On the buses; some thoughts about episcopacy.

Bishops are like buses!

You don’t encounter them very often (or at least I don’t) and then, you meet a whole company (as in bus company) of them in a very short period of time. At least that has been my experience recently. I have been to a symposium, a conference and, a consecration recently, all well attended by folk (men) dressed in purple! I of course was dressed in black!

Now buses are great places to pick up on the local gossip. People tend to be strangely unguarded ‘in transit.’ And, so here are just a few of the thoughts some of our fellow, episcopal bus travellers, have offered to those with ears to listen.

  • Being a bishop should be an incident in the life of a priest.
  • Bishops don’t have any real executive power.
  • There are any number of clergy in the diocese who could do my job.
  • The old system with over 600 people on the long list for preferment was seriously flawed; at least the new approach is more manageable.
  • I am really worried about the appointment of special interest bishops.

Oxford, my diocese, is currently interregnum; in the ‘bus stop‘ awaiting the arrival of a shiny new ‘non executive’ coach.  And, so the statement below is a synthesis of some of the comments made on-line and in public forums:

  • There was so much diversity in the Oxford selection panel that I am not surprised that a non appointment was the only decision they could get to.

So if we accept these offerings at face value, rather than as platitudes, what are we to make of them? Could they help us define what the Church wants from its bishops? Could these comments shed light into how we prepare bishops for office? And, finally what of the thorny issues of how ‘elect’ (for it is by election that bishops are appointed in spite of all our pious talk about calling and discerning the will of God) bishops?

Let’s start by considering the first two bullet points in combination and seeing if there maybe some positive implications we could draw out, through analogy, with the corporate world.

If Bishops don’t have any significant executive powers, it surely follows, that they are de facto, non executives? And, this seems to be a source of tension for bishops, or at least those seeking to identify and train our future cadre of leadership talent,for the Church seems determined to use executive style processes (badly) to identify and subsequently train bishops! What a bizarre paradox. Give executive training to ‘our’ executives: diocesan secretaries, finance officers, cathedral managers and, maybe even Archdeacons (the forgotten species) and, non executive training to Bishops.

In the corporate world non executives are often identified by a search committee and then appointed for an initial period, by the shareholders, and, subsequently invited to stand for re-election at the annual general meeting, for a further term of office.

Non executives are ‘fixed term’ appointments, ratified publicly by the widest possible constituency of self-interest; the shareholders. So why shouldn’t bishops be fixed term appointments? Why don’t we elect bishops for a period of say seven (or eight, nine or ten) years with the expectation that after their period of office they would return to some other form of priestly ministry? Their period as a bishop could therefore truly be regarded as ‘an incident in the life of a priest.’ 

Such an approach would also allow the Church to continue with a much longer list of episcopal candidates, for while I accept that the present long list system needs revising I also feel uncomfortable with the notion that there are only 150 potential senior ‘non executives’ out there; and so, apparently, do some of the bishops: ‘There are any number of clergy in the diocese who could do my job.’

If we were to move to a system of fixed term appointments it should be possible to promote any number of clergy, or at least a far larger number of clergy, into senior non executive positions. The reason for this is fairly straightforward: the main reason we need to limit the number of people designated for ‘senior positions,’ is because, due to the length of time bishops tend to remain in post, we have such low episcopal turnover. Only one variable – the post itself – has informed policy. Increase the number of variables and, hey presto, different possibilities emerge!

And, why don’t we change the way bishops are elected? The C.N.C. could continue to act as the Church’s ‘governance committee’ seeking out and, presenting candidates for election. But should we abandon the idea of diocesan committees and instead give all clergy and members of electoral rolls a vote in the election of proposed candidates? I can’t see why we shouldn’t, after all, corporates give all shareholders a vote and, all members of monastic communities are entitled to vote for their prospective abbots. If being a bishop is only an incident in the life of a priest, and if it is accepted that any number of clergy possess the pre-requisite attributes, we surely shouldn’t fear greater transparency?

But, I suspect we won’t even consider changing the process (or begin to conceive Bishops as akin to non executives)  because there is far too much vested interest in supporting the status quo. Special interest groups – clothing themselves under the guise of diversity –  can, and do, seek to block the will of the wider church and, who knows what might happen if the Church was to be truly democratized? (Well we do know – loss of power and a church shaped from the bottom up – and who wants that?)

Finally, what about special interest, headship and church planting, styles of Bishop? Again like some of my ‘senior colleagues’ , I am not entirely comfortable, but perhaps should be slightly more pragmatic?

I am more uncomfortable with the ‘headship’ bishop of Maidstone, for it appears that this was created to appease a small but voluble constituency of interest and appeasement, whilst providing a short-term solution, always comes back to haunt in the longer term? However………

I can think of two examples of special interest bishops, or bishops asked to serve distinct communities of interest: the Bishop to the Armed Forces and ‘Mitred Abbots.’ Interestingly neither category is given a see! The Bishop to the Armed Forces official designation is: “The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Episcopal Representative to the Armed Forces”. A mitred abbot will be designated The Right Rev’d ………Abbott to the Community of……So we don’t need to give a see to special interest bishops. Special interest bishops could be designated the Right Rev’d whilst categorizing their episcopacy as purely representative?

So as I step off the bus here are my musings:

  • Bishops are non executive pastors.
  • Non executive positions should in the church, as in the corporate world, be fixed term appointments.
  • Moving to a fixed term episcopacy would broaden opportunities for a greater number of clergy.
  • The franchise responsible for electing bishops should be radically enlarged.
  • Special interest bishops should be designated the Right Rev’d, but should not be ‘awarded’ a see.

Will any of these proposals even be discussed? Of course not!


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