a 3-part guide to Sanctity with Sanity
Christopher Idle begins part one of a new series:
SO THEY ARE MAKING YOU A BISHOP!
– ten guidelines for new entrants.
LET ME EXPLAIN. All of us hanker after goodness. Not much, not often, and not for long, but we do. Hard to explain if you’re an atheist, but there it is. You can buy big books about being good, go on high-powered courses, or spend forty years in your desert cave. This three-part series makes no claim to be in that league. It is, rather, a series of snapshots for busy Anglicans; overlapping slightly, not mutually exclusive, but hard to practise simultaneously. Moral theologians of the future will call it The Threefold Way. For the first, let’s assume you are aiming high; episcopacy!
Your name has just emerged from the hat. It would be tactless to say Congratulations, cynical to offer Condolences. Advice? You’ll get a jugful. But no-one will say what you need to hear. We remedy that lack with ten simple Do’s and Don’ts. All the training you get is DIY, lasting from the date of your acceptance to the moment of consecration. There is no fast track for bishops at college; if there is, they keep mighty quiet about it.
A twofold warning (you will soon learn to talk like that); this is both incomplete and uncontroversial. Incomplete, as it does not cover the life of prayer, clergy discipline, palace staff, or what to write in your Diocesan paper ‘The Sheep’. Uncontroversial? For some reason, readers expect New Directions to stir up trouble on every page; not here.
If you want an update on the most promising women candidates, Porvoo, or relations with Rome, please turn the page. One retired suffragan (I am not making this up) is spreading a rumour that I have defected to Rome. But since Roman orders are fatally flawed and probably invalid, away from sterile controversy and on with the job – the real job that you are about to tackle, possibly your first since that 18-month curacy. This page may be torn out and copied for evening seminars on Episcopal Formation. Starting with the Don’ts:
ONE: DON’T TELL US HOW YOU FELT WHEN YOU HEARD THE NEWS.
It may be that on opening the envelope or the e-mail you were dumbstruck, amazingly humbled and walked around in a prayerful daze for a fortnight. But even your best friends may not wish to share such innermost feelings about this awesome invitation. There are some in high office who offer more of themselves than is strictly needed or desirable. When you are putting the Christmas family letter together, stick to Marmaduke’s A-levels, the caravan trip to France and grandma’s hip-replacement.
TWO: DON’T IMAGINE YOU NEED A FUND OF FUNNY STORIES.
Some bishops are natural comics – I mean intentionally. But not that many. You don’t need a new joke for every occasion, so don’t try to impersonate a stand-up comedian. Some of your listeners may just need to hear about God. If they simply remember you as a bit of a card, you may not be connecting.
THREE: DON’T FLOG THE SAME SERMON ROUND EVERY CHURCH YOU VISIT.
New jokes, no; new sermons, yes – wherever possible. Some sermons are worth double exposure, but not before the same audience. People travel to confirmations, and may not wish to know next month while visiting St John’s what they discovered last month at home at St Mary’s. It could suggest laziness. Try the Lectionary, or consult your host about a current sermon series. You’ve no time to prepare every week? It’s not too late to withdraw your acceptance.
FOUR: DON’T RUSH AWAY BEFORE THE LAST ECHO DIES AWAY FROM THE FINAL HYMN.
Some Bishops hardly wait to drain their cup before they depart, muttering about miles, motorways, meetings and meals, or the cost of gardeners and chauffeurs. Cut it. Forty minutes in the church hail can be quality time, remembered long after more weighty matters are forgotten. People notice, and people matter. And talking of hymns (very important):
FIVE: DON’ T WHINGE ABOUT ‘O JESUS, l HAVE PROMISED
Do we hear the storms of prelatical passion, the murmurs of episcopal self-will? So you don’t want to sing it three Sundays out of four for the rest of your life? Just be thankful you haven’t got to tell Jesus to shine every week. Have you ever conducted six funerals in five days? If you prefer a different hymn, or one from the last hundred and thirty’ years, or matching your subject (see No. 3, above), let your hosts know early. They may be relieved too. When you reach it, sing it. Which leads neatly into the positive; things to Do:
SIX: DO PREACH CHRIST CRUCIFIED.
Take every opportunity, public and private, to commend your Lord. If there’s no opportunity, make one. That is why you are there. Desmond Tutu regularly spoke of God in the middle of tense political negotiations; David Jenkins could get a whole shop-floor discussing Jesus. If these men could do it, so can you. Visiting admirals mention ships, gold-medal athletes touch on the Olympics, singers quote their latest single. You are a man of God; check out 2 Timothy 4, and go for it.
SEVEN: DO TAKE CARE TO TEACH THE BIBLE.
Bishops avoid this in a staggering number of ways. They chat, plead and harangue about quotas, liturgies, boundaries, initiatives, group ministries, almost as if they were looking for ways of avoiding their main job. ‘Are you determined out of the same holy Scriptures to instruct the people committed to your charge …to teach and exhort with wholesome doctrine.. .to banish and drive away all erroneous and strange doctrine contrary to God’s Word?’ All that and more is in the Prayer Book. One episcopal address at the Institution of a new vicar had two points: One, Yorkshire people are nice; Two, Suffolk people are nicer. One loyal parishioner was ashamed because Baptists were present; so, allegedly, was the Lord – present, that is.
EIGHT: DO YOUR HOMEWORK ON EVERY CHURCH AND PARISH.
Another sermon was a little better. But afterwards more than one person commented, ‘He could have said that anywhere, about anyone!’ No.3, again. Contrast the address where the preacher knows the new incumbent’s background, family and gifts, and the church’s recent history. If you can’t do it all yourself, secretaries aren’t just for answering the phone.
NINE: DO APOLOGISE WHEN YOU GET IT WRONG
A bishop apologised to me once. Yes, really; I tell my friends about it. Human nature being what it is, that makes me more willing to trust him, to apologise to him or even to others. Try it.
TEN: DO SOMETHING SILLY AND ORIGINAL THAT BRINGS YOU FACE TO FACE WITH PEOPLE.
One bishop rode his bike round the diocese, stopping off at hundreds of churches for prayer, chat and refreshment. It took time. Another confines himself to public transport in Lent, travelling on the London Underground with splendid purple and episcopal crook. Another had a day on overground trains, meeting groups on every station in his area; ‘he bishop now standing on platform three…’ All quite crazy. Impractical for Carlisle or Truro; they can think of something else and probably have. It would be unfair to say these were the best things they ever did, but such ventures reach people’s hearts in surprising ways. They also have potential for bringing us all nearer to Jesus.
The Carlisle problem would be partly solved by reviving the historic (1889) but suspended (1944) See of Barrow-in-Furness, and appointing an evangelical PEV to fill the post: I should have mentioned that when I last wrote to George (1995).
An earlier contributor to this paper was warned that his letters in The Times did his chances of preferment (ghastly word) no good at all. Peanuts! Someone told me that if I kept writing silly things in New Directions, I would get nowhere. How right he was! But you, my nearly-episcopal, increasingly-reverend and upwardly-mobile friend, have made no such blunders. I write with confidence and hope.
Christopher Idle works in the Diocese of Southwark.