Star Interview: The new Bishop of Sheffield on women priests, the church’s big challenges - and why his wife’s books aren’t ‘raunchy’

Pete Wilcox, the new bishop of Sheffield.
Pete Wilcox, the new bishop of Sheffield.
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The new Bishop of Sheffield is looking serene. He’s settled on a large sofa in his study at home in Ranmoor, with sunlight streaming in through the windows which offer glimpses of a garden in bloom.

It could almost be forgotten that the Rt Rev Dr Pete Wilcox had such a bumpy ride to get here – but not quite.

Pete Wilcox, the new bishop of Sheffield.

Pete Wilcox, the new bishop of Sheffield.

“We’ve still got some work to do,” he says, referring to ‘wounds’ that he feels have yet to heal across the Sheffield diocese after the initial candidate for his job – Philip North, the Bishop of Burnley – stepped aside because of his controversial opposition to the ordination of women as priests.

Asked to sum up the last few months, he calls the process of succeeding Bishop Steven Croft, who left Sheffield for Oxford last year, a ‘funny experience’. He had to appear before a 14-strong interview panel, making his case for a post he felt ‘very strongly called to’, but was soon braced for disappointment.

“I learned early on that I was the ‘number two’ candidate. It was quite a difficult thing to come to terms with.”

The priest threw himself back into his role as the Dean of Liverpool, but found it ‘painful’. Meanwhile, in Sheffield, Bishop Philip’s beliefs sparked a passionate debate.

Pete Wilcox, the new bishop of Sheffield.

Pete Wilcox, the new bishop of Sheffield.

A group – Sheffield Action on Ministry Equality – was set up, the Labour MP for Heeley Louise Haigh described the cleric’s views as ‘troubling’, and bishop’s clothing in Suffragette colours was placed on the Women of Steel statue in Barker’s Pool by campaigners.

It was the second post Bishop Philip had withdrawn from. In 2012 he declined the job of Bishop of Whitby, following similar unease, and there was a feeling among some Sheffield clergy that the city was being used to test the principle of ‘mutual flourishing’ – progressive church members and traditionalists working side-by-side.

Bishop Pete disagrees, however, that the appointment was an experiment doomed to fail in a diocese with a large number of women priests.

“The Church of England isn’t quite so strategically deliberate as that. It just happened. It’s really not difficult to imagine a set of circumstances where that arrangement could work.”

Nevertheless, there’s a sense he’s pleased to be the newest resident at Bishopscroft, the official house he and his wife, the writer Catherine Fox, moved into just over two months ago.

“Traumatic as it has been for many in the diocese, and absolutely for Bishop Philip himself, for whom I have the highest possible regard, actually when he withdrew and I was asked if I was still feeling called to this role, it was the easiest vocational decision I’ve ever had to make.”

The bishop will be installed at Sheffield Cathedral next month. He’s already had an audience with the Queen at Buckingham Palace to pledge his allegiance – ‘humbling and a bit surreal’ is his verdict on the occasion.

He will be ‘gladly’ ordaining women, but promises to support traditionalists too.

So would he describe himself as liberal?

“A lot of my instincts are. But actually I’m an evangelical, and quite a conservative person. The bible matters to me a great deal.”

Bishop Pete grew up in India, where his father was a missionary. Aged 13, he had already set his sights on becoming a priest, and after studying modern history at Durham took the necessary training in Cambridge.

Ordained in 1987, he completed his first stints as a curate and vicar in the North East - he’s a staunch Newcastle United supporter - before postings in the West Midlands led to the Liverpool job.

“I came from a believing household. I can pinpoint the moment I was converted, at 12 or 13, but before that faith was just the wallpaper.”

He could easily have balked at the prospect of following his father into the church, he agrees.

“Sometimes it works the other way. If your dad wears a dog collar it’s the easiest thing to rebel against.”

Bishop Pete - it’s always Pete, never Peter - has two sons with Catherine; Tom, 23, and Jon, 25, both of whom have left home.

Away from church, the couple go running together, and music is a big interest of his – Bob Dylan, mainly, although behind the sofa there’s a framed Human League LP cover with a picture of singer Phil Oakey; a parting gift from friends in Liverpool, it transpires.

Aged 55 and, coincidentally, something of a doppelgänger for Oakey today, the bishop speaks softly, weighing up his words carefully.

Yet he agrees without hesitation that the C of E faces challenges. It’s an unavoidable reality that congregations have shrunk and it no longer occupies the same untouchable place in society.

“We don’t have the privilege and assumed influence of 50 years ago. That’s good for us, actually. It’s in our DNA to be on the margins. We can no longer take for granted our right to speak.”

He sees a purpose for the church in an uncertain world where faith remains at the root of much conflict.

“We badly need to see rabbis, imams, bishops showing what it’s like to collaborate positively for the common good.”

In Sheffield, Bishop Pete wants to tackle ‘unhealthy’ levels of inequality - in health, education and wealth - and champion the work of church members in the area’s most deprived neighbourhoods.

“Part of our job is to shine the spotlight. We may not have all the solutions, but we can make sure the problem doesn’t get overlooked.”

He’s been impressed by the ‘warmth and welcome’ of Sheffield – ‘a proud city, still in touch with its heritage’ – but is also busy familiarising himself with the whole diocese, which extends beyond Doncaster. “If you’re living in a parish in Goole it’s very easy to feel like you’ve been forgotten.”

Being in his mid-fifties, he has around 15 years of paid ministry left.

“I would love to serve out that time in Sheffield. Maybe in those times when I have to dig deep I’ll have a stronger sense of confidence and security because it was a funny road to get here.”

‘Don’t belittle my wife’s talent as a novelist’

Bishop Pete’s wife has a reputation for writing racy novels with candid bedroom scenes – but calling Catherine Fox’s work raunchy is a ‘cheap shot’, he says.

Her titles include The Benefits of Passion and Scenes from Vicarage Life: Or the Joy of Sexagesima. The latter is a pun on a term for the second Sunday before Ash Wednesday.

“She is a writer of literary fiction, a highly accomplished novelist,” he says. “She doesn’t edit her characters to make them respectable reading for pious Christians.”

Her stories are ‘littered with the f-word’, he continues, and some of the earlier books are particularly sexually frank.

He adds: “Nobody would call the books raunchy if she wasn’t married to a priest. We’ve had this since I was a curate.

“It frustrates me because I think it belittles her talent. I’m very proud of her.”

She’s a ‘good cook’ and the couple are keen to be hospitable at Bishopscroft. But Catherine, who lectures at Manchester Metropolitan University, will not be dropping work to become a stereotypical church wife – a hostage to jumble sales, flower-arranging and baking – anytime soon.

“Her primary vocation is as a writer.”