Oxford, Sheffield, Llandaff etc

Appointing bishops used to be a relatively straightforward matter, but no longer it seems.

Oxford had to have two goes whilst Sheffield and Llandaff remain ‘work in progress.’ Fortunately at the second attempt Oxford was able to appoint a bishop who has been welcomed, even affirmed, by the diocese as a whole. And, this is an important point for mutuality, or mutual flourishing, presumably goes both ways?

The bishop affirms the ministry  of their flock and, the flock affirms the ministry of their bishop. The ordinal makes this pretty clear! (Please Church of England can we get back to a situation where our guiding motifs are always liturgically verified?) If one party can’t fully affirm the other it hard to see how mutual flourishing really works. Mutual flourishing should never be reduced to the accommodation or toleration of difference for that would represent a very thinned out notion of both mutuality and flourishing.

Looking at  Oxford, Sheffield and Llandaff raises the question of whether the very different debacles are simply individual cases of failure, or whether there is something systemically faulty in how the Anglican churches in these lands do episcopacy. Is there something wrong in how we identify and appoint bishops? I think that there is.

The problem is systemic and is based on an outdated and paternalistic way of thinking and behaving. The process lacks transparency and accountability and fails to give sufficient weight to the demands of the local communities for which the bishop will have responsibility. In governance terms the methods the churches use for identifying and appointing bishops is antiquated. We can and should do better. We need a radical rethink.

So, whilst it is entirely correct for the Archbishops to ask Sir Philip Mawer to review the Sheffield debacle I would also like to see the church getting to grips with the theology of episcopacy more generally because what we actually have is a systemic problem brought to the fore by three different presenting issues, which has, to date, reared its head in three different locations.

‘Our’ real problems are ecclesial and episcopal in nature. And, you can’t solve theological problems through managerial and political processes.  Solutions which are cobbled together tend to crumble and fall. Yes, Archbishops, review the process but go much, much, further and address the real questions (questions which have been asked), not simply the presenting issues. My fear is that if the real theological,and I would include good governance as a sub set of  ecclesial theology,  issues are not addressed there will be a whole string of etc’s to add to Oxford, Sheffield and Llandaff.

If we desire a church which is at peace with itself we must address the ‘theological deficit’; wishing, praying, politicizing our problems away, simply won’t work. Management courses and leadership training, necessary as they are, cannot of themselves make everything better.  As a church we have to look the really difficulty and knotty problems in the eye and start addressing, or unpicking, them.

Robust theology will not, of course, guarantee peace, but without robust theology there can be no longer-term sustainable peace. Without robust ecclesial and episcopal theology things will continue to go wrong and the blame game will continue. Scapegoats will be sought out, named and shamed (illiberal liberals, hectoring bullies) and the truth will be kept hidden under a bushel. Each time something goes wrong another group will be sought out and identified for blame and the church will never flourish.

If we are serious about notions such as mutual flourishing and radical new inclusivity we need address the tough ecclesial and subsequent episcopal questions and, we need to do so theologically . If these are to be our guiding motifs they need content. A motif without theological content can only ever be a sugary soundbite, capable of providing a short-term fix but not longer-term satisfaction.

How can we address the theological deficit, for address it we must. I would want to suggest that we need a ‘radical new solution.’ The Five Guiding Principles, Bishop’s Declaration and Report on Sexuality and Marriage have all failed to stand up to scrutiny. Is this evidence of a systemic failure in ‘our’ ability to do theology? Again, I think so. The alternative is to play the blame game suggesting that each failure is the fault of a particular awkward squad. Surely this can’t be the case? A few weeks ago I suggested that the Church of England could consecrate a small group of bishop-theologians to help address our most difficult and potentially divisive issues; the issues we need to address if mutual flourishing and radical new inclusivity are to have any currency. The suggestion garnered a fair bit of interest. However, several respondents suggested that more specialist bishops might not be the best route. One academic theologian thought that some form of expansion in the role of canon theologians might be the answer. This may work, but here is another suggestion:

How about establishing a group of Lambeth Theologians? This group could comprise both academic and priest theologians. It could include specialists in areas such as biblical scholarship, liturgy, ethics, church history and ecclesiology. It could also include interdisciplinary experts such as those whose interest is the relationship between science and theology and economics and theology. It could even include a sociologist or two! What it couldn’t be is a collage of different factions dressed up as a reflection group; that’s the approach that gave rise to the (in) famous bishop’s  report on sexuality.

It would be a holistic group capable of addressing the issues that confront us theologically and from multiple perspectives. The group would be asked to undertake research both individually and on a collective basis. The groups client would be the church.  Members of the group could sponsor and supervise students studying for Lambeth degrees.

It’s a thought! It’s one way we could begin to address the undoubted ‘theological deficit,’ that will further undermine the Church of England, to the long-term detriment of our mission and evangelism, if left unattended.

 Robust theology will not, of course, guarantee peace, but without robust theology there can be no longer-term sustainable peace.






9 thoughts on “Oxford, Sheffield, Llandaff etc

  1. I like your suggestion about the establishment of a group of Lambeth (and/or Bishopthorpe) Theologians. As someone who has recently been awarded a PhD looking at the nature of episcopal oversight and whose research so far has not been used at all, I would welcome the establishment of such a group.

  2. Totally agree that we need a theological rather than a managerial approach. Currently a Doctorate student in the area of practical thology, it amazes me how little theological reflection or input has appearntly been made

    John W

  3. One issue to raise with the grouping in the title is that they are not all using the same system to appoint. While two use the Crown Nominations and the CofE systems. The third uses a different method of discernment and is not part of the CofE.

    While the Church in Wales system has it faults and is not perfect, it also works within a different context, where the Bishops are both in their dioceses but also have a provisional role and duties (with only 6 of them). When the current system was established there was some theological reflection around the appointments process, and also it reflected the ecclesiological model of a small disestablished province, that has a share but different form to that of the CofE.

    • Thank you & yes of course that’s true, hence referring to the Anglican Churches in these lands. I think the C of E’s system needs a radical overhaul but I think that when appointing bishops all systems need to ensure that that local needs and voices are prioritized.

  4. Pingback: Swinging searchlights: Sheffield and scrutiny – SAME

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