The Independent Reviewer and the Sheffield See

A Review on the Reviewer

On Friday 24 March 2017, we reported that the Archbishops of Canterbury and of York had issued a joint statement indicating that they had written to Sir Philip Mawer, the Independent Reviewer, requesting him to address the concerns that have arisen in the Church following recent events concerning the Rt Rev Philip North, Bishop of Burnley. This post reviews the work of Sir Philip to date, the House of Bishops Declaration GS Misc 1087, [“the Declaration”] and the scope of his consideration of the appointment to the See of Sheffield.

Appointment of the Independent Reviewer

On 23 October 2014, the Church of England announced that the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, with the agreement of the Chairs of the Houses of Clergy and Laity, had invited Sir Philip Mawer to act as the Independent Reviewer under the Declaration on the Ministry of Bishops and Priests (Resolution of Disputes Procedure) Regulations 2014, GS Misc 1087, [“the Regulations”], which will establish a procedure for the resolution of disputes arising from the House of Bishops’ Declaration on the Ministry of Bishops and Priests. Sir Philip accepted the invitation; his term of office when the Regulations are made by the House of Bishops on 17 November 2014 and will run until the end of 2017, (GS 1090). The announcement stated:

“After serving in the Home Office and the Cabinet Office as a senior civil servant, Sir Philip was Secretary General of the General Synod from 1990 to 2002. He was then Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards from 2002 to 2007 and the Prime Minister’s Independent Adviser on Ministerial Interests from 2008 to 2011. He chaired the Professional Regulation Executive Committee of the Actuarial Profession from 2009 to 2013. He has previously been Deputy Chair of the Ecclesiastical Insurance Group and is now Chair of Allchurches Trust Limited, the charity which owns the Group.”

In addition to considering grievances from parochial church councils where they believe that a bishop or other cleric has not acted consistently with the House of Bishops’ Declaration, the Regulations give the Reviewer broader powers to conduct inquiries where concerns have been expressed about acts or omissions under the Declaration more generally.

Legal Basis of the House of Bishops Declaration

The legal basis for the House of Bishops Declaration is Canon C 29, viz.

C 29 Of the House of Bishops’ Declaration on the Ministry of Bishops and Priests

1. The House of Bishops shall be under a duty to make Regulations prescribing a procedure for the resolution of disputes arising from the arrangements for which the House of Bishops’ declaration on the Ministry of Bishops and Priests makes provision.

2. The House of Bishops may, by Regulations, amend any Regulations made under paragraph 1.

3. Any Regulations made under paragraph 1 shall be laid before the General Synod.

4. Any Regulations made under paragraph 2 must be approved by a majority of two-thirds of each House of the General Synod present and voting.

The Declaration itself is a quasi-legislative instrument  [Hill M, Ecclesiastical Law (3rd Edn. OUP, Oxford, 2007) para. 1.35], as  was the preceding Episcopal Ministry Act of Synod 1993, but since it is underpinned by Canon 29, it can only be changed through subsequent Regulations and these must be passed in General Synod by a two-thirds majority in each House.

An important component of the Declaration is the “Five Guiding Principles”, to which the Independent Reviewer must have regard [Regulation 7(b)]. These Principles were  welcomed by General Synod in its resolution of 20 November 2013, and “need to be read one with the other and held together in tension, rather than being applied selectively” [5]. Two of particular relevance are:

  • Anyone who ministers within the Church of England must be prepared to acknowledge that the Church of England has reached a clear decision on the matter.
  • Since those within the Church of England who, on grounds of theological conviction, are unable to receive the ministry of women bishops or priests continue to be within the spectrum of teaching and tradition of the Anglican Communion, the Church of England remains committed to enabling them to flourish within its life and structures.

The Regulations were drawn up with the objective of addressing disputes which arose at parish level, but Regulation also provides the following broader powers:

“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.”

Operation of the Resolution of Disputes Procedure 

On 16 December, the Church of England published two documents on the Operation of the Resolution of Disputes Procedure on which we posted in June:

The Notes “describe the way in which the procedure works and need to be read alongside the Regulations. They are a guide, not a rigid set of rules. How the procedure for resolving disputes is made effective in any particular case will, inevitably and rightly, depend to some degree on the circumstances of that case. Moreover the way in which cases are handled is likely to evolve over time as the Church gains practical experience of how the procedure can best be used to advance rather than hinder its mission and its unity.”

Work of the Independent Reviewer

Sir Philip’s first report concerned a complaint by Hilary Cotton, Chair of Women and the Church (‘WATCH’) about the fact that a number of chrism masses were to be held in 2015 at which bishops of the Society of St Wilfrid and St Hilda would preside. He concluded that the masses are not in themselves a breach of the principles set out in the House of Bishops’ Declaration.

On 10 August 2015, Sir Philip issued his second report following a letter from Dr Colin Podmore, Director of Forward in Faith, enclosing an expression of concern about the operation of the House of Bishops’ Declaration in respect of the Parish of All Saints, Cheltenham in the Diocese of Gloucester. In this he stated:

“[3]…  before addressing the substance of Dr Podmore’s letter, whether it was appropriate for me to accept his letter as constituting an expression of concern under Regulation 27 of the Regulations.

[4] Having done so, including having taken legal advice on the matter, I concluded that Dr Podmore’s letter did raise an issue which I might properly consider under Regulation 27. The provision is widely expressed, extending to any concern “in relation to any aspect of the operation of the House of Bishops’ Declaration”. The concern Forward in Faith had expressed fell squarely within the scope of the provision, relating as it does to the operation of paragraph 23 of the Declaration [below] in the context of the authorisation of assistant clergy in multi-parish benefices. Although it arose in the particular circumstances of All Saints, Cheltenham, it was clear that the issue Dr Podmore had raised was one of general application, raising not only legal issues about the authorisation of assistant clergy in multi-parish benefices but potentially also an important question of principle concerning the need for clarity in relation to how such authorisations are granted.”

