Durham welcomes Acting Bishop whilst Church hunts for permanent successor


There has been a bishop in Durham for well over one thousand years—a post nearly as ancient as the practice of Christianity in England itself. For the past ten the Right Reverend Paul Butler has been the Bishop behind the altar, but his recent retirement leaves the Church of England on the hunt for a new bishop, kicking into action the series of convoluted ecclesiastical procedures that comprises the Church’s process for replacing a bishop.

In the meantime, the Bishop of Jarrow (named after a town not too far away in North Tyneside), the Right Reverend Sarah Clark, has been appointed Acting Bishop of Durham. She has spoken kindly of her predecessor saying: “I give thanks to Bishop Paul for the ten years he has given to this diocese, and I feel both the honour and the responsibility of serving both those within the church family and in our wider communities as your Acting Bishop of Durham.”

She was appointed through a process dating back to the thirteenth century, where the Chapter of Durham Cathedral writes to the Archbishop of York, the bishop in the Church’s hierarchy that oversees Durham, to inform him of Bishop Sarah’s appointment. The Archbishop of York, the Most Reverend Stephen Cottrell said: “I am delighted that Sarah will be leading and supporting the Diocese of Durham through this interim period. Since being appointed Suffragan Bishop of Jarrow, Sarah has shown great leadership and compassion, particularly for the most vulnerable in our society, and my prayers are with her as she takes on the role as Acting Diocesan Bishop.”

The Bishop of Durham is considered one of England’s most senior, getting a seat in the House of Lords and a special role in the coronation of a new monarch

The process for appointing a new bishop usually takes a while. Firstly, a group of clergy belonging to the diocese assemble in a ‘Vacancy in See Committee’ to determine a ‘Statement of Needs’—essentially a Bishop job description—of what the Diocese is looking for in its replacement Bishop. They pass this on to the ‘Crown Nominations Commission’, composed of representatives from the Church’s parliament, selected members of the Vacancy Committee and the Archbishop of York, whom are tasked with interviewing potential bishops and sending their favourites over to the Prime Minister. The PM will then pass it onto the King, and assuming he gives the nod, Durham’s local canons will assemble to ceremonially ‘elect’ the Bishop. Durham’s Bishop-to-be will then emerge from a special ceremony performed by the Archbishop of York as Bishop, where they will finally be able to have a well earned sit-down on their Cathedra (a throne-like chair in the Cathedral).

Whoever makes it through the other end of the process will join a long line of bishops dating back to the 10th century. Back then, these ‘prince-bishops’ were so far from the Crown in London that they ran their own mini-kingdoms with special rights to raise an army, demand taxes and establish courts—powers which remained largely intact until a couple of centuries ago. Durham’s Bishops have also played a large role in founding a university in the city, the main proponent, Bishop William Van Mildert gave up his castle to create University College. Even today, the Bishop of Durham is considered one of England’s most senior, getting a seat in the House of Lords and a special role in the coronation of a new monarch.


One thought on “Durham welcomes Acting Bishop whilst Church hunts for permanent successor

  • Good article but, FYI, Jarrow is in South Tyneside, not North Tyneside. This means that despite being in the greater Newcastle area, Jarrow is part of the Durham diosese along with Gateshead and the rest of South Tyneside (South Shields etc). So the acting bishop, Sarah Clark, is already a bishop (suffragan bishop) within the Durham diocese, and she’s now acting in the main diocesan bishop role. As Jarrow is the only suffragan bishop role in the diocese, Clark is the obvious choice for acting diocesan bishop.

    The Church of England diocesan boundaries correspond more or less to the traditional county boundaries whereby south of the Tyne was Durham and north of the Tyne was Northumberland – in fact, if you wander through the Tyne pedestrian/cycle from Jarrow (South Tyneside) to Howdon (North Tyneside) you will still see that boundary marked on the wall, as those county boundaries still applied when the tunnel was built in the 1950s – nowadays both sides are in the Tyne & Wear county.

    Anyway, all the best to the acting bishop and I hope they pick someone good for the permanent new bishop.


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