On the publication on 11 April of a report into the appointment of the Bishop of Blackburn and its implications that has taken almost a year, the Church of England issued a simultaneous press release headed ‘Independent reviewer upholds appointment process for Bishop of Blackburn.’  Or, in other words, ‘Nothing to see here.’

Having not seen the report in advance, Women and the Church (WATCH) – which first submitted concerns to the Independent Reviewer, Canon Maggie Swinson, in April 2023 – has taken some time to digest the 45 pages of the report and finds that actually there is quite a lot to see.

To read the full report, see here:


In summary,

The bulk of Canon Swinson’s Report is an examination of the consultation process in Blackburn diocese which led to the nomination of Bishop Philip North as the next diocesan bishop. However, there are other findings and recommendations that WATCH considers are important and need to be heard and followed up by the House of Bishops.

1.         The Process of appointing a new diocesan bishop in the diocese of Blackburn

1.1       The timing of the process

Swinson’s overall finding is that, although the appointment process may have met the letter of the law, there were flaws in how the process was applied. She says:

In response to concerns about the appointment being rushed through and the process not being well-managed:  (see points 60-69)

*‘Both the correspondence I received and the conversations I had with individuals involved in the diocese… suggest that there was an actual or perceived sense of time pressure. It is possible that some of the perceived pressure was exacerbated by the language of “jumping the queue” [used in the letter dated 4 April 2022 and sent out by Bishop Jill Duff, Bishop of Lancaster and Chair of the Vacancy in See Committee], what some interviewees understood from comments in meetings, and the Jotform completion time, messaging and deadline.’

*‘A sense of haste was evident in respect of the consultation.’

*The letter from Bishop Jill (dated 4 April 2022) which states that the consultation form “only takes five minutes to prayerfully complete” ‘risks trivialising the input.’

*‘Communications had not been particularly effective in generating awareness or understanding of the [consultation] process.’

*‘I recommend consideration of a minimum consultation timescale for the statement of needs as this would have been helpful in allaying time anxiety in this case and could be similarly helpful more generally.’

1.2       Potential conflicts of Interest

In response to concerns about Bishop Jill having a conflict of interest in chairing the Vacancy in See Committee (she was a colleague of Bishop Philip and known to be supportive of his candidacy; clergy in the diocese could have felt under duress not to oppose her or Bishop Philip):

*‘The principle of who chairs the Vacancy in See committee would benefit from review in light of the potential conflicts of interest which have been identified here.’

*‘My conversations leave me in little doubt that the presence of a person who is, in effect, line manager of ordained and some lay attendees and who has an interest in the appointment process because the new bishop will have authority over them, will probably stifle open contribution from those individuals and does not make for a “safe space”.’

*‘The [consultation] forms did not include a direct question eliciting views on the future bishop’s position on the ordination of women.’

Swinson makes recommendations as to how future Vacancy in See committees might avoid conflicts of interest and make truly ‘safe spaces’ for consultation; and impose a minimum timescale to give proper opportunity for good and thorough consultation.

1.3       Consulting on whether future bishops should ordain women

In response to concerns about the consultation process not asking specifically whether the next bishop should be someone who will or will not ordain women:

The report notes that it does not seem that the question of whether to nominate a bishop who does not ordain women, or share the eucharist with those who do, was asked specifically  (points 111-114; 118)

*‘The [consultation] forms did not include a direct question eliciting views on the future bishop’s position on the ordination of women.’

*[It] ‘should be considered – how to ensure there is a conversation in the diocese, not just in the Vacancy in See Committee, to ascertain whether the diocese would welcome a bishop who will ordain women or one who will not.’

*‘A question for further consideration… is whether dioceses should explain the rationale behind their decision not to express a view [as to whether the next diocesan bishop should be someone who will or will not ordain women].’

WATCH asks whether the time has come to change the question that is asked. Whilst we would prefer there to be no need for a question about whether a bishop should be willing to ordain women , we consider that ten years after it became possible for women to be appointed as  bishops, the “default” position should reflect Canon law and that bishops should be expected to ordain women and men. The question that should be asked in the consultation process is whether the diocese wants to nominate a diocesan bishop who does not ordain women.

1.4       The CNC Process

It is also worth noting that the CNC process for nominating a diocesan bishop is still weighted against a woman being nominated . WATCH considers that the Church of England should work more consciously on developing processes and practices that encourage diversity and, in particular, gender equality, in making these appointments.  Advice from professionals outside the Church would be of great help here.

2.         One-sidedness in the House of Bishops’ Declaration

Swinson flags up that the current 2014 House of Bishops Declaration (‘the Declaration’) is one-sided and only concerns itself with protecting the interests of those who do not fully accept women’s ministry.  It makes no provisions or protections for women whose ministries and lives are affected by those who don’t fully recognise them.  Swinson concludes that this work must be done – but, as yet, the Church of England has done nothing about this or stated any intention to do so.

