REDEFINING THE EPISCOPAL ROLE
Be to the flock of Christ a shepherd, not a wolf; feed them, devour them not. Hold up the weak, heal the sick, bind up the broken, bring again the outcasts, seek the lost.”
If that pattern of episcopacy, set by the Ordinal in the Book of Common Prayer, is the ideal, how can today’s bishop aspire to it when his life is cluttered with endless committees, chairmanships, secular demands and the rest? How can today’s bishop be primarily pastor pastorum, guiding, teaching, enabling the faithful to be the people of God?
Happily there is now that pattern among the bishops, in the provincial episcopal visitors. Theirs is a true episcopacy, not concerned with structures which with the best will in the world – and the will is certainly there among other bishops – divert from the real task. The flying bishop’s sole function is to be pastor, preacher of the gospel, teacher, visitor and encourager to both clergy and laity in his care.
It is not enough to suggest that the answer lies solely in the bishop’s own hands, that he could deliberately divest himself of all that diverts from his true task. Before that could happen there must be evidence that the laity (and probably the clergy too) are prepared to divest themselves of the expectations which place the bishop in the present stranglehold.
Thirty years ago, I began to encourage the lay folk in the parishes where I served to see that the ministry of the Church is not solely that of the ordained priest, but is shared with the whole people of God. Now in one sense, that pattern is already established and working in the diocese too, for every priest has a ministry, a cure of souls, which the bishop tells him at induction is ‘both mine and thine’. Thus the bishop’s ministry is shared and largely enacted by the people of God, clergy and lay, on his behalf.
But the parish priest who develops such an understanding of ministry among his people has more time for those who need more of his time; is more able to prepare for the teaching and evangelistic rôle which he has only shared, not abandoned; is more not less the priest and deacon as a result.
As a parish priest (for thirty-three years), I did not long for frequent visits from my bishop to assess my work and to check whether or not I was fully effective, for I belong to that generation of clergy who cannot believe that our success or failure can be measured. But I did want to know that he had time for me if I telephoned with a problem, that he could be called upon for a teaching or preaching or prayer mission, that he knew my needs, my parish and my family. I wanted him to be pastor pastorum to me and my colleagues.
So let the bishops divest themselves of all diocesan committees and such-like responsibilities, if necessary appointing more archdeacons on whom to unload that which hinders their pastoral role – thus providing the expected senior staff involvement in diocesan chores. Let them be relieved of their constant need to visit London for central activities, and educate the church to see that central life as much as diocesan life can function without an episcopal presence.
Let them abandon the comfortable concept of collegiality which inhibits them from fulfilling a role as theological commentator on secular affairs, and makes them instead a mouthpiece for others – though to do this they must take on board the fact that disagreement can be creative rather than divisive.
More radically, release them from the need to conduct confirmations. The Orthodox priest confirms, in certain circumstances the Roman Catholic priest confirms, the Lutheran pastor confirms – it is not of the esse of episcopacy that this sacrament should be confined to the bishop, and without it he would be freed to visit parishes on a more normal basis. And a side benefit of this might be the disappearance of that curious animal, the suffragan bishop.
Even more radically, how soon can they be relieved of the trappings of earthly power? The episcopal palace, often vast (however small the bishop’s own quarters), always expensive, gives the wrong image of a servant of the servants of God. Of course the Church Commissioners will hold on to them for as long as possible regardless of the cost, and dioceses will support their retention on historic grounds so long as the cost of their upkeep does not fall on diocesan funds, but they are now an anomaly, whose expense the Church cannot afford.
I believe in episcopacy, and for me it is of the esse and not merely of the bene esse or plene esse. But it is an institution desperately in need of reform to return it to its roots of servanthood. And moreover I do believe many bishops would share this vision. Let them begin to break ranks from those who do not, for initially it is only from their efforts and with their encouragement that reform will come.
George Austin is Archdeacon of York and a member of the Crown Appointments Commission