Church bends knee to Blair

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The Independent Online
THE Church of England has backed down in a dispute with Tony Blair over the appointment of bishops, prompting concerns that it is being forced to bend the knee to New Labour, writes Stephen Castle.

Procedures for appointing the Bishop of Southwark have been modified to avoid a clash with the Prime Minister. And the Bishop of Birkenhead is being tipped to become the new Bishop of Liverpool after Mr Blair's controversial decision to reject both of the candidates previously put to him.

That move caused a furore in ecclesiastical circles last year. No prime minister has dared to overturn church procedures so blatantly since the system was set up in 1977 by James Callaghan.

Now the Church's appointments commission has also departed from previous practice over the appointment of the Bishop of Southwark. Two names have gone forward, but unlike previous occasions they have not been put in order of preference, giving Mr Blair more leeway than his predecessor.

The Church authorities, smarting from Mr Blair's dramatic intervention over the Liverpool bishopric, hope to avoid a similar embarrassment over Southwark by giving Mr Blair more room for manoeuvre.

Mrs Thatcher, when prime minister, caused anger in the Church by selecting the second name on the list for the bishopric of London.

The Liverpool bishopric falls vacant on the retirement of David Sheppard, and Mr Blair - a devout Christian - is said to be keen to secure as a successor a "man of vision". The Bishop of Birkenhead, Michael Langrish, came to national prominence when he spoke at the funeral of Jonathan Ball, the five-year-old Warrington bomb victim, in 1993.