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Church divided over promotion of bishop who opposes ordination of women as priests

Church divided over promotion of bishop who opposes ordination of women as priests

By Rosie Dawson
January 11, 2023

Philip North, 56, the Bishop of Burnley, is to be "translated" (churchspeak for "promoted") to become the next Bishop of Blackburn.

For the Church of England there is an unusual amount of agreement on one issue: Philip North is a very nice man.

There is rather less agreement within the Church of England about whether this is a good idea.

The Church of England has been ordaining women as priests since 1994 and as bishops since 2015. Bishop North is one of a small number of bishops who refuse to ordain women. This had proved a stumbling block in his career. In 2012 he was appointed Bishop of Whitby but withdrew after protests. He became Bishop of Burnley in 2015, but when it was announced two years later that he was to move to Sheffield, there was an outcry, and he again withdrew. Friends say the experience shattered him.

The legislation passed by General Synod to approve women's ordination in 1993 introduced so-called "flying bishops". Their job is to minister to clergy and congregations across the country who are unable to accept women's priestly ministry. But most priests are cared for and overseen by their diocesan bishop and his or her suffragans.

Martin Warner of Chichester is now the only diocesan bishop who will not ordain women. While Blackburn diocese has historically been conservative on this issue, Julian Henderson -- who retired as bishop there last summer -- did ordain them. Bishop North's appointment is therefore seen by some as a backwards step.

Those who object to the ordination of women as priests tend to fall into two categories. On the one hand there are those, often of an evangelical persuasion, whose reading of Scripture leads them to argue that women should not be placed in positions of authority over men.

On the other, there are those on the more Catholic wing of the church, who argue that the Church of England cannot unilaterally take decisions which they believe should be made by the whole church (meaning the Roman Catholic, Orthodox and wider Anglican churches).

Bishop North falls into the second camp. Even so, there are those who say they cannot quite grasp the nuance of his position. While he says he cannot in conscience ordain women to the priesthood, he does "not doubt the validity of those orders that the Church of England bestows on female candidates and I hold their ministry to be transformative and grace-filled".

Three clergy and three laypeople from the diocese served on the Crown Nominations Commission, the body responsible for making this appointment. They will have taken soundings from parishes about their experiences of working with Bishop North. It is unlikely that he could have taken on a more senior role in a diocese where he was not already well known and respected.

The Rev Nancy Goodrich, formerly a priest in the diocese, posted on Twitter that "he is way more supportive of women's ordained ministry and celebrates it more than other who supposedly are in favour".

I understand that all 74 women priests in the diocese received a handwritten letter from Bishop North telling them of his appointment, acknowledging that the news may be uncomfortable to some, and assuring them that he will listen to their concerns.

"The overwhelming majority of women clergy are very excited by the appointment," said the Rev Anne Beverley, the Dean of Women's Ministry in the diocese, "but I do know of one or two who are finding it difficult, and there may be more."

One priest, who did not want to be named, told me that she was considering leaving the diocese. "I'm concerned that a diocesan bishop who is non-affirming -- however graciously they hold that position -- could be an encouragement to those who may be less gracious in holding that view," she said.

"I'm also worried about the possibility that the proportion of women in paid posts may shift. We had come some way under the previous bishop, Julian. I think there's a danger that this appointment might take us backwards."

She also expressed concern about Bishop North's position as priest administrator of the Anglican Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham in Norfolk, a centre of pilgrimage which, she says, tolerates blatant misogyny.

The Rev Martine Oborne chairs Women and the Church (Watch), which works for gender justice, equality and inclusion in the Church of England. "I am sure that Bishop Philip is a very good man," she says. "But we need to separate the person from the institutional problem. We have to consider whether his theological position is compatible with the role of a diocesan bishop who has responsibility and oversight for all the clergy in the diocese.

"The appointment sadly reflects ... institutional discrimination in the church and we are effectively told that we must just suck it up and get on with it."

At the moment Bishop North's appointment was being announced from Downing Street, he was at St Christopher's CofE High School Academy in Accrington where pupils were given the news by his colleague, Jill Duff, the Bishop of Lancaster.

Bishop North told BBC Radio Lancashire that his job was to serve and that he was grateful that his love for the diocese had been recognised "It's a joy to be loved and acknowledged -- it makes me almost want to cry actually," he said. He added that young people were up for proper conversation and discussion about the purpose of their lives and he would love to see every church working with them.

Rachel Gardner, the youth resourcing lead at St Luke's Church, Blackburn, said on Twitter that his appointment was "the best news for our young people, our communities, our clergy and our churches".

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