The Stirrings in Sheffield

The See of Sheffield: What next?

On 8 March, the Rt Rev Philip North, Bishop of Burnley, announced his decision that he felt unable to take up the nomination as Bishop of Sheffield; he commented that the news of his nomination had elicited a strong reaction within the diocese and some areas of the wider Church, and included highly individualised attacks upon him. The announcement from No 10 stated: “[t]he Archbishop of York will in due course submit the name of an alternative candidate for this diocese”. In view of the complexities involved in the appointment of diocesan bishops, it would be unwise to read too much into this gobbet of “civil servant speak”; this post examines what is, and what is not known of the next steps in the appointment of a bishop in the See of Sheffield.

The Appointment Process

The appointment of diocesan bishops has been considered in our posts Choosing diocesan bishops in the Church of England, by Peter Owen on 28 July 2014, and in Bishops: from announcement to installation on 26 April 2016, the latter considering the point at which the former bishop of Sheffield, the Rt Rev Steven Croft, officially became the bishop of Oxford. A final piece to the jigsaw was added by Chancellor Tim Briden, Vicar General of the Canterbury Province, in his lecture to members of the Ecclesiastical Law Society Confirmation of Episcopal Elections on 19 October 2016. This is perhaps the least documented aspect of the election process.

The post by Peter Owen identifies the stages between the announcement of the retirement of the current bishop announces to the commencement of the public ministry of the new bishop. For all appointments to diocesan sees, at the end of the selection process the Crown Nominations Commission (CNC) provides the Archbishop with two names, one of which is the preferred candidate. The Prime Minister asks the CNC’s first preference if he or she will accept nomination. Following a medical and DBS check, the Queen is advised and she formally nominates him/her to the see. If for any reason he/she is unable to accept nomination the position is offered to the CNC’s second preference.

Typically, the public announcement is made four to eight weeks after the CNC’s second meeting. With regard to the appointment of Bishop Philip North to the See of Sheffield, this was announced by the Prime Minister’s Office on 31 January 2017. The next step is for the monarch to issues instructions – a congé d’élire – to the College of Canons of the cathedral of the vacant see giving them leave to elect a bishop: this also tells them whom to elect.

S5 Cathedrals Measure 1999 requires the college to perform the functions conferred by the Appointment of Bishops Act 1533 under which they must “with all spede and seleritie in due forme electe and chose the seid person named in the seid letters myssyves to the dignitie and office ofthe Archebishopriche or Bishopriche soo being voyde”. Bob Morris of UCL has suggested that:

“in its original form, the Act laid down that the sovereign could in effect order cathedral chapters to elect the sovereign’s nominee on pain of praemunire. Since the removal of that ancient sanction in 1967 and the substitution of Colleges of Canons for the previous arrangements, the crown’s requirements are nowadays issued to the College. What would now happen should a College refuse to elect has not been, and is unlikely to be, tested. Ultimately, however, direct appointment by Letters Patent could presumably be considered.”

[Frank Cranmer, John Lucas and Bob Morris, Church and State, A Mapping Exercise(2006, The Constitution Unit, UCL, London)]”.

The above sanctions came into play “yf they doo deferre or delay theire eleccion above xij [12] dayes next after suche licence andletters myssyves to theym delyvered“.

The College holds its election in private and then announces the result in public. The Church Times has indicated that the date of 25 April 2017 had been set for Bishop North’s election by the Dean and Chapter.


Technically, an alternative candidate has been selected and it is within the gift of the Archbishop of York to approach this person to see if they are prepared to accept the offer. The selection process would then recommence, and this name be forwarded to the Prime Minister and thence to the Crown. However, recent events suggest that the needs of the diocese may now be significantly different from those against which the CNC determined its first and second choices.

Prior to this, however, it would be prudent to review the operation of the House of Bishops’ Declaration on the Ministry of Bishops and Priests and the five guiding principles outlines in its Guidance Note. The House of Bishops Declaration GS Misc 1087 states:

Raising of concerns about the operation of the House of Bishops’ declaration

[27]. Any person may raise a concern, in writing, with the Independent Reviewer in relation to any aspect of the operation of the House of Bishops’ Declaration.  Any such concern may relate to more than one act or omission under the House of Bishops’ Declaration and to more than one parish or diocese.”

This would appear to be such a concern for assessment by  the Independent Reviewer, Sir Philip Mawer.

Although the No 10 announcement stated that “[t]he Archbishop of York will in due course submit the name of an alternative candidate for this diocese”, Dr Sentamu made no reference to “an” (or even “the”) alternative candidate in his own announcement and suggested that “there must now be time for us all to reflect” on events in Sheffield and in the wider Church. This surely must be the preferred option.

Cite this article as: David Pocklington, "The Stirrings in Sheffield" in Law & Religion UK, 11 March 2017,

11 thoughts on “The Stirrings in Sheffield

  1. It would be unthinkable surely for a congé d’élire to issue in respect of a candidate who has openly supported Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union.

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  4. Paras 11 & 12 of the House of Bishops’ Declaration refer to the possibility of there being a diocesan bishop who will not ordain women, and requires that every diocese must nevertheless have at least one bishop who will ordain women. This is interpreted by the traditionalists as being the authority for it being acceptable to have a diocesan bishop who does not accept the validity of a woman’s orders as priest or bishop, which is perhaps not quite the same thing as simply not ordaining women. On the other hand, the first Guiding Principle requires all to acknowledge that “those whom it [the Church] has duly ordained and appointed to office are the true and lawful holders of the office which they occupy”. Those supporting the ordination of women interpret this as meaning that everyone must accept that such women are truly priests or bishops in the Church of God even if personally they are unable to accept their ministry (cf Guiding Principle 4). Each side in the Sheffield situation (accepting also that there are many shades of opinion on the issue) has sought to interpret parts of the Declaration selectively in ways which support their particular position. If ever there was a case for the Independent Reviewer to review and try to settle the matter then surely this is it. However, if it then appears that apparently conflicting aspects of the Declaration cannot be brought into coherent interpretation acknowledged by all, then perhaps we would have to conclude that the Declaration in its present form is not entirely fit for purpose, and refer it back to the House and to Synod for resolution.

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