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Feb 2010 Bishop James: What are bishops for?

A woman whose wedding I conducted recently told me that when he was six her brother was asked what he wanted to be when he grew up. ‘A ladies’ hairdresser’ he replied – ‘or a bishop�! As it happens, both jobs score highly in ‘job satisfaction’ surveys; but while everyone knows what hairdressers do, few have any idea what a bishop is for. So as we begin the process of looking for a new Bishop of Penrith – against the national backdrop of a possible reduction in episcopal numbers – it may be worth setting out four key aspects of the role as it applies in Cumbria.

Bishops exist, first, to be leaders in mission. As well as proclaiming the gospel, they should articulate the diocesan vision (in our case for growth) and think strategically about how that vision can be achieved. As leaders, they should set an example to clergy and licensed lay ministers of working collaboratively – which means not just delegating tasks, but sharing power. They should also be good at identifying and using the gifts of others – which is the primary responsibility of all clergy, and especially vital, from a diocesan point of view, in the making of appointments. Second, bishops exist to be a ‘focus for unity’ in the diocese. They need to hold together a wide variety of different outlooks and churchmanship, helping everyone to feel valued as members of the diocesan family and establishing a shared sense of direction and purpose. That’s why the ‘generous orthodoxy’ which was requested by Carlisle Diocese in appointing the Bishop of Carlisle is so important. It also, of course, spills over into ecumenical engagement with our Christian brothers and sisters in other denominations. Christian unity extends far wider than just the Church of England; and it covers the ‘County’ as well as the ‘Church’. A third part of the role is pastoral oversight, which is the meaning of ‘episcope’. That oversight covers everyone in the diocese, but is focussed especially on the clergy and their families, and is shared with Archdeacons and Rural Deans. For that reason, bishops really need to be good listeners, and they need to be accessible. They also need to be quite secure and tough, since part of the pastoral task is (in the words of the Ordinal) to ‘minister discipline, but with mercy’. Fourth, bishops have a significant role as teachers. They are meant to uphold the apostolic faith against error, and equip the clergy theologically and practically for their ministry. That means they need to be intellectually capable without (hopefully) being academically dry or abstruse. The flock needs to be fed – not fed up! All of this (and more besides) suggests that bishops are there to ‘create an ethos’ – not least of encouragement and hope. What they are and how they make people feel matters as much as what they say and do. So when it comes to appointing a new bishop, character is every bit as important as particular gifts. We need people who are holy, since as Lord Acton once remarked ‘There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it’. We also need people who are genuinely humble, without airs and graces. St Augustine put it well when he said ‘Let him understand that he is no bishop who loves to rule and not be useful to his flock’. There should be no room in the episcopate for arrogance or pomposity. A small advisory group has already been established to steer the business of appointing the next Bishop of Penrith. The process is very different from the past, involving as it does a job description; person specification; short-list of candidates; and substantial series of interviews. It also involves consultation – and we would be very grateful for any comments you may have or possible candidates you may wish to suggest. (To the Bishop’s Chaplain, Revd Rob Saner-Haigh at Wreay Vicarage, Carlisle, CA4 0RL.)

  • The Rev'd Walter Wade Posted Monday 16 July 2018 It is with sadness we inform you ...