Bishops: ‘focus of unity’ or ‘agent of reconciliation?’

Those charged with short listing potential bishops have recently stressed that the bishop must be a ‘focus of unity.’ So far so good. But the trouble is that this is a bit of a motherhood and apple pie term.

It sounds good, but…….but is it a bit, on face value, lacking in real and substantive content?

In Oxford Diocese we are currently without a diocesan bishop – possibly because different factions on the selection panel have different views as to the type of  character that would constitute a ‘focus of unity’  – who knows. But, I suspect that many of those involved in the wider consultation process would have stressed the absolute importance of appointing an individual who can truly unite the diocese. As if…..

Now I hope that we do get to a position of unity in both my diocese and in the ‘one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church,’ but the more substantive question is surely ‘how do we get there?’ Is it really a question of asking all potential bishops to keep their mouths shut over the one issue that might divide the church (human sexuality), as stressed by the C.N.C.?

I don’t think it can be, because bishops are currently being forced to respond to ‘issues of human sexuality,’ in using their discretionary powers when it comes to granting licenses or the permission to officiate. The granting, and not granting, of licenses and the giving, or not giving of permissions, speaks every bit as loudly than words uttered and, pens pushed.

Unity, I suggest, is not a virtue in its own right but an outcome; after all Jesus prayed that his disciples ‘may be one.’ It is the process that leads to unity that we need to be more concerned about, rather than some form of manufactured, institutionally defined notion of unity.’

If we are serious about achieving an ultimate state of unity what is required in the here and now is bishops who are ‘agents of reconciliation.’ Recently the Archbishop of Canterbury, on his Facebook page, has written:

‘Reconciliation is about our relationship with God and each other. It’s people, communities, nations learning to live together with deeply held differences in a spirit of love and respect. It’s working for justice and seeking truth in the light of God’s mercy and peace. It’s the very heart of the gospel.’

Could ++Justin’s description of reconciliation be a job description for our most senior clerics? I for one think so, and that is why I think that above all else a bishop needs to be an agent of reconciliation. Let’s suspend all talk of unity and instead focus on reconciliation (and subsidiarity).

Reconciliation is a hugely powerful process ethic. It talks not just to outcomes but also to behavior. To be an agent of reconciliation necessitates character.

Agents of reconciliation are entitled to express their own (strongly held) views and convictions; it is the manner in which they express them and their attitudes to those who hold different views that matters more. Agents of reconciliation don’t seek a one size fits all solution. No instead they recognize that ‘it’s people, communities, nations (congregations, dioceses, provinces, denominations) learning to live together with deeply held differences in a spirit of love and respect.’ 

Finally agents of reconciliation make ‘ultimate unity’ possible because they know that reconciliation – as an articulation and celebration of deeply held differences and interpretations of truth  – is animated through a commitment to subsidiarity, the ethic through which folk ‘live together with deeply held differences in a spirit of love and respect.’ 

The trouble with subsidiarity is that it demands a different, less institutionalized, approach to leadership, it asks senior leaders to think very carefully about power and authority vested in them through their office, whilst also asking them to accept that many under their ‘jurisdiction’ may not be convinced by their own strongly held convictions and,  for many senior leaders, these are significant challenges.

But my own hunch is that finding ‘agents of reconciliation’ and ‘advocates for subsidiarity’ is the Church of England’s most important leadership task.



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