Fewer Suffragan Bishops?

Writing in the Church Times in May, Bishop John Bickersteth raises the question of the number of Suffragan Bishops in a Church with few clergy.  He argues that their function could be carried out by archdeacons and cost saving achieved.  His approach is based on the ASB service for consecrating Bishops which puts the emphasis on the main responsibility of a Bishop being the care of the clergy.

I scribbled the following reply to the Church Times:

“The Rt Revd John Bickersteth raises an interesting issue when he asks “Why not cut some Bishops”?  Yet his argument focuses on cost and function, rather than leadership and mission.

In the introduction to the Ordination of Bishops we are reminded that “Bishops are ordained to be shepherds of Christ’s flock and guardians of the faith of the apostles, proclaiming the gospel of God’s kingdom and leading his people in mission.”

A reduction in the number of suffragan bishops would inevitably result in the remaining bishops becoming increasingly inaccessible both to the Church and also to the wider community.  In an age of connectivity, networks and subsiduarity we need to ask how encouraging such rarity would assist in leading people in mission.

The fundamental question raised by Bishop John Bickersteth, but not addressed, concerns the nature of leadership needed for a Church committed to mission in the twenty-first century.  Resolving this question applies as much to incumbents, as it does to bishops   Models of oversight and leadership from the past may not always be helpful in determining what is right for the present.  Yet the relationship between leadership and mission is well established.

Quoting clergy numbers and ratios of bishops to clergy is to ignore the changing nature of the church.  In my area we have over 350 laity who have undergone training to equip them to unfold various aspects of ministry and to become part of the public face of the church’s ministry.  Relating to them, maintaining a mission mindset and ensuring that their gifts of ministry are well used, requires a different approach both from their priests and also from their bishops.

In the same way, parish priests are taking on significant complexity as their ‘cure’ encompasses increasingly diverse communities.   Supporting, encouraging and pastoring the clergy requires a far more informed understanding and involvement than may have been needed in the past.

Cost and function are pertinent, but the nature of leadership and appropriate shapes for that leadership are perhaps prior questions.”

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3 Responses to Fewer Suffragan Bishops?

  1. Justin Brett says:

    It might be interesting to see how the debate on this topic – brought by the Diocese of Bradford – goes at Synod. There aren’t very many Suffragan Bishops on Synod – only 5 or 6, I think – and a similarly small number of Deans and Canons Residentiary. They are greatly outnumbered by the Archdeacons!

    You can find the paper from Bradford here: http://www.cofe.anglican.org/about/gensynod/agendas/july09/gs1733a.pdf and the response from the Dioceses Commission here: http://www.cofe.anglican.org/about/gensynod/agendas/july09/gs1733b.pdf

    • Bishop David says:

      Dear Justin,

      Dear Justin,

      Many thanks for this. As you say, we will have to wait and see. My take is that we cannot really afford the national ‘oversight’ overhead, but the point which seems never to be made is that much of the work of an Archdeacons does not actually need to be done by someone in priestly orders and could be done by either a suffragan Bishop or a lay person, but there are things which Suffragans do which need someone in episcopal orders. iIf we are downsizeing, why is it assumed that the savings should be made from suffragans?

      Hope that you enjoy synod.

      as ever,

      +David

  2. Russ Coulter says:

    Vision and Leadership are even more vital to an organisation that’s ‘de-layering’ its management structures and increasing the span of control for each of its paid employees.

    Management skills can be taught: vision in my view cannot, although it can be encouraged to develop, and discouraged (much more easily) by administrative distractions.

    All types (am I allowed to say classes?) of Bishop are vital to the propagation of the Vision and to support local articulation – translating the Diocesan Mission into a reality of actions in every Deanery and Parish. This may mean they need to get out more, not less!

    One could make comparisons between a Priest-in-charge with his/her churchwarden(s) and a Bishop with Arch-Deacon: in an ideal set-up one leads, the other manages but with a shared vision, goals, and methodology.

    From what I’ve seen in my five years in Lincoln Diocese, this model (even if I’ve interpreted it simplistically) works brilliantly.

    As the Americans might say “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.

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