Specialist and flying bishops? I’m not so sure.

Is it just me or is there something seriously strange going on in ‘our’ approach to the episcopacy?

Several years ago three ‘flying bishops’ (every-time I hear this phrase I think of a purple Ford Granada, John Thaw and Dennis Waterman – very irreverent of me, I know, but I just can’t help it)  were created to cater for Anglo Catholics who simply couldn’t agree to women presiding at the Eucharist: the Bishops of Ebbsfleet, Richborough and Beverley.

Recently Archbishop Justin created the See of Maidstone to protect the interests of conservative evangelicals who can’t accept female headship. And, now we have the Bishop of London suggesting a bishop for church planting. It seems a good idea, after all church planting is surely highly specialist, isn’t it?

I just hope all Church Planters can accept female bishops!

But is a bishop supposed to be a ‘specialist,’ and are we entitled to a chief pastor who agrees with our own cherished deutero-doctrines (i.e doctrines that have been added to those expressed in the Catholic Creeds)?

I think not, and I don’t think ‘specialist bishops’ are good either for the Church or for the individual bishop (although it must be wonderful for the ego and far less tiring to be surrounded all the time by like-minded people!)

I can sort of see the Bishop of London’s point as he is at least pursuing what looks to be a ‘growth strategy’, although I don’t agree with his proposal, but I just can’t understand bishoprics created in order to appease doctrinal sensitivities. In the long run appeasement always fails to satisfy and reconcile, doesn’t it?

I accept that as someone who believes strongly in progressive revelation my comments may not be quite so palatable to those who feel that tradition is being tossed away, and I can’t offer any real comfort, other than to say that I suspect that in the long-run appeasement always tends to make a difficult situation worse.

Surely a Bishop needs to be able to recognise that the Church is a ‘community of communities,’ (the phrase used by the Bishops in their recent pastoral letter to describe society) and the various communities that comprise the Church in its catholicity need to accept that sometimes a bishop might not agree with a given congregation’s deutero-doctrinal orientation? If the Church is really interested in advocating the concept of ‘good disagreement’ this would appear to me to be a given. Surely it is also good for the bishop to be aware that the flock doesn’t just comprise folk who think just like them and, that they don’t have the right to seek to impose their own perspectives,however well thought through and strongly held, on a specific congregation?

If the practice of creating specialist bishops continues how can we with integrity claim to believe in ‘one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church,’ for it is the bishops job to preserve, and model, catholicity under his, or her, apostolic mandate.

Now here is a slightly cheeky question:

Under the proposals made  in the Green Report how will potential specialist and flying bishops be identified and trained? Maybe there will be some form of decision tree guiding their choice of MBA modules? Maybe they will be granted certain opt outs on the grounds that a particular course might not be relevant?

Moving on. The ordinal prescribes what the Church requires of a bishop. The ordinal is ‘our’ master document and its a work of genius (you never know it might even have been inspired by the Holy Spirit). The ordinal makes it abundantly clear that the Bishop must be a general practitioner. Let’s have a quick look at what the bishop promises at ordination:

  • to care for the flock of Christ (i.e. pastor to the pastors)
  • to baptise and confirm
  • to ordain and commission
  • to proclaim the gospel boldly
  • to confront injustice
  • to work for righteousness and peace
  • to teach the doctrine of Christ and the Church (honesty moment – I would prefer the Church of England to refer to doctrines – lets stop instructing and instead start teaching!)
  • to be diligent in prayer
  • to live a Godly life and,
  • be of sound learning

This is a charter for general practice in Godly leadership and it makes it very clear that the Bishop doesn’t simply exist to serve a select group of hermetically sealed insiders who share the Bishops doctrinal, missional and ecclesial  preferences. The bishop must build the whole body whilst also working prophetically, in the public square, for justice and righteousness.

The list of promises in the ordinal are not presented in the form of a menu allowing a bishop to select his or her preferences, or even a small sub set of churches. They come as a complete and non negotiable cluster of sacred promises. It would be wrong of the Church to put a bishop in a position where the promises made at ordination cannot be fulfilled, because a functional and specialist model of episcopacy has been adopted.

Bishops should encourage and empower specialist ministries but should not be reduced to and, defined by them? Discuss.


One thought on “Specialist and flying bishops? I’m not so sure.

  1. Absolutely agree. A few years ago when internet churches were in the news there were frequent calls for a ‘bishop of the internet’ from various people. I never understood why, other than they felt it bestowed some kind of additional status on what they were doing online. Any wise bishop (which I hope is the majority) will understand that the licensed minister is the expert in her/his context, the role of the bishop is to provide accountability, support and that vital link to the wider church.

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