Paragraph 23 of the Declaration states:

“23. Anyone involved in making appointments to ordained parochial roles, whether of incumbents, priests in charge or assistant curates, or in exercising the power conferred by Canon C 8.2(a) to allow occasional ministry in a parish, should do everything possible to achieve an outcome that does not conflict with the nature of the conviction on this issue underlying the PCC’s resolution. Where a clerk in holy orders is the registered patron of a benefice in right of his or her office, he or she should not limit his or her selection of candidates to those of a particular sex except in circumstances where a parish has passed a resolution”.

It should be noted that this falls within the provisions relating to “Arrangements for parishes”, [16 to 29]. Those relating to “The College of Bishops” include:

“[30]. The House affirms the importance of there continuing to be consecrations of bishops within the Church of England to enable such ministry to be provided…”

In 2016, Sir Philip published his first annual report, covering the period from his appointment to 31 December 2015, in which there were no grievances from PCCs under Regulations 9 – 15, although there were the two concerns under Regulation 27 identified above on which we reported here and here. Appendix 3 to the Report contained note on the Legal and Canonical Status of the Provincial Episcopal, on which we posted here.

Terms of referral in the Archbishops’ letter

The letter from the Archbishops to Sir Philip Mawer set out the main elements of the issue:

  • On 6 July 2016 the See of Sheffield became vacant following the translation of Bishop Steven Croft from Sheffield to Oxford;
  • On 31 January 2017 HM Government announced that, following the usual process of nomination of candidates by the Crown Nominations Commission to the Prime Minister, HM The Queen had been pleased to approve the nomination of Bishop Philip North, the Bishop of Burnley, to the See of Sheffield;
  • On 9 March 2016 Bishop Philip North announced that he had withdrawn his acceptance of the nomination.

Given the significance of the concerns that have arisen and from the point of view of the future outworking of the Declaration in the life of the Church, the Archbishops requested to Philip to exercise his power, as the Independent Reviewer under Regulation 27, to consider and report on the operation of the Declaration from the point of view of:

(a) what has been done in the Church, including in the diocese of Sheffield, to inform and educate clergy and laity about the settlement agreed in 2014, and the effect of the Declaration within that settlement;

(b) the process leading to the nomination of Bishop Philip North to the See of Sheffield;

(c) the consistency of that nomination with the Declaration;

(d) the reactions to that nomination in the Church and beyond;

(e) the response of the institutional Church to the nomination and the reactions to it.

It is anticipated that the report will be available within about two months.


From the above, it is clear that:

  • examination of “the Sheffield question” is within the vires of the Independent Reviewer;
  • the Reviewer’s terms of reference for this referral indicate that the investigation is about the process involved in the operation of the Declaration rather than the theology behind it; the Declaration states:

“[9]. Reciprocity means that everyone, notwithstanding differences of conviction on this issue, will accept that they can rejoice in each other’s partnership in the Gospel and cooperate to the maximum possible extent in mission and ministry. There will need to be an acknowledgement that the differences of view which persist stem from an underlying divergence of theological conviction”.

The latter will be problematic to those who view the situation in strictly theological terms, as recently explored a post on the Archbishop Cranmer blog; this also suggests that the response of Cantuar and Ebor “has been to pass the buck…Some might say sidestep, cop out or fence-sit”, and asks:

“when the Church of England badly needs an injection of commanding public theology and authoritative leadership, have its two most senior bishops instigated a political review?”

In addition, the referral with approbation by others, and a range of opinions have been expressed in the Comments to the posts on the Thinking Anglicans blog here and here.

From the Archbishops’ letter it is clear that they are committed to the principles within the Declaration, subject to “a number of specific concerns in the Church about its operation…[some of which]..”relate to whether the nomination itself, and the procedure leading up to it, were in accordance with the Declaration”, i.e. points (a) to (e) in the letter.

Having agreed in Synod a procedure for dispute resolution, the Archbishops would have been subject to criticism from other quarters had this not been initiatedThis provides a means of taking the issue “off-line” for an initial review by an independent party who has  been fully versed in the associated issues since his appointment in 2014. Nevertheless, at its conclusion the review must be followed up by decisive action in relation to the general issues surrounding the Bishops ‘Declaration, and to the appointment to the See of Sheffield without cannot proceed without such clarification.

It seems likely that Sir Philip’s findings will be known in advance of the York General Synod, 7-11 July, and a debate seems inevitable. However, should any changes to the Regulations be proposed, it is unlikely that these would be debated until a later Synod; this would reopen aspects of the debate which took place in the lead up to the Bishops’ Declaration in 2014. As noted above, any revision to the  Regulation would require two-thirds support in each of the Houses of General Synod.

The No 10 announcement of Dr North’s decision not to take up the Sheffield appointment stated that “[t]he Archbishop of York will in due course submit the name of an alternative candidate for this diocese”. However, Dr Sentamu made no reference to “an” (or even “the”) alternative candidate in his subsequent statement. When our piece was first posted on 29th March we wondered whether the See of Sheffield was destined to a prolonged interregnum, as was the See of Oxford until the translation of the Rt Rev Dr Croft from Sheffield. However, on 7th April an announcement was made that the Very Reverend Peter Jonathan Wilcox, currently Dean of Liverpool, had been appointed to the See of Sheffield.

Cite this article as: David Pocklington, "The Independent Reviewer and the Sheffield See" in Law & Religion UK, 28 March 2017,

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