As a priest for over forty years in the Diocese of Sheffield I received with alarm and dismay the news of the nomination of the Right Reverend Philip North as the next Bishop of Sheffield. Bishop Philip is a leader in a minority organisation within the Church of England, the Society of Wilfrid and Hilda, which does not accept that women can be validly ordained as priests and bishops and which works for a reversal of the church’s decisions to ordain women as priests (1992) and as bishops (2014). He is to be placed over a diocese in which women priests represent a third of the total and in which the last three bishops and a strong majority of clergy and lay people have accepted and valued women’s priesthood.
How has this come about? When the women bishops’ legislation was passed by the General Synod, the House of Bishops issued a declaration which effectively said that all wings of the church should have scope to ‘flourish’, and it is within the somewhat vague terms of that statement that a bishop from a minority persuasion has now been nominated over a mainstream diocese.
The Diocese of Sheffield will, therefore, have a bishop who does not believe in the true orders of a very large number of his own priests. Most people in the diocese and the wider Church of England are quite clear about the church’s direction of travel, towards a fully inclusive and equal ministry of women and men. The presence of a bishop who does not believe in that direction and who will attract to the diocese those who agree with his traditionalist outlook seems to many of us an unacceptable backward step. It is difficult to see how he can be a unifying figure, as a bishop should be.
It appears, too, that there was a serious flaw in the consultations that took place before Bishop Philip was nominated. The House of Bishops’ Declaration of 2014 said that dioceses were ‘entitled to express a view, in the statement of needs prepared during a vacancy in see, as to whether the diocesan bishop should be someone who will or will not ordain women’. This question was apparently never raised, everyone assuming that what has now transpired wasn’t even on the horizon. It’s very clear that, if it had been raised, the answer from many would have been, ‘No’. Such a fundamental omission in the consultation shows clearly that the nomination based on it is unsafe.
There is nothing in what I am writing which impugns the suitability of Bishop Philip in almost every other respect for the position of Bishop of Sheffield, but, as women’s priesthood still comes out as second-class by this appointment, it will cause great unease and pain in the diocese and appear as a huge own goal for the church in the eyes of the wider public.
In these circumstances, it would be appropriate for the Archbishops to release Bishop Philip from his obligation to serve here, to allow the diocese to conduct a clearer review of its priorities.
(Rev Canon) Nicholas P A Jowett: 3rd March