George Austin asks “What do we expect of our bishops?”

When the Archbishop delivers the Bible to the newly consecrated bishop in the BCP Ordinal, it is clear that the bishop is to be primarily a pastor, and a pastor who bases his life and teaching on the Book which has just been handed to him. “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. Be so merciful, that ye be not too remiss; so minister discipline, that you forget not mercy.”

The ASB exhortation is more of a job description. While he is certainly exhorted to “watch over and pray for all those committed to his charge”, teaching them and interpreting the Gospel for them, knowing them and being known by them, there is much more about function and, implicitly, if not explicitly, about status. The bishop is to be “a leader in serving and caring for the people of God”; he is a “chief pastor” who shares with fellow bishops “a special responsibility to maintain and further the unity of the Church, to uphold its discipline, and to guard its faith.” He is to “promote its mission throughout the world.” Paradoxically in being more specific about the bishop’s role, it makes that role more diffuse.

And that is a major problem for episcopacy today. The expectations laid upon a modern bishop are such that he must either make choices (and therefore disappoint) or else take on too much and do nothing well – part of the stress which, for that matter, is faced by most parish clergy. He will almost certainly have a national role, in the House of Lords, or as chairman of a synod board or council or committee, with frequent visits to London. There will be local secular expectations – that he will entertain and be entertained by local worthies, that he will ‘have something to say’ about local as well as national and international problems. He may still be expected to chair, or at least be present at, too many diocesan meetings.

The danger is that he may all too easily become on the one hand a manager in ecclesiastical circles and on the other a person of status in the secular world, living in a medieval palace or castle, with gardener, chauffeur and what appear to be (though perhaps are not) the trappings of secular power and position. It is a long way from the BCP picture of the shepherd, even though the bishop in 1662 was likely to be much more a prince bishop than his modern counterpart.

The episode of Yes Prime Minister on the appointment of bishops was hysterically funny simply because it was too near the truth to be comfortable. When the PM questioned the choice of a man who had never ‘been an ordinary vicar’, it was pointed out to him that clergy who wish to become bishops make sure they never are just ordinary vicars. Yet it is precisely this experience which is needed among the bishops, for a bishop ought truly to 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 committees, synods, chairmanships, 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, encourager to both clergy and laity in his care.

Somehow – and how? is the difficult question while expectations remain – other bishops must be allowed to divest as much as possible that hinders them from following this same pattern, leaving committees and such-like to archdeacons and diocesan secretaries who have nothing more important to do. And I suspect that many, embarrassed by what they must be, would welcome this. So long as they are hindered, the Church will move away from the pattern of servanthood to which every Christian must aspire, and to which the Prayer Book Ordinal points:

“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.”

George Austin is Archdeacon of York and a member of the Crown Appointments Commission. The second part of this article will appear next month.