Martin Warner reflects on how bishops can reveal the nature of Christian identity in others


The gathering of Anglican bishops in Canterbury for the Lambeth Conference understandably prompts us to ask what we expect a bishop to be and to do. Are our expectations appropriate and how do they fit with the statements we make in our liturgical and ecumenical declarations?

In the Church of England we currently tend to favour those descriptions of a bishop that lead to an agenda for action. Reference to being evangelists, teachers, sentinels, prophets, leaders and servants is commonplace. This presents the episcopate as instrumental in halting decline and growing the Church, making it simpler, humbler, bolder.

But there are other descriptions of a bishop that challenge or enlarge this vision and agenda. 

One example might be the use of bridegroom/bride imagery. For some, the idea of Christ as the Bridegroom and the Church as his Bride is now complicated by concerns about gender identity, its embodiment and theological significance. Although this image is to be heard in the Common Worship liturgy, it is rarely explored elsewhere. 

Another description that challenges the activity-driven mood of our time is that of the bishop as shepherd. It sits easily in nomadic history or a contemporary rural setting, but some might question its usefulness in the modern context of global relations driven by internet communication. 

Talk of being a shepherd subverts the narratives of Human Resources and communications management. At a simplistic level that might also make it a useful corrective to the expectations of a popularist age.

This is an image that can be disturbing because it is so complex, conveying in Old and New Testaments, and in the Ordinal of the Book of Common Prayer, an identity that is sacred and authoritative.

The BCP gospel reading for the ordination of priests and of bishops focuses very clearly on the image of the shepherd. The archbishop delivers the Bible to a bishop, saying, ‘Be to the flock of Christ a Shepherd, not a wolf…that when the chief Shepherd shall appear you may receive the never-fading crown of glory’.

The Old Testament image of the shepherd rapidly builds on the practical realities of tending sheep and uses it as a foundation for the anointed governance of kingship, in David and Solomon. In the books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel it is an image that points to authority in the prophetic calling of those who subvert the conventions of the age. It also creates the expectation of a Priestly Messiah-King who will establish the rule of God, in what the New Testament reveals as the kingdom of heaven. 

The Exhortation of Pope John Paul II that continues to be significant in Roman Catholic seminary formation opens with a quotation from Jeremiah, ‘I will give you shepherds after my own heart’ (Dabo Vobis Pastores). This leads inevitably to Pope Francis’s oft-quoted comment about ‘the smell of the sheep’ as characteristic of how all clergy should exercise the sacred authority entrusted to them.

In spite of the scriptural and liturgical priority that is given to the image of the shepherd, the outworking of that image in the routine exercise of the pastoral office is not given much prominence in the Church of England. An unfortunate reference to clergy as a limiting factor has alerted people to this. 

The language of the bishop as pastor pastorum, the shepherd of the shepherds, is rarely heard. That might be because it seems to overlook the laity, though one of the concerns persistently voiced by many laity is the absence of a local priest and pastor.

An obvious expression of the authority of the bishop as the Chief Pastor is the pastoral staff or crozier. It is probably the oldest symbol of episcopal ministry, but the link with actual shepherding is remote and limited. The carrying of a staff is essentially a reference to authority, as in the office of Black Rod in the House of Lords. 

In the Orthodox tradition the pastoral staff or crozier is more like the staff of Moses and of Aaron which was instrumental in the work of God in the Book of Exodus. In this tradition it is a symbol of wisdom, teaching and authority, perhaps reflecting a much older custom than our western focus on the shepherd’s crook. This also reminds us that there are many layers to the image of the shepherd in the Christian tradition.

The image is important because it identifies the bishop as the symbolic agent who by the authority of prayer and action brings the church to visibility and life in the power of the Holy Spirit. 

The bishop oversees and guarantees the connection of our time and place with every time and place, and so with the mystery of creation and redemption. But this is essentially God’s work, not our own. And although it must draw on the human gifts of anyone called to this ministry, they will always be orientated to an identity bestowed on them that is greater than their own personality.

The Lambeth Conference might be an opportunity to assess what it means to be a symbolic agent who is defined by distinctive insignia: pastoral staff, ring, episcopal cross and mitre. The liturgical use of these is rarely stated or, perhaps, understood. (The connection of the mitre with the flames of Pentecost is unhistorical and trite.) As a result, sacred instruments can be regarded as oddities from a dressing up box that is useful for school visits. 

And yet the liturgical function of the bishop is the only part of episcopal ministry that is indispensable. It is the sign of how the saving work of Jesus Christ, the only Shepherd and High Priest, is mediated in the Church. 

This function is the source of all authoritative teaching, re-connecting time with eternity and humanity with God in the acts of regenerating the church (baptism and confirmation), of asserting its unity (the celebration of the Eucharist), and of giving authority for its mission (ordaining and commissioning ministers). 

A weakened understanding of the bishop as the symbol and guarantor of what defines the Church can have serious consequences. One of them will be a bishop’s own fear of imposter syndrome. This can develop when the focus of identity shifts towards human skills, experience and achievement, and away from confidence in being the authoritative symbol through whom, by grace, the nature of the Christian identity is revealed in others.

To be clear, the liturgical expression of episcopal ministry is not an end in itself. But liturgical signs are entrusted to us to be used well, so that they connect us with the well-springs of revelation in scripture and tradition that convey the saving work of God.

So as bishops gather again in Canterbury, let us revisit a statement that sets out what the nature and fruit of our ministry might be, not simply here but in the life of the Church Universal. This is from the Common Declaration made by Pope John Paul II and Archbishop Robert Runcie in Canterbury Cathedral in May 1982:

This holy place reminds us of the vision of Pope Gregory in sending St Augustine as an apostle to England, full of zeal for the preaching of the Gospel and the shepherding of the flock.

At Pentecost, we turn again in prayer to Jesus the Good Shepherd, who promised to ask the Father to give us another advocate to be with us forever, the Spirit of Truth, to lead us into the full unity to which he calls us.