Bishop Philip North was one of the clergy in my area when I was Bishop of Lynn, and I am personally very sorry to hear about what he describes in his recent statement as ‘the highly personalised nature of the attacks’ which have been directed towards him. Bishop Philip has decided that, in the light of the responses to the news of his nomination, his move to the Diocese of Sheffield would be counter-productive in terms of the mission of the church in that area. He has, therefore, graciously withdrawn.
As most of you will know, I led the final part of the synodical process whereby in 2014 the Church of England legislated for the ordination of women to the episcopate and reaffirmed the decision to ordain women as priests. I am a convinced advocate of the ministry of women as deacons, priests and bishops within our church, and rejoice at the ministry of ordained women within our own Diocese. But I was also one of those who crafted the Five Guiding Principles which were so important in enabling us to find a way forward which commanded such a high level of support in General Synod in 2014. Here is the text of those Principles in full:
Now that legislation has been passed to enable women to become bishops, the Church of England is fully and unequivocally committed to all orders of ministry being open equally to all, without reference to gender, and holds that those whom it has duly ordained and appointed to office are the true and lawful holders of the office which they occupy and thus deserve due respect and canonical obedience;
Anyone who ministers within the Church of England must be prepared to acknowledge that the Church of England has reached a clear decision on the matter;
Since it continues to share the historic episcopate with other Churches, including the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church and those provinces of the Anglican Communion which continue to ordain only men as priests or bishops, the Church of England acknowledges that its own clear decision on ministry and gender is set within a broader process of discernment within the Anglican Communion and the whole Church of God;
Since those within the Church of England who, on grounds of theological conviction, are unable to receive the ministry of women bishops or priests continue to be within the spectrum of teaching and tradition of the Anglican Communion, the Church of England remains committed to enabling them to flourish within its life and structures; and
Pastoral and sacramental provision for the minority within the Church of England will be made without specifying a limit of time and in a way that maintains the highest possible degree of communion and contributes to mutual flourishing across the whole Church of England.
In its Declaration of May 2014, the House of Bishops made the point that these Guiding Principles ‘need to be read one with the other and held together in tension, rather than being applied selectively’. Thus, while affirming unequivocally that all orders of ministry are open to all without reference to gender, we also assert that those who are unable to receive the priestly or episcopal ministry of women continue to be fully part of the life of our church – and not just for an interim or limited period.
Furthermore, the Declaration (in paragraphs 11 and 12) clearly envisages the possibility of there being diocesan bishops who might not ordain women, and indicates the arrangements which should be made in such circumstances. These arrangements are in a sense the mirror image to the provision made for those unable to receive the ministry of a woman bishop (or indeed of a male bishop who ordains women). It was precisely to meet circumstances such as the nomination of Bishop Philip that we made these provisions.
The settlement which we put in place in 2014 is, I believe, a structural expression of conviction and grace. It has in practice, as is clear from across our own Diocese, enabled us to maintain a high level of fellowship across profoundly held differences of theological and ecclesiological conviction. In this context, my own view is that Bishop Philip’s nomination to the See of Sheffield was entirely consistent with the 2014 Declaration by the House of Bishops. That nomination must also have been made with the agreement of most (perhaps all) of the six Sheffield Diocesan representatives on the Crown Nominations Commission. I note also the number of senior ordained women who have made public their support for Bishop Philip.
I am conscious that what has happened has been unsettling for those in our own Diocese who are unable in conscience to receive the ministry of women whether as priests or bishops – and I have in mind those of conservative evangelical as well as traditional catholic conviction. I want to assure all such that you continue to have a welcome and honoured place within the fellowship of this Diocese. Your participation in many aspects of our common life enriches us all, and is received with thankfulness. I hope that the ministries of the Bishops of Richborough and Maidstone as Assistant Bishops within our Diocese enhances your sense of belonging.
That welcome sits alongside our absolute commitment to receiving and fostering the ministries of ordained women within this Diocese. Those ministries also enrich our common life and the mission of the church. In the time that I have been here, some 35% of appointments to incumbent-status posts have been of women, and I look forward to that growing.
We all know that the 2014 settlement contains inherent tensions, and depends on the willingness of all to act graciously. What has happened in relation to Bishop Philip is testing that. I pray that, not least within this Diocese, we will continue to find the grace to navigate the tensions with generosity of spirit. Please pray also for Bishop Philip, for the Diocese of Sheffield, and for those who must now seek a new person to nominate as Bishop for that diocese.