Anglican priest refuses promotion over decision to continue banning female bishops

By Sam Jones, The Guardian
Monday, December 17, 2012 9:42 EDT
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Rosie Harper, vicar of Great Missenden, addresses the Church of England General Synod at Church House in central London. (AFP)
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Rev Philip North was due to become bishop of Whitby, despite parishoners’ opposition to his stance on women in church

The Church of England‘s split over female bishops has deepened after an Anglo-Catholic clergyman announced that he was not taking up his post as a bishop because of his opposition to the idea.

Father Philip North, who is team rector at the parish of Old St Pancras, in north London, was appointed bishop of Whitby in October, despite some local disquiet over his stance on women in the ministry.

He said he had decided to withdraw following last month’s General Synod vote, which saw the church narrowly vote against giving final approval to legislation that would introduce the first female bishops.

“It was a great honour to be chosen for this role and I had been very much looking forward to taking up the position,” North said in a statement.

“However, in the light of the recent vote in the General Synod and having listened to the views of people in the archdeaconry of Cleveland, I have concluded that it is not possible for me, at this difficult time for our church, to be a focus for unity. I have therefore decided that it is better to step aside at this stage.” He said the decision to reject the post and remain in his current job had been reached “after a time of deep reflection”.

The bishop of London, the Rt Rev Richard Chartres, said he understood North’s decision, adding: “He is a gifted and energetic priest and I am glad that he remains in this diocese to continue his outstanding work in Camden Town.”

On Sunday, the archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, wrote to clergy and readers in the archdeaconry of Cleveland to express his “great disappointment” at North’s decision. “Philip North is not a single-issue priest,” he said.

“As a gifted pastor-teacher he is deeply committed to the flourishing of the diverse ministries of all God’s people – lay and ordained. His dynamic vision for making Christ visible in mission and ministry, as well as serving the poor, would have been a great asset to us all.”

The archbishop said a replacement would be appointed in due course and asked the clergy to pray for North and the archdeaconery, where many parishes do not recognise female priests.

The choice of North — who was set to replace Martin Warner, now bishop of Chichester — had angered those in the area who disagree with his views and object to having another traditionalist as bishop. North is a member of the traditionalist Anglo-Catholic wing of the Church of England.

The Church Times reported that John Secker, churchwarden of St Oswald’s Church, Lythe, in Whitby, had written to Dr Sentamu on 28 November to protest against the move and to complain that many people felt “aggrieved and overlooked”.

The letter read: “We are puzzled, dismayed and very disappointed that for the third time running we have been assigned a bishop of Whitby who does not accept the ordination of women priests …

“We are aware that some parishes, some clergy, and some of the laity in the Whitby bishopric do not accept the validity of women priests but, as in the rest of the country, a substantial majority of us do. So why should we have to have a bishop who does not accept them?

“We assume that there must be some sort of rationale behind the decision, but you should be aware that many of us feel aggrieved and overlooked.”

In his reply, Sentamu said he believed North would make a fine bishop, but added: “Clearly the appointment of Rev North has also been made as part of our accommodation for our petitioning parishes in this diocese. The fact is that the vast majority of our petitioning parishes are in the Cleveland archdeaconry and so the see of Whitby is the obvious choice for such episcopal provision where the diocesan bishop is an outspoken advocate of women’s ministry.”

The split over female bishops — which prompted the prime minister to express his disappointment at the synod vote and urge the church to “get with the programme” — has been compounded by internal divisions over the issue of same-sex marriage.

© Guardian News and Media 2012

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