THE nomination of the Right Reverend Philip North to be Bishop of Sheffield has created quite a stir, but it will not surprise those who have followed the process by which the Church of England agreed to the ordination of women as bishops.
A report in the Guardian yesterday noted that Dr Martyn Percy, the Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, has objected to Bishop North’s nomination because of his opposition, as a traditional catholic Anglican, to the CoE’s decision to embrace women priests and bishops.
These arguments were raised and presented during and before the General Synod debates on this issue in 2014. In supporting the ordination of women as bishops, the Synod did not accept these arguments and favoured a position of mutual flourishing for all in the Church.
Back in 1998 the Lambeth Conference – a gathering of Anglican Bishops from around the world – noted that in relation to the unity of dioceses the Conference “in particular calls upon the provinces of the Communion to affirm that those who dissent from, as well as those who assent to, the ordination of women to the priesthood and episcopate are both loyal Anglicans”.
Is the Church wrong to affirm this? No! Bishop Philip has assured women clergy in the diocese that he is in favour of women’s leadership and would actively promote it. I know he will do so. Women clergy in the Diocese of Sheffield will not only be accepted, but will be encouraged, inspired, and furthered in their ministry by their new Diocesan Bishop. However, there remain those who question the integrity both of the agreement reached by the Church of England, and of Philip North himself. And that simply won’t do.
Bishop Philip’s nomination is a moment of opportunity for the Diocese of Sheffield, and for the Church of England as we participate in the mission of God, acknowledging and welcoming our diversity as a community held together in Christ. Philip brings tremendous energy for mission and ministry. He is a disciple of Christ, full of the Holy Spirit, grace and insight. We look forward to welcoming him to our North East region group of bishops.
This debate matters not just because of Philip’s own integrity – which remains unimpeached in the midst of debate – but also because of the nature of the Church of England itself, which reached a resolution in 2014 that enabled people who disagree on fundamental issues to continue to remain together as members of one Church bound together in Jesus Christ. This is not a “winner takes all” approach but rather one that seeks – as the Lambeth resolution said – to recognise that those who dissent as well as those who assent to particular propositions are both treated as loyal members of the Church.
It’s a lesson that we need to hear in times where fractious disagreement can threaten to boil over into unwise actions.
Essential to the Church of England’s 2014 decision to proceed with the ordination of women as bishops was the House of Bishops Declaration made in May that year, pointing to five guiding principles, affirming the Church’s commitment both to the ordination of women as bishops, and to the flourishing within the Church of England of those who on grounds of theological conviction, are unable to receive the ministry of women bishops or priests. There is no contradiction here – this is about people of different traditions called to put Christ first, for the sake of God’s mission in the world.
Bishop Philip North’s nomination is entirely consistent with these guiding principles. For those reasons, and after much thought and prayer, the Crown Nominations Commission nominated the Rt Rev Philip North to be Bishop of Sheffield, and the Queen has accepted their nomination. I look forward to his ministry in Sheffield.
Dr John Sentamu is the Archbishop of York.