John Richardson has a near death experience.

Some of us have wondered at various times not only what it is like being a bishop but why our episcopal friends are so much less like the people we knew in college days. We are not the first generation to do so. In Elizabethan times the Earl of Leicester wrote to the bishop of Peterborough, ‘Remember, my lord, how before you were bishop you would find fault with negligence of bishops, how much you cried out to have preachers and good ministers to be increased and carefully placed.’ Is it true, as Phillip Jensen once suggested, that during a consecration the other bishops gather round the candidate and slowly and carefully remove his backbone? Or is there some other explanation? At this year’s National Evangelical Anglican Congress in Blackpool I got a chance to find out.

Evangelicals, as you will be aware, ‘call no man father’. On the contrary, we have a doctrine of holy orders which, to our Catholic brothers and sisters, is minimalist to the point of extinction. Or is it?

Strength in numbers?

My suspicions were first aroused on Friday night when the welcome given to Rowan Williams, even for a man who had just spent several hours trapped on the M6, was prolonged to the point of being political rather than polite. This welcome (and my suspicions) were reinforced by the next platform speaker, Bishop James Jones of Liverpool. Two bishops do not make a conspiracy. But given that the first was clearly there despite not being an Evangelical and that the second (in my view) made a rather better fist of praising the first than he did of expounding on the word of God, I began to wonder. Also, did it matter that there were over thirty bishops with us? Why not tell us how many parish clergy were present, if Evangelicals believe that is where the ‘real’ work of ministry takes place?

And so a bad thought occurred to me. It just happened (trust me on this) that I’d packed a clerical shirt. It also happened that the shirt I’d packed was my nice burgundy one. I like the colour, and anyway it was the only clean one left. It has, however, been mistaken for episcopal purple, albeit by men rather than women. And so I began to wonder what would happen if I wore it to the Congress? There was only one way to find out.

Jet Set

The least surprising discovery the next day was that people treat you differently when they think you are a bishop. For a start, I was able to get into the Congress without a badge on. This may not seem very remarkable until you realize that the organizers were expecting Peter Tatchell and co, and so security was tight to the extent of there even being ‘plain clothes’ security people in the audience. Well, Peter, you should have dressed in a burgundy shirt. Even when I went up to security staff and asked for directions, I was simply pointed to the right door. Only late in the afternoon did one of them actually say to me, ‘You haven’t got a badge.’ And please note the syntax! Not, ‘Can I see your badge?’ Certainly not, ‘You can’t come in here without a badge.’ In fact you could almost feel the poor man’s embarrassment. Of course, ordinary ‘punters’ were quickly apprehended and kept outside while they dug anxiously through pockets and bags for the mislaid pass – but they were just plain Christians. I, meanwhile, was able to wander the halls – unchallenged but certainly not unnoticed. On the contrary, as the song from West Side Story says, ‘When you’re a Jet, you’re the swingin’est thing.’ And as the ecclesiastical equivalent, I discovered this to be true. People quite literally looked at me differently.

That was interesting enough, but as the day wore on I was worried to realize that I was actually looking at myself differently. As the song continues, ‘Little boy, you’re a man; little man, you’re a king!’ And indeed I was.

Fine feathers – fine birds?

Understandably, some people will argue that this is precisely why I will never be made a bishop. But that misses the point, because, of course, it was not what I was that was creating these reactions, but what I was wearing. Anyone who has worn a dog-collar into a pub will know the effect. Of course, there is a time and a place for regalia of office. But there is also a time to put aside these outer garments in order to remind not only others but ourselves of what we are.

The seriousness of my experience in Blackpool is reflected in the words of another Elizabethan, William Cecil: ‘I see such worldliness in many that were otherwise affected before they came to cathedral chairs, that I fear the places alter the men.’ How true – and not just the places, but the purple shirts, pectoral crosses and episcopal rings, all remarkably popular amongst English Evangelical bishops and all conspiring with our natural sycophancy to induce an air of mutual unreality in our self-perception and thence in our relationships. How easy to challenge a man without a badge. How hard to challenge a man in a burgundy shirt!

John Richardson is still only the Reverend John Richardson.