Friday, May 04, 2007
What Future for Bishops?
I am a lifelong Anglican, baptized on a spot where Roman children could well have been baptized when I was four months old, and now ordained for more than thirty-eight years. I certainly have had plenty of gripes about bishops, but have always functioned within a context where they are very much part of the landscape -- and always have been. So I don't, per se, have any objection to the office of bishop and the role that it should, might, or could play in the life of the church.
During my ministry, even when we have found ourselves at loggerheads with one another, I have attempted to fulfill my ordination vows of canonical obedience to my bishop, even those bishops whose theological positions (and sometimes hostility) have stretched me to the uttermost. I confess that while I was over-awed by bishops when I was first ordained, today in general this species of ecclesiastical bird does not impress me.
A couple of years ago, as part of the preparation for the election of a new bishop in our diocese, I was charged to put together some studies on the nature of the episcopate which were then shared with all the parishes. I found that a helpful exercise from which came what might be called a personal recommitment to the importance of the office of bishop in the life of the church. However, what it also did was to provide me a lot of data about the history and nature of the office which made me realize just how far our present crop of ordinaries has drifted from anything that could be considered biblical, apostolic, or a historical model of Christian leadership.
The other Sunday the parish asked me if I could give an overview of where we as a province are in relationship with the Anglican Communion, and since then have heard a whole variety of criticisms of the episcopate (among other things) from parishioners -- not least my own wife. As we were driving home from church on that particular Sunday she said something about wondering whether bishops are not now a liability in the church rather than an asset. (She actually has some pretty strong reasons for making such a statement). Let me add, that my wife is no latecomer to Anglicanism, having a lifetime's involvement somewhat like my own except that she is not ordained.
In the past I have loved indulging in those conversations about whether bishops are of the esse (being) of the church, or merely its bene esse (wellbeing), or something else. I have always firmly believed that bishops are for the wellbeing of the church for I do not want in any way to un-church those who are faithful followers of Jesus Christ, but whose churches are not governed in the same manner as ourselves. However, in the last few years I have not seen much wellbeing coming from most of the episcopal leadership of our denomination.
A while back I received a note from a diocesan bishop who had liked something I had written but thought that I was being less than generous with his brother and sister bishops. When someone I respect challenges me in such a way, then I believe it is my responsibility to revisit what I thought and what I said. Perhaps I was being less than fair. Since he wrote me I had been doing that, and now find myself saying, "Yes, I did not judge the episcopate fairly in what I wrote, frankly, I was too generous!"
I am sure to some that this sounds harsh, but we need to assess what the primary functions of the bishop are. They are called to be a focal point of unity in the Body of Christ, they are called to uphold the catholic doctrine and faith, and they are called to be the primary missionary of their diocese. Looking at the actions of the Episcopal Church's bishops over the last few years, it seems that the overwhelming majority have failing grades in each of these areas.
Every effort has been made by much of the Anglican Communion, for to generously accommodate the perceptions of the Episcopal Church, and to maintain unity, but that seems to be the last thing in the world the House of Bishops wants. Indeed, many in that majority are determined to walk apart from the rest of the Communion to which we belong and of which, until now, the Episcopal Church has been a respected member. The House of Bishops then asserted a populist American personality in a kind of in-your-face manner, effectively turning its back on the catholic heritage of the Anglican Communion.
More than that, by their actions they are trying to close the door to continuing catholicity for literally hundreds of thousands within the Episcopal Church who have affirm historic faith and have no desire whatsoever to cut ties with the 80+ million brothers and sisters in Christ that we have around the world. They claimed to be standing up for a minority, but in the process they have excluded from their convictions an even larger minority. This is a tragedy.
Meanwhile, the missionary task of taking Jesus Christ into the communities where we are situated and then into all the world, has been dreadfully damaged -- and not just in those so-called traditional, conservative, Network, or Windsor dioceses and parishes. Most statistics make pretty depressing reading these days, and it is not those dioceses with a strong orthodox component who are being forced to sell their cathedral or the like. Without being able to at least hold their own numerically and in the process recruit a steady flow of younger people, both parishes and dioceses have little hope of much of a future.
As we look around the church, congregations have been forced to close, few new congregations have been planted, and there has been little or no growth in countless parishes which once were moving forward in a healthy manner. Add to that the decline in giving which is reflected in budget deficits at all levels, and the reduction in the number of vocations to overseas ministry, and it is obvious that our ability to be obedient to Jesus's Great Commission is severely jeopardized.
Bishops should have that Great Commission written on their heart, and be leading the people forward in this great adventure, but instead they are often in denial that anything is wrong, or have confused perhaps interesting peripherals for the heart of the Gospel. Then the response to these and so many other failures is denial. Organizations and entities that are in denial are usually in trouble, and there is little doubt that The Episcopal Church has so major problems that, being led by its bishops, it is refusing to address.
One of the reasons for these difficult circumstances in which we find ourselves is that I am not sure that the episcopate of the Episcopal Church has for a long time understood properly what the role of a bishop should be as the servant leader of the servants of God. The model for being bishop that has prevailed for so long is that of the secular corporate Chief Executive Officer, the President of a company with a number of outlets in a particular geographical region rather than a Pastor, a Preacher, a Person of Prayer, someone who sits at the feet of Jesus Christ and humbly leads forward those to whom they have committed their lives.
When a healthy model of what it means to be bishop is removed for any length of time, it should not surprise us that the model that is put in its place is going first to be inadequate to the task, and then will begin to decay or degenerate into something else. This is what has happened! The most recent statements coming out of the House of Bishops demonstrate that these men and women have little idea of the classic roles of leadership that they ought to be exercising - and neither do they possess the theology that should under-gird it. If their documents are anything to go by, their theological capacity is somewhere between patchy and non-existent.
Now, criticism is cheap and easy, the question is whether it is even possible to begin reforming the episcopate. Certainly, the will to reform needs to be there, and right now I sense that is probably missing. However, a starting place might be for them to explore the nature of their task in light of what Scripture teaches, especially the Pastoral Epistles, and also the models of episcopate that prevails in the sub-apostolic church and in churches where there has been healthy spiritual and discipleship advance. What needs to be asked is what the episcopate is actually about, and then how these insights can work in the 21st Century circumstances in which we live.
For those of us who value bishops, we might redouble our prayers for them, but also encourage our own bishops to think about what the challenges and opportunities might be if they were to step aside from the received model of leadership that has come down to them in the last 40-50 years, and move forward by going back to our roots.
For the orderly governance of the church, we need canons, but it would also be incredibly creative and helpful if bishops would stop hiding behind those canons, or using them as zingers to help them maintain their power. Do they not realize that they are servants, and that their mitre is not a crown?
I suspect the Episcopal Church has not yet reached a low enough point where it is prepared to really address the issues that are before it, and certainly the bishops are going to be difficult to budge. I suspect also that those in leadership would have little or no intention of listening to the insights that come with my set of convictions. However, I guess what I am doing is putting some ideas on the table that might percolate into the system together with other people's notions, so that we might in due course be able to move forward in a healthy way.