That a Bishop should be ‘Teachable’

Augustine held Cyprian of Carthage in high regard, as he did Tertullian. He commends Cyprian’s assertion that a bishop should be teachable.

To go on to what he says, ‘that a bishop should be “teachable”’, adding, ‘But he is teachable who is gentle and meek to learn; for a bishop ought not only to teach, but to learn as well, since he is indeed the better teacher who daily grows and advances by learning better things’ – in these words assuredly the holy man, endowed with pious charity, sufficiently points out that we should not hesitate to read his letters in such a sense, that we should feel no difficulty if the Church should afterwards confirm what had been discovered by further and longer discussions; because, as there were many things which the learned Cyprian might teach, so there was still something which the teachable Cyprian might learn. But the admonition that he gives us, ‘that we should go back to the fountain, that is, to apostolic tradition, and thence turn the channel of truth to our times,’ is most excellent, and should be followed without hesitation. (The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol IV, p476)


The spirit of Cyprian’s ‘teachable bishop’ made Augustine a pastoral theologian. ‘I was not able to acquire the things of which I stood in need, because I was engrossed wholly with the affairs of the Church’ (Letter 21.5, NPNF, p238). Central to ministry is, ‘the ministry of the Word and the Mystery of God’, which means that preaching is to be understood as exposition of the Bible, and sacraments. So what Bishop Augustine preached was not dictated by his latest idea, but by the lectionary. ‘The Holy Gospel which we heard just now as it was being read, has admonished touching the remission of sins. And on this subject must you be admonished now by my discourse. For we are ministers of the word, not our own word, but the word of our God and Lord.’ (Sermon 54, NPNF, p452)


If a Bishop is to be teachable then as preacher he must be accountable, which means listening to one’s own sermon. ‘We are …bold to exhort you; and when we exhort you, to look into ourselves. For he is a vain preacher of the word of God without, who is not a hearer within’(Sermon 79.1, Library of the Fathers, vol. ii p. 928). He must be accountable for his own response to the word of God as he preaches it, and to some extent his faithfulness stands under the judgement of his congregation, ‘I from this higher place advise, speak, preach: I denounce beforehand what evil must come upon drunkards. You have no ground for saying, ‘I have not heard’, you have no ground for saying, ‘God requireth my soul of his hand, who never spoke to me’.’ (Sermon 151. 4, Library of the Fathers, Vol. ii, p. 712) The preacher stands in the dangerous place but the congregation, stands ‘in a safer place in hearing, than we in preaching.’ (Sermon 179.7. ibid, p. 933).


While a compelling sense of vocation is a first requirement in the episcopal preacher, for Basil of Caesarea acceptable words are not enough; example consistent with the words is immensely important, ‘teaching a Christian how he ought to live does not call so much for words as for daily example’ (Letters CLI). In his Pastoral Rule, written for bishops, Gregory the Great states, ‘In all that he does he sets an example so inspiring to all others, that in their regard he has no cause to be ashamed of his past. He so studies to live as to be able to water the dry hearts of others with the streams of instruction imparted’ (Bk I, ch 10), after he has asked ‘with what presumption’ does he the bishop ‘hasten to heal the afflicted while he carries a sore on his own face’ ( I, 9). These sentiments are in Richard Baxter’s, The Reformed Pastor; ‘He that means as he speaks will surely do as he speaks’, and also in George Herbert’s Priest to the Temple, 2-3.



Mere listening is insufficient; the preacher must pray. The practical import of Lancelot Andrewes’s prayers for the illumination of his mind lies in his sermons in their close connection and continuity with his Private Devotions. The preacher will do his work better by the piety of his prayers than by the fluency of his speech. Despite the scholarly and theological acumen of Andrewes’s sermons, ‘their genius issues from a rootedness in prayer and the truly graceful creativity of the mind that illumines them’ (F. E Brightman). The rule of prayer informs the rule of belief, informing the preacher of his spiritual resources and making him sensitive to people’s needs. Poverty in prayer leads to poverty in preaching and genuine conviction. The troubles of life can inform, sanctify and sharpen the humble soul and be a preparation for greater work, but as these Fathers would remind us, accountability to God will always be more important than the approval of our people.

Arthur Middleton is Rector of Boldon in the Diocese of Durham.