'˜Listen to Sheffield when choosing city's next bishop'

As the task of choosing a new Bishop of Sheffield begins again, the question of which candidate is right for the city will be even higher on the agenda - and this time the process is being watched closely by the Church of England as a whole.

Tuesday, 14th March 2017, 4:10 pm
Updated Friday, 24th March 2017, 10:21 am
The Rt Rev Philip North, the next Bishop of Sheffield
The Rt Rev Philip North, the next Bishop of Sheffield

The Rt Rev Philip North’s decision to decline his promotion to Sheffield has exposed weaknesses in the C of E’s commitment to ‘mutual flourishing’ - where those in favour of ordaining women as priests, and traditionalists who oppose the idea, continue to work together.

Mr North - who, as a member of the church’s Anglo-Catholic wing, falls within the latter camp - 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.

In a lengthy explanation issued late last week, he admitted his nomination had sparked a ‘strong reaction’, and that he thought his arrival would be ‘counter-productive’.

“It is clear that my leadership would not be acceptable to many,” he said.

However, Mr North added that the controversy had taken a personal toll.

“The highly individualised nature of the attacks upon me have been extremely hard to bear,” said the 50-year-old. “I hope that this conversation can continue in the future without it being hung upon the shoulders of one individual.”

The Sheffield Action on Ministry Equality group - set up to campaign on church issues following Mr North’s nomination earlier this year - has been largely silent since Mr North stepped aside, apart from a short statement which described the events as a ‘sad moment’.

Members were keen to emphasise that the bishop-designate was not being singled out for criticism.

“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.”

The Rev Sue Hammersley, one of the group’s organisers, had previously warned against seeking ‘another sacrificial victim’.

“This is not an attack on Bishop Philip - he is part of the system that we’re all part of, in different ways.”

A historic General Synod vote in 2014 endorsed female bishops while making provision for those who opposed their ordination. Since the settlement, 10 women have been consecrated as bishops – Mr North is the first to hold traditional views on the issue.

Rev Dr Keith Hebden, of Sheffield’s Urban Theology Union, who is acting as an external consultant for the SAME group, said: “From our point of view as an organisation, we’ve got lots of different people with totally different views.

“Some people are really upset - they were really looking forward to him coming.

“But all of them could see there were huge challenges.”

It was a ‘matter for the people and diocese of Sheffield’, he said, referring to declarations of support and opposition issued by the likes of Dr John Sentamu, Archbishop of York, and the Very Rev Prof Martyn Percy, Dean of Christ Church, Oxford.

“It’s not a matter for the Archbishop of York, or the Dean of Oxford. The external views have not always been helpful. The clergy and laity of the diocese have been brilliant. There have been no attacks on Bishop Philip, people have made their views known in various ways.

“It’s all been very grown up and respectful.

“However sad it is that there’s been a lot of hurt and upset, I think the way the church has behaved in Sheffield has been brilliant.”

Rev Dr Hebden said SAME was ‘questioning the process by which the decision was made’ to nominate Mr North.

“It’s a bigger picture - there is a particular issue of ordination but there’s other issues as well to do with sexuality and ethnicity, and having a really diverse leadership of the church.”

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

“However what has happened to Bishop Philip clearly does not reflect the settlement under which, two and a half years ago, the Church of England joyfully and decisively opened up all orders of ministry to men and women. It also made a commitment to mutual flourishing.”

The archbishop urged church members to ‘disagree Christianly’, while the Rt Rev Peter Burrows, who as Bishop of Doncaster would have been Mr North’s most senior colleague in the diocese, said there was ‘much to reflect on’.

“I am deeply and personally saddened about this. There will be time to consider what lessons may be learned over the coming weeks and months.”

Rev Dr Hebden said: “The Archbishop of York is going away to pray but I hope he will also listen again to the diocese. The impression I get is that will take place.”