Traditionalist C of E Bishop Appointed as Diocesan

Bishops Jill Duff and Philip North (Diocese of Blackburn)

By Douglas LeBlanc

The Rt. Rev. Philip North, who has served in a suffragan’s role within the Diocese of Blackburn for eight years, has been appointed that diocese’s 10th bishop. He is scheduled to succeed Bishop Julian Henderson in May or June.

Bishop North’s traditionalist understanding of women in ministry has attracted opposition in the past, and again this year. Bishop North has twice declined appointments in other dioceses (as a bishop suffragan of Whitby in 2012 and as Bishop of Sheffield in 2017) amid protests that followed his appointments.

This year, North draws strength from his long association with the Diocese of Blackburn; the service of the other bishop suffragan within the diocese, the Rt. Rev. Jill Duff of Lancaster, as leader of the committee that recommended North for the office; and a hearty endorsement by the Archbishop of York, whose archdiocese includes Blackburn.

Dr. Martyn Percy, who had urged North to withdraw from nomination in 2017, has since left the Church of England after a years-long conflict with the University of Oxford’s Christchurch College.

Women and the Church (WATCH) has renewed its previous opposition to North becoming a bishop diocesan.

“We recognize Bishop Philip’s many gifts and are aware that he has been supportive of women in a range of ministerial posts in the Church, some at senior levels,” WATCH said after North’s appointment was announced January 10. “Nonetheless, Bishop Philip does not recognize the ordination of women as priests and bishops, and will be the first diocesan bishop to be appointed with his theological position on the ordination of women since women were permitted to be bishops in 2014.”

WATCH said it “cannot support the nomination,” and listed five reasons it sees North’s appointment as problematic.

Bishop Duff expressed no misgivings as she presented her brother bishop through a diocesan video and in a diocesan announcement.

“Philip North is a prophetic leader and a tender-hearted pastor who loves Jesus and loves the people of Lancashire,” Duff said. “I have found much joy in serving alongside Philip as a fellow suffragan bishop for the last five years. He has inspired me, encouraged, and greatly supported me. And I believe that Philip is called for such a time as this to lead the Diocese of Blackburn, cherishing the diversity of opinion, theology, and background that our county has always welcomed.”

The Most Rev. Stephen Cottrell, Archbishop of York, likewise expressed confidence in North.

“Bishop Philip comes to this new role already knowing and loving the Diocese of Blackburn,” Cottrell said. “He respects and understands the diversity of the diocese and is committed to growing a church where all can flourish, both ordained and lay alike. As an evangelist, he will also strive to share the Christian faith with others. As a friend of the poor, he will be a voice for the most hard-pressed and excluded in our society. I am hugely excited about his appointment and ensure him and the Diocese of Blackburn of my support and prayer.”

The Diocese of Blackburn reports that 27,500 people were on its rolls as of 2015. It counted 15,600 adults (over 16) and 3,400 children as weekly participants in the same year. The diocese says that as of June 2017 it has 177 benefices, 238 parishes, and 274 churches/licensed worship centers.

North is a graduate of the University of York and trained for ministry at St. Stephen’s House, Oxford. He was ordained priest in 1993. In 1996 he became vicar at Holy Trinity and St. Mark’s Hartlepool and was appointed area dean of Hartlepool in 2000.

In 2002, he was appointed priest administrator of the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham before being appointed team rector of the Parish of Old St. Pancras, in the Diocese of London, in 2008. North was appointed Bishop of Burnley in 2015.

North’s service at Walsingham is a point to which WATCH objects. WATCH also protests that North serves on the Society of St. Wilfrid and St. Hilda’s Council of Bishops. Society clergy abstain from the Eucharist based on their convictions about women in the episcopate.

“Appointing a diocesan bishop who does not share in the Eucharist with the whole of the House of Bishops is a challenge to the unity of that body and the Church’s teaching on this matter,” WATCH said.

A pamphlet by the Society of St. Wilfrid and St. Hilda says that “there can be occasions when it is appropriate (though none should feel compelled) to receive [C]ommunion from other validly ordained bishops and priests. This must be a decision for the person concerned, as a matter of conscience.”

For his part, North did not concentrate on such matters in responding to his appointment.

“I believe with all my heart that God has called me to carry Jesus across Lancashire, to bear witness to his love and peace here in this county. I have done that for the past eight years as Bishop of Burnley, and I will go on doing that as Bishop of Blackburn. I am delighted to be staying in a county that I love very deeply indeed, delighted also that we will be able to carry on the work here in Blackburn Diocese,” he said.

The bishop-designate added:

“There are three things for which I will be laboring tirelessly in the years to come. Firstly, I am committed to continuing the growth of the church in Lancashire, helping to build joyful Christian communities. Secondly, I would love to see the Church of England in Lancashire being an ever-stronger voice for justice, especially for the poorest.

“And thirdly, I believe children and young people need to be at the very heart of all that we do. The current generation of young people is such an impressive one, with a real desire to build a better world. Yet at the same time I know that life is not always easy for them. There are such exciting opportunities for young people in Lancashire — we need to see more.”

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