Wednesday, January 18, 2006

If I Were A Bishop

As many of you might be aware, I have been part of a committee that for the past year has been searching for candidates to be bishop in the Diocese of Tennessee. This has been an exhausting task, particularly in the midst of such difficult times in the life of the church, and I have spent more hours than I care to think discussing, praying, listening, interviewing, and so forth. Hard as it has been, it has been stimulating, and in the process I have done a lot of thinking about what it means to be a leader in the church.

As we move toward electing one of the candidates nominated I feel a lot more able to say what I think a bishop in tomorrow's world should be like, and while there is a continuity between past and future, I suspect that anyone elected and consecrated in this diocese or anywhere else, is going to have to think and reconfigure their ministry enormously, whether they like it or not.

An observation I make is that so many still seem to approach the notion of the episcopate with the "business as usual" mindset. The boat has been rocked and is taking on water, but there is this idiotic don't rock the boat mentality that prevails. There is no such thing as business as usual at this point in our history, and there is little precedent for all that we are attempting to deal with -- both at the grassroots in the life of congregations, and in the wider ecclesial sphere. Rocking the boat might be the only way forward in the long term.

One of the primary tasks of tomorrow's leader is that he/she is going to not only be picking up in the midst of a mess, but this leader is going to be charged with remaking the church so that it will be effective in the pursuit of its ministry. It will not be easy, and will require all the grace, intelligence, creativity, longsuffering, and wisdom that the leader can muster. What worries me about the games of ecclesiastical politics that get played when we come to electing is that we tend to veer toward the lowest common denominator than to go for the person who is best able to do the job. You only have to look at that sorry group, the House of Bishops, to see the fruit of this.

Tomorrow's bishop might seem to have some of the outward trappings inherited from predecessors, but the reality is different. I suspect that the effective bishop of tomorrow is going to need to be more like St. Cuthbert, the Celtic bishops of Ireland in the Dark Ages, William Henry Hobart, or Jackson Kemper, than the individual who held the office immediately before them. The culture is shedding its Christian clothing so fast that unless this person is out there leading the mission of the church, committed to proclamation of the Cross and evangelism, and modeling it for clergy and people alike, then there in a very short time there is going to be no diocese to speak of.

This requires tenacity and fortitude, as well as a capacity to both understand and interpret the Gospel for today's world. It will require the willingness to take calculated risks and experiment. It will require tons of courage, the developing of a thick skin, as well as great sensitivity not only to the people among whom the bishop ministers, but to God's will, purpose, and revelation in these circumstances. Sometimes the bishop is going to go out on a limb, and if he/she does not, then that person will not being doing their job.

The bishop of tomorrow, I think, will be more a person of the Kingdom than the church. By this I mean that the bishop will need to be theologically rooted in the fact that there is a great deal more in what Jesus says about the Kingdom of God being in our midst than personal salvation, piety, and church life. We need to be a church that applies the Gospel to the challenges thrown at us by the prevailing culture, from issues of war and peace, through sexuality and personal morality, to economics and the environment -- and beyond. As the Kingdom is rooted and grounded in the teaching of Scripture, the bishop needs to be a person maranated in the Word of God, the story of biblical theology, and be willing to wrestle to see how that theology speaks and works in the world of today.

There is more to it than that, because this is not just head trip stuff, it needs to be not only absorbed, put drenched in prayer. This means tomorrow's bishop has to be a person of prayer, someone who, as it were, reads and thinks over the bible on their knees. For what its worth, my observation is that far too many of our bishops have only the vaguest grasp of what Scripture teaches, and their spirituality is stunted. This may sound terribly judgmental, but I have rubbed shoulders with a lot of bishop in my time and am sorry to say that the truth is not necessarily easy to accept.

Those who are called to leadership in tomorrow's church, and by tomorrow I really do mean tomorrow and not just some time vaguely in the future, need to be counter-cultural people. This is hard for Anglicans who have swum comfortably in the waters of the culture for hundreds of years. We are now being asked to get out of that current and to join those who have been on the edge of the prevailing culture. If we do not, then we have no future.

I could go on and on, but one of the most important things is that tomorrow's bishop needs to be a global person. One of the infuriating things about most American bishops is how small-minded and provincial their acting and thinking is -- but then they only reflect the church which they are called to lead. We are part of a worldwide Communion which is part of the Church Universal. This means not only acting as a team player in that Communion, but also learning from that Communion and living into the life of that Communion. We live in a globalized world, and if the church is not as global as the Gospel is, then it will not be being the church.

The primary task of tomorrow's bishop is to be a missionary leader who is wholehearted to the point of death in their commitment to proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ. Every potential bishop of tomorrow should read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest Paul's catalogue of sufferings in 2 Corinthians 11, because Paul understood his apostolicity in terms of being a pioneer missionary. Tomorrow's bishop will be a pioneer missionary, and unless the bishop leads the diocese forward in mission, the diocese will die.


Anonymous said...

Richard: Bless you for your wise analysis. Lord knows, we do need bishops such as you describe. No pithy comment here, just thanks.
C.S. Alling+

Anonymous said...

Richard,Tom Friedman's new book, The World is Flat! When did you discover it?" has much for ministerial leadership including candidates for the episcopacy.

Thank you for your analysis. Having watched our committee and election closely in the Rio Grande, you experience rings with what we found here. Thank you.
Bob Maxwell+

don cox said...

thanks richard!

form and bishops for a new age. i just want to say AMEN to a call for a recovery of the apostolic ministry of a bishop.

post modernity...emerging culture...liquid modernity..whatever it will be called next...will continue to distance itself from what we call christianity here in the nifty fifty.

personally, i am glad that this cultural shift is challenging the ecclesiastical form, but it is not enough.

your analysis needs to be pressed down into the very fabric of the local church, starting with the rector.

honestly, and this might make some folk a little uneasy, i think we let our culture shape the way we lead.

function always determine form. if the function is to see the Gospel permeate every square inch of this rock we live on, then the form is going to have to change.

for the Kingdom!
don cox