Search for next bishop of London raises prospect of female appointment

The Church of England is considering candidates for its third most senior position, the bishop of London, amid speculation that a woman may be appointed.

Richard Chartres, who has held the post since 1996, is obliged to retire this year when he turns 70. He will step down at the end of February.

The C of E’s Crown Nominations Commission (CNC) will make a recommendation later this year to the prime minister, Theresa May. She in turn will advise the Queen, who formally nominates the new bishop. Recent custom has been that the prime minister rubber-stamps the first choice of the CNC.

In the past two years, after divisive debate within the C of E, 10 women have been consecrated as bishops. However, only two – Rachel Treweek of Gloucester and Christine Hardman of Newcastle – are senior (diocesan) bishops appointed to seats in the House of Lords.

The bishop of London, who comes after the archbishop of Canterbury and the archbishop of York in the C of E hierarchy, has a seat in the Lords by right. The post holder also acts as dean of Chapel Royal, essentially chaplain to the royal family.

Since being appointed, Chartres has declined to ordain women, in a concession to traditionalists in his deeply divided diocese. He has also abstained from ordaining men in order not to be accused of discrimination. But he has stated that he personally is “very much pro women priests”.

His immediate predecessors, David Hope and Graham Leonard, were both opponents of female priests. The diocese of London, which covers the city north of the Thames, has strong factions for and against the ordination of women.

“Many people are now looking for a bishop who, if not a woman, at least would be comfortable ordaining women. That would be a positive signal for the church to send out,” said a church source.

Among the possible female candidates is Rose Hudson-Wilkin, currently chaplain to the Speaker of the House of Commons and chaplain to the Queen. Hudson-Wilkin, who has been tipped as a future bishop for several years, is also one of the most senior black clergy in the church.

“She is head and shoulders above most other candidates, absolutely brilliant, is immersed in London and can do all the ceremonial state stuff that comes with the job,” said one supporter.

Treweek, who was consecrated bishop of Gloucester in July 2015, is another strong candidate. She has criticised the church’s lack of diversity and highlighted the issue of body image among children since taking up her post, saying the church needs to engage with people’s everyday lives.

Also thought to be in the frame are Vivienne Faull, the highly respected dean of York also long tipped to be a bishop, and Jo Wells, bishop of Dorking and former chaplain to Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury.

Hardman is thought to be an unlikely candidate, as she would only be able to serve for just over four years before reaching the compulsory retirement age.

Another consideration for the CNC is which wing of the church the next bishop of London would represent. Recent incumbents have come from an Anglo-Catholic background, but the CNC may choose an evangelical to take over from Chartres.

The past 20 years, since Chartres’s appointment, have seen the extraordinary rise of Holy Trinity Brompton, the west London evangelical church that pioneered the Alpha course. HTB, as it is known within the C of E, has become enormously influential, with strong links to senior figures in the church establishment, including Welby. Alpha courses are now run across the UK and around the world.

Graham Tomlin, the bishop of Kensington and president of St Mellitus College, which trains ordinands in the HTB missional approach, could be a contender from the evangelical wing.

The CNC consists of 14 voting members: Welby; the archbishop of York, John Sentamu; three elected clergy members of the synod; three elected lay members of the synod; and six elected members of the diocese in which there is a vacancy. Each has an equal vote.

After deliberations, the CNC forwards two names to the prime minister in order of preference. The prime minister is entitled to ask for additional names.

The last time the CNC’s preference was not accepted was in 1987, when Margaret Thatcher rejected the recommendation of the liberal Jim Thompson as bishop of Birmingham.

However, May, a vicar’s daughter and regular churchgoer, is expected to pass on the church’s top recommendation to the Queen.

Chartres led Thatcher’s funeral service, was executor of the will of Diana, Princess of Wales, confirmed Prince William and later delivered the sermon at the prince’s wedding to Kate Middleton. Welby is the third archbishop of Canterbury in the time Chartres has held the office of bishop of London.

This article was amended on 6 January 2016. An earlier version said the Crown Nominations Commission would make a recommendation to the prime minister “in the coming weeks”.