A word in their Ear

IT USED TO BE SAID that at the end of every traffic jam you’d find a policeman. Today, you are more likely to find the jam is part of that mysterious ‘caterpillar-crawl’ phenomenon which has no apparent cause apart from sheer weight of traffic. But in the last few years – and increasingly in recent months – it has seemed that at the apex of every problem in the Church of England you would most certainly find a bishop. Certainly the last edition of this journal gave that impression.

Yet there is no reason to doubt that our bishops are at least as hardworking, honest and sincere as the other clergy. Is the problem, therefore, paranoia or mean-mindedness on the part of the critics? Unfortunately not, as the frequent tales of woe associated with bishops indicate. Rather, one suspects that the true difficulty is that identified as long ago as the reign of Elizabeth I by Sir William Cecil. Observing the repeated transformation of radical clergy into conformist bishops, he wrote, “I see such worldliness in many that were otherwise affected before they came to cathedral chairs, that I fear the places alter the men.” It is therefore to the place, rather than the person, that we must first look. And here we find clear evidence that things are not as they should be.

Witness, for example, the way in which the bishops behave in an increasingly ‘eccentric’ manner, in the sense that they no longer share the ‘common centre’ of the rest of the Church. The bishops regard themselves as a ‘college’ who must stick together. They have their own house in Synod which plays by its own rules (viz the recent ‘fix’ in the debate on Issues in Human Sexuality). They are inclined to regard their deliberations together as having a special status. And when they speak, it must seem to be as one. Inevitably, they are becoming a parallel church.

The reason is to be found in the ’emerging theology’ of episcopacy which now dominates the Church of England. Central to this is the assertion that within a specific diocese the bishop is the personal focus of the church’s life and the source of its ordained ministry (cf Episcopal Ministry: The Report of the Archbishops’ Group on the Episcopate and the arguments based on this in the recent House of Bishops report on Eucharistic Presidency). If ordination is to the ministry of word and sacrament then the bishop is, according to this line of thinking, the channel of Christ since the gifts of Christ to the church must be mediated through him. Yet any bishop who truly believed this of himself would be at best an egomaniac and at worst a blasphemer. The fact that no English bishop displays these qualities in this regard is probably because the system of appointments promotes the kind of men to whom radically divergent thinking does not come easily. Thus, ironically, one defect of the system saves us from another!

Yet the result is still disastrous. We have in the typical bishop an individual who (given that his day-to-day activities consist of committees, administration and ‘showing the flag’) is rightly selected for being an efficient and convivial ‘company man’. Yet he is increasingly told that the church’s ministry flows from him and that the planes of the church’s life intersect in him (Episcopal Ministry pp 172, 176-7). Not surprisingly, we create a monster! Such a man will be in danger of seeing it as the very work of Christ to maintain the environment most conducive to his own particular ministry of promoting corporate efficiency and communal good will. Moreover, he will not be open to reason from the church, since (according to Episcopal Ministry) in essence he is the church. Only amongst his fellow bishops will he be able to speak as with equals. Thus isolated by a wayward theology and yet, in all likelihood, irenical by nature, the bishop must struggle if he is to avoid being a marshmallow despot – sweet in his person, but authoritarian in his outlook.

We are told that during the victory parades of ancient Rome, one person was delegated to stand behind the Emperor in his chariot and whisper in his ear, “Remember, thou art but a man.” If we are to escape from our present episcopal difficulties we must stop telling our bishops they are so special. They may occupy a special affection in our hearts and our prayers for the job they do, but they must not occupy a place in our theology which makes the church revolve around them, whilst simultaneously they are removed from the ‘daily round and common task’.