*‘It would not be unreasonable to expect that some review mechanism should be available to those whose ministry the bishop does not accept. Such a mechanism should not isolate female clergy from the life of the diocese but should provide for them in a reciprocal manner to the review arrangements already articulated in the Declaration.’

She also recommends that ‘consideration is given to re-examining the scope of the Independent Reviewer’s jurisdiction’ so that it can consider the concerns and grievances of women and those who do fully accept women’s ministries, rather than just those who do not – as is the current arrangement.

WATCH considers that these recommendations should be taken seriously by the House of Bishops. The impact of this one-sidedness should be monitored, and discussions encouraged between the Independent Reviewer, the Standing Commission, and groups such as NADAWM, to consider how to put this recommendation into effect.

3.         Theological implications of a Diocesan Bishop who does not ordain women

Swinson notes that the Church of England has still not done the work that was recommended by one of her predecessors, Sir Philip Mawer, in 2017 on the theological and pastoral work that urgently needs to be done to take account of the impact on women’s ministries and well-being when they have a diocesan Bishop who is non-ordaining.  She states:

In response to concerns about appointing diocesan bishops who do not ordain women, without the Church of England having implemented the recommendations of the Independent Reviewer following his review of the nomination to the See of Sheffield (the Sheffield Report) and recommendations of the Implementation and Dialogue group (IDG):

*‘I recommend that a resource is identified or resources are identified  to take the necessary theological work forward alongside the theological reflection requested in the report of the IDG.’  (point 123)

WATCH considers that this work is long overdue and vital.

When the legislation to enable women to be appointed as bishops was drafted, the group tasked with drafting the Measure and text of the Declaration were prohibited (amongst other matters) from discussing the role of bishops, whether a man who does not ordain women should be a diocesan bishop and how ordinations would be planned and organised.

This need was pointed out by a letter to the Church Times in March 2017 from three members of the drafting group:

“If the Five Guiding Principles have a future, and we sincerely hope that they have, we need to commit ourselves to ongoing and careful theological reflection on what they mean in practice, not least in the appointment of a diocesan bishop.”

Swinson reiterates this point in her recent report:

‘Whilst it is, and it remains, the case that the Declaration leaves open the possibility of the nomination of a non-ordaining diocesan bishop, the consequences of so doing in terms of the exercising of the role within the diocese were not explicitly discussed and planned for.’

The IDG group , set up after the Independent Reviewer’s Sheffield Report, held a Theological Colloquy as part of its work, but that was focused on the theology of “mutual flourishing”

The theological questions raised by appointing a diocesan bishop who did not ordain women and was out of full communion with the majority of his clergy and the majority of the House of Bishops, were not considered, even though this had been the event which had led to the Sheffield Report.

The full papers offered at that day were never made public, and only a short summary was included in the report.  None gave a clear theological underpinning or definition of the concept of “mutual flourishing” and none addressed the challenges created by a non-ordaining diocesan bishop.

The FAOC “Study Guide” (2018) on the Five Guiding Principles was not a report. It raised questions but came to no conclusions.

After thirty years of ordained women being required to serve in a Church which through its actions and legislation does not fully affirm their orders, and after ten years of women being included in the College and House of Bishops, it is vital that the Church of England does the theological work which two Independent Reviewers have said is necessary.

WATCH fully supports this recommendation and also considers that any such theological work should include listening to the experience and theological views of other provinces in the Anglican Communion .


Overall, Swinson’s report is gently excoriating.  She affirms that the process for the Bishop of Blackburn’s appointment, while flawed, was in line with regulations.  She also affirms Mawer’s observation and concern that the Declaration and role of the Independent Reviewer are one-sided and there is nowhere for women to go within the Church of England with their concerns and grievances relating to the Declaration.  While she says that pragmatically she does not support a moratorium on the Church of England continuing to appoint more diocesan bishops who do not ordain women, work needs to be done to understand the consequences of this policy.

She states that the Church of England is not required to consult with campaign groups like WATCH about the arrangements it makes for the ministries of women. Unfortunately, she includes NADAWM as also being unnecessary for consultation. NADAWM is the National Association of Deans of Women’s Ministry and exists to communicate between female clergy and bishops about the lived experience of women in ministry. They are not a campaign group. We feel, therefore, that a further recommendation should be made that NADAWM is consulted in the process of implementing the recommendations of Swinson’s important and considered report.

The matters raised are not abstract theological arguments but have an on-going impact on the lives of women in both ordained and lay ministry. The continued unfairness in the Church of England creates an unjust and unsafe environment for the many women who continue to work so hard and graciously in all our dioceses. While the recommendations in this report cannot change the unjust structure that is the Church of England today, Swinson’s recommendations should be taken seriously and followed up.