Sheffield’s next bishop is confident he can restore the ‘spirit of unity’ to a church divided by the row over women priests.
The Very Reverend Dr Pete Wilcox was today (Friday, April 7) revealed as the Church of England’s replacement for the Rt Rev Philip North, who turned the role down last month amid controversy over his opposition to female priests.
The announcement was made at St Swithun’s Church in Manor, whose team rector the Rev Julie Upton was one of the first women to be ordained as a priest in Britain.Parishioners there had been among the most outspoken opponents of Philip North’s appointment, but they welcomed the new appointment.
Dr Wilcox said: “I will be ordaining with great joy and delight both women and men as priests in the diocese but I will also be hugely supportive of Bishop Glyn (who opposes the ordination of women priests) and respect the traditional Catholic position.”
The 55-year-old father-of-two, who is currently Dean of Liverpool Cathedral, was among those considered for the Bishop of Sheffield role last year and said he was ‘crestfallen’ to learn he had lost out to Mr North.
He told how the position had continued to ‘beckon to me’, as he felt it was a perfect fit for his skills and experience, and claimed he felt ‘fine’ about being second choice.
Dr Wilcox paid tribute to Mr North, whom he described as a man of ‘huge integrity’, and praised his ‘courageous’ decision to turn down the role ‘for the sake of the unity of the church’.
He said the events leading up to his appointment ‘don’t reflect particularly well on any of us’, but praised the Bishop of Doncaster, the Rt Revd Peter Burrows and the people of the diocese for their work to ‘heal the wounds exposed by Bishop Philip’s nomination’.
“Of course there’s work to do but one of the things people keep telling me is how good the spirit of unity was across the diocese just six months ago, which gives me confidence it won’t be long before we rediscover that spirit,” he said.
“The impression I’m picking up is that there’s a great will to recover that sense of reconciliation and it might not be very long before that process is complete.”
Dr Wilcox began his career in the clergy in Teesside and had served as a priest in Walsall and canon chancellor at Lichfield Cathedral before being appointed Dean of Liverpool Cathedral.
He is married to the novelist Catherine Fox, who has written books on feminism and been outspoken in her support of women priests.
He is a keen supporter of Newcastle United, who play at Hillsborough this weekend, and he joked ‘I might be very unpopular with Wednesday fans by Saturday evening’.
Dr Wilcox said one of his priorities in the new role would be spreading the gospel to young people, as he said familiarity with Jesus’ teachings among under-30s was ‘as thin as it’s been in this country for 500 years’.
Another key priority, he said, would be to support the area’s most deprived communities like that of Manor as he seeks to confront social and economic inequalities within the region.
He is due to spend the rest of his first day in the diocese attending a coffee morning at Rotherham Minster, a Lent course at Doncaster Minster and then Evensong at Sheffield Cathedral at 5.45pm.
Dr Wilcox is due to be consecrated as Bishop of Sheffield at York Minster this summer and to start his new role fully this autumn.
The position has been vacant since the Rt Revd Dr Steven Croft left to become Bishop of Oxford last June.
This new choice of the Church of England’s CNC for the next Bishop of Sheffield would certainly seem to be more popularly acceptable to the diocese of Sheffield than the previous choice; +Philip North, (Suffragan) Bishop of Burnley and member of the notorious Society of SS Hilda & Wilfrid which – oddly, when one considers the influence of Abbess Hilda in the English Church of her day – denies the validity of women priests.
Doctor Wilcox, despite his strong Evangelical provenance, as well as affirming the ministry of women priests, is also prepared to accept and support the ministry of another Suffragan Bishop in his own new diocese, who is also a member of the SSHW – but not responsible for taking part in the ordination of women clergy in the diocese.
This appointment speaks of a breadth of tolerance in the Church of England that, however, does not yet appear to accept the episcopal ministry of a celibate, same-sex partnered Cathedral Dean – Jeffrey John, of Saint Albans Cathedral. Maybe that too – in time – will change?
In the meantime; an article is being circulated in the press that the wife of the new Bishop, the novelist, Catherine Fox, is the author of ‘cassock rippers’ that could cause some small embarrassment to his new diocese. See here:
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand