THE Church of England rift over the ordination of women clergy took a new turn last night as the Archbishops of York and Canterbury took the unusual step of calling an independent inquiry into the resignation of Philip North, the designate Bishop of Sheffield, less than six weeks after being appointed by the Queen.
The church’s two most senior minsters issued a joint statement announcing that they had asked for the inquiry under the terms of the General Synod declaration in 2014 which endorsed female bishops.
Bishop North, 50, blamed personal criticism for dramatically stepping aside earlier this month, following a damaging sexism row about his long-standing opposition to female clergy on theological grounds.
He said that in view of personal criticism he had received, it would be “counter-productive” to take up the high-profile post in Sheffield.
His decision, in the week of International Women’s Day was seen as embarrassing for the church, a view acknowledged by last night’s statement from Lambeth Palace and Bishopthorpe Palace in York.
Dr John Sentamu in York and Justin Welby in Canterbury sent a joint letter to Sir Philip Mawer, the civil servant appointed as an “independent reviewer” to adjudicate on grievances arising from the 2014 declaration which allowed for the consecration of women to the bishopric.
Dr Sentamu and Mr Welby acknowledged that both the status and meaning of the declaration had been challenged, and asked Sir Philip to “address these concerns that have arisen in the church following these recent events”.
They added: “We reaffirm clearly our commitment to the declaration, to the principles contained in it, and to the overriding principle of mutual flourishing”.
Sir Philip has been asked to specifically investigate what has been done in the Sheffield diocese “to inform and educate clergy and laity” about the “five guiding principles” which underpin the ruling on women bishops.
These state that the church is “fully and unequivocally committed to all orders of ministry being open equally to all, without reference to gender”, and that “anyone who ministers within the church” must be prepared to acknowledge it had “reached a clear decision on the matter”.
The inquiry, which is expected to be made public, will also look into the process leading to the nomination of Bishop North, and the reaction which followed.
The archbishops, in their letter to Sir Philip, said the Sheffield case had demonstrated that “we have not always as a church shown how we can disagree Christianly”.
Last night, a source within the church told The Yorkshire Post that the joint call for an inquiry was the first such approach since the ruling on women bishops, and demonstrated a “commitment to make it work.”