Citing the nature of the abuse that he had received, Philip North – the current Bishop of Burnley – accepted that it would be “counter-productive” to take up a high-profile role that he accepted from the Queen as recently as January 31.
“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,” said the 50-year-old whose conservative views prompted criticisms that he would not be able to command the confidence of female clergy already serving in the Diocese of Sheffield.
“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.”
Two years after the consecration of Libby Lane, Britain’s first female bishop, in a historic service at York Minster conducted by Dr John Sentamu, the row is a major embarrassment for the Church of England as the Archbishop of York called for a period of reflection.
In an impassioned statement, Dr Sentamu stated that the General Synod’s historic vote two and a half years ago in favour of women bishops, following decades of division, also made provision for those clergy, like Bishop Philip, who could not embrace equality move because of their long-held conservative views.
Dr Sentamu, who previously defended the appointment in The Yorkshire Post, also lamented the nature of the opposition to Bishop Philip who, he said, had been “inspirational” to parishoners in the North West and where his traditional teachings had not proved to be divisive since taking up the role in 2015.
“It is now time – during this season of Lent - that the Church spends time in penitence, repentance and reflection,” said Dr Sentamu after accepting, and endorsing, the Bishop’s resignation statement.
“There will be continuing debate in the coming days and weeks of lessons to be learned, how that learning might inform and inspire us to act as a Church in our dealings with one another and how, when we disagree, to disagree Christianly, remembering at all times that our identity is in Christ alone.”
No announcement is imminent on a replacement for Steven Croft, the former Bishop of Sheffield, although there will now be pressure for a female to be appointed. A statement posted on the 10 Downing Street website said: “The Rt Rev Philip North has withdrawn, for personal reasons, acceptance of his nomination by the Crown Nominations Commission. The Archbishop of York will in due course submit the name of an alternative candidate for this diocese.”
Though many women priests did express their support for Bishop North, criticism intensified when leading churchmen like Martyn Percy – Dean of Christ College, Oxford – wrote in the newspaper that the appointment represented “a step backwards into dense fog, and greater darkness”.
There was no sign of the criticism abating – Canon Nicholas Jones, a priest of 40 years standing in the Sheffield diocese, yesterday described the episode as “a huge own goal for the church in the eyes of the wider public”.
Bishop Philip said he was taking a “period of leave” to reflect upon the “strong reaction” of recent weeks.
Meanwhile the Bishop of Doncaster called for a period of “reconciliation”. The Right Reverend Peter Burrows said the Diocese of Sheffield needed to “rebuild relationships of trust and confidence”.