serving ‘the poor and marginalised’.

“This is a personal decision which I understand and sadly accept. However, what has happened to Bishop Philip clearly does not reflect the settlement under which the Church of England joyfully and decisively opened up all orders of ministry to men and women.”

He said the church had committed itself to ‘mutual flourishing’.

The Rt Rev Philip North’s statement:

“It is with regret and sadness that I have decided that I am unable to take up the nomination as Bishop of Sheffield.

“The news of my nomination has elicited a strong reaction within the diocese and some areas of the wider Church. It is clear that the level of feeling is such that my arrival would be counter-productive in terms of the mission of the Church in South Yorkshire and that my leadership would not be acceptable to many.

“I am grateful for the love, prayers and care that have been shown me over recent weeks by numerous people, especially the Archbishop of York, the Bishop of Blackburn and the clergy of the Blackburn Diocese. In particular I would like to thank the Bishop of Doncaster and the diocesan team in Sheffield for their support.

“I apologise to the many for whom this decision will come as a disappointment. There is clearly much to be done on what it means to disagree well and to live with theological difference in the Church of England. The highly individualised nature of the attacks upon me have been extremely hard to bear. If, as Christians, we cannot relate to each other within the bounds of love, how can we possibly presume to transform a nation in the name of Christ? I hope though that this conversation can continue in the future without it being hung upon the shoulders of one individual.

“I do not doubt for one single second the Lordship of Christ or his call upon my life, but the pressures of recent weeks have left me reflecting on how He is calling me to serve him. I am grateful to the Bishop of Blackburn for allowing me a period of leave to reflect on and pray about the events of the past few weeks and would ask for this space to be respected. I hope that, as we continue on the Lenten journey, we will each be able to hear God’s voice speaking to us in the wilderness, drawing forth order and beauty from the messy chaos of our lives.”