Consecration of traditionalist bishop set to highlight Church of England divisions

Fr Philip North, who is to be consecrated as Bishop of Burnley.

As the consecration of the first female bishop approaches, Christian Today has learned that at the consecration a few days later of traditionalist priest Father Philip North as Bishop of Burnley no bishop will lay hands on him who has previously laid hands on a woman bishop or priest.

Normally at a consecration, all the bishops present would join in laying hands on the episcopal candidate to elevate them to the order of bishop. In the northern province, this would mean more than 20 retired and serving bishops.

The Archbishop of York Dr John Sentamu and the Bishop of Blackburn Julian Henderson are both expected to lay hands on the Rev Libby Lane when she is consecrated as Suffragan Bishop of Stockport at York Minster on January 26.

Christian Today understands that at the consecration of Father North as Suffragan Bishop of Burnley in the Blackburn diocese on 2 February, also at York Minster, neither Sentamu nor Henderson is expected to lay on hands, although both will be present. It will be extremely unusual for neither the provincial nor diocesan of a new suffragan bishop to lay hands on the candidate in such circumstances.

Although no-one from the Archbishop's office, the diocesan office, the cathedral or the women's ordination group WATCH would comment to Christian Today, a source said the confidential plans had caused "great upset" because they revived the concept of "taint".

Effectively, it means the Church of England's catholic wing is being allowed to preserve the traditionalist apostolic succession, creating a line of male bishops in perpetuity.

The source said: "We understand that there are only about three bishops who will actually be able to lay hands on Philip North because everyone else will have laid hands on Libby Lane the week before. It is very odd for all these bishops to be present at a consecration and yet just two or three lay on hands."

Sources said no-one had been banned from laying hands on Bishop-elect North but bishops who will be at the consecration had been asked to exercise "gracious restraint".

The compromise over consecrations is among those reached by Church leaders that helped secure the passage of the legislation last year and will ensure its smooth implementation.

The decision to take this approach for the coming two consecrations is understood to have been made at the highest levels. Archbishops are free to determine what happens at consecrations and who does and does not lay on hands.

Bishop-elect North, highly respected in the Church, will be among the male bishops who will give pastoral oversight to parishes that cannot accept the ministry of women bishops and priest. For example, a traditionalist parish in the Stockport area would be able to refuse to have confirmations done by Bishop Lane, or anyone who had consecrated her or any other woman bishop, and request to have them done by a traditionalist such as Bishop North instead.

Although the former "provincial episcopal visitors" known as flying bishops were consecrated by bishops who had ordained women priests, such as Lord Carey, sources said the situation around this apparent contradiction changed the moment the Canon was passed allowing the consecration of women bishops. Following the passing of the Canon, every subsequent traditionalist bishop and priest must be ordained by bishops who are free of "taint".

The move comes as MPs approved legislation yesterday to help fast-track female bishops into the House of Lords over the next decade, ensuring that female diocesan bishops will be first in line to succeed the present "Lords Spiritual" as they retire.

Currently, the five senior bishops and archbishops go automatically into the Lords, and the remaining 21 seats are filled according to length of service as a diocesan. The fast track is expected to be backed also by the House of Lords.

Government minister Sam Gyimah said: "It has one simple aim which is to bring female bishops amongst the Lords Spiritual sooner rather than later. Given how long women have waited to become bishops that is right.

"The House of Lords should not have to wait for an unknowable period of time before its Lords Spiritual benches reflect the new make-up of the episcopate."

Tony Baldry, First Church Estates Commissioner, said he was "very pleased" and the legislation "reflects a desire both in and outside the Church to see women represented in those places where the Church exercises its national public ministry."

The traditionalists are all members of the Society of the Holy Cross, or SSC, from the Latin, Societas Sancta Cruces, the congregation that has taken responsibility for preserving catholicity in the Anglican Communion as it becomes more liberal, particularly on women. The SSC current has more than 1,000 members worldwide. The SSC did not respond to requests for a comment.

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