Beware the tinker men; thoughts on episcopal leadership.

Last week Philip Johanson wrote a thought provoking article in the Church Times: ‘Top-down tinkering will not serve the Kingdom.’ He is correct; in fact it won’t even serve the Church of England.

Top-down tinkering is of course the natural response to the perceived problems in a system from those who have already benefited from that system.

After all the system can’t be quite that bad, or outdated, when it has promoted the likes of us, can it? Well, yes it can.

I have recently been asked, as part of my candidature for General Synod, what I think are the most important issues facing the Church of England. I highlighted two, one of which was episcopal leadership.

As I have previously argued the Green Report is the epitome of a top down, institutionally sponsored approach, that as Philip Johanson argues, just ends up tinkering around the edges of a system that requires a deeper root and branch review.

What is required if we are serious about leadership is root canal surgery and not a few temporary fillings!

Over the course of the last couple of decades the Church of England has asked ‘who’ is eligible for the episcopacy, with the question being framed in terms of gender and we have, rightly, decided that both male and female alike may be appointed bishop (so can we now drop the adjectives and just use the single word, bishop?)

We now need to consider three further questions:

  • How should bishops be appointed? I believe that there are strong, very strong, reasons to consider widening the franchise.
  • How long should bishops remain in post? I was surprised that some commentators on social media suggested that the recently appointed Bishop of Newcastle was a ‘stop gap’ appointment because, at the age of sixty-four, she was unlikely to serve for more than six or seven years. Shouldn’t six or seven years be the norm? I am not comfortable, for all sorts of reasons, with senior clergy remaining in post for year upon year, upon year. Such long term tenures would not be acceptable in most leadership contexts (FIFA excepted!). And anyway, shouldn’t being a bishop simply be ‘an incident in the life of a priest?’ I believe that the Church of England should consider making episcopal appointments fixed term, say for seven to ten years.  At least we should have the debate.
  • What skills and experiences does the Church of England (as opposed to its’ existing leaders) wish to see represented in the House of Bishops, so that ‘our’ bishops are truly representative of and, best placed to lead the Church of England? Where is the rural voice in the House of Bishops? How many of our bishops have served in peripheral, resource starved contexts, and how many of our bishops have the academic training to get to grips with the substantive issues now facing the Church of England in some of our most contentious debates? In all cases I would answer very few.

These remain three fundamental and unanswered questions. They are unanswered for the straightforward reason that our bishops haven’t asked them, either of themselves, or of the wider church. Why not? Because that might involve a range of radical propositions! It might also involve accepting that they don’t have all the answers.

Far better to tinker!

I think not!


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