Only Connect! Thoughts on episcopacy and R &R

I think it is Victoria Coren-Mitchell who hosts a TV programme called ‘Only Connect?’ I haven’t watched it but wonder whether its title may be something of a gift for the church.

Recently the Church of England has been engaged in some rough and tumble debates over the theology underpinning Renewal and Reform and, the nature of episcopacy. I wonder whether in both of these debates we are missing something; failing to make an obvious connection? I wonder whether 2017 maybe the year when the C of E should seek only to connect?

Let me start with the thorny issue of episcopacy. I am going to take a risk and suggest that the C of E needs to take Martyn Percy’s recent critique very seriously indeed for maybe there really is a crisis in the episcopacy as a whole?

I say as a whole because there clearly are some amazing and gifted bishops out there. However I do feel that at the aggregate level episcopacy has become strangely disconnected. My evidence is many, many, conversations with clergy colleagues who feel that they no longer connect, as colleagues, with their bishops.

The Bishop in many cases is no longer regarded, by their clergy, as the ‘pastor to the pastors.’ Or even pastor for the pastors. Clergy are suspicious of bishops who clearly, and perhaps over identify, with a particular grouping within the church.

Old fashioned clergy are worried about shiny new clergy, especially shiny new clergy sporting a mitre, crook and their ‘mini MBA’. Now these worries may be profoundly misplaced, but they are real; very real. These worries and concerns need to be recognised and acknowledged.

Bishops need to own up to the fact that they, in a very real way, for whatever reason, are not quite connecting with large numbers of their clergy. To use a sporting analogy bishops in many cases have lost the confidence of the dressing room. Of course the majority of clergy are not going to say so publicly, or join social media campaigns to oust particular bishops, we are after all the C of E, and reserve and politeness continue to inform our modes of engagement!

Those who get involved in the rough and tumble debates on social media and in the press are very much the exception and not the norm.

So if bishops need to ‘Only Connect’ what of the rest of us? Well, maybe connection needs to be our guiding and relational theology as well. I say relational because theology separate from human interaction is a bit too abstract for most folk!

A church, especially a national and established church, that isn’t connecting, I would want to suggest will end up being a hollowed out old thing; boring and ultimately irrelevant to real, living, people. I suspect that the Archbishops know this, hence Renewal and Reform. For me the theology guiding R&R is staggeringly simply: ‘Only Connect.’ Of course as the national and established church our mandate is to connect and embed ourselves in the widest possible nexus of relationships. If we are to evangelise England (which is R&R’s stated aim) we can in fact only do so by connecting with all people in all locations.

We have no real choice for if we are serious about both our status as the national and established, as well as R&R’s mandate, we have to accept the obligation to go and connect with people who make us feel uncomfortable in places where we would rather not venture. If we don’t do this we will become a sectarian, suburban and overwhelmingly middle class church. We will become the ‘Conservative Party at prayer.’ Our hope for the re-evangelisation of England will be vested in some form of ‘trickle down’ theonomic behaviour. 

So maybe a New Year’s resolution for all bishops and priests should simply be this; ‘only connect.’

Put in more churchy language the notion of only connecting might imply a rediscovery of what it means to be intentionally diaconal. Could it be that a rediscovery and continued enactment of diakonia is all the theology the Church of England needs in order to effect Renewal and Reform? I have a sneaky feeling that for a national and established church diakonia, not episcopacy, is the only real route to success (whatever success means). Diakonia is bottom up, grounded and relational. Put colloquially it is grass roots relational theology.

Diakonia is theology which is with, for and alongside. It is connected and collegiate.  It should be our, C of E, theology. The alternative is excessive clericalism (which can manifest itself in the wearing of chinos and chasubles), functionalism (of which one manifestation is managerialism) and, hierarchy.  

So all of us, bishops, priests and laity alike need to resolve in 2017 to ‘only confect.’ Our long-term future and the re-evangelization of England may depend on it.

One final thought: whilst bishops and priests focus on their first vows, how about using some of R&R’s funds to establish a lay order of deacons, commissioning men and women alike to go out on behalf of the church only to connect?

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