Fewer Suffragan Bishops?

7 June 2009

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.”


Lambeth Day 11

27 July 2008

Megaphone diplomacy broke out here today and it effectively brought the Bishops of the Anglican Communion to a common place and to facing the same way.   The conference photos of the staff, the spouses and then the bishops were remarkable pieces of organisation – akin to herding cats.  But the organisers were adept in getting us all into place and before you could say “Indaba” the moment was recorded for posterity.

In my bible study we engaged in a vigorous discussion of sin, sickness, healing and the human condition.  Almost inevitably this developed into an engagement about the nature of homosexuality and a sharing of our attitude to this issue.  Even though we have been together for over a week we encountered some surprising insights being offered by members of the group. This will all undoubtedly be continued during our times together next week.  There are levels to the whole debate – human, theological, mission, church order, cultural and social – simple responses or understanding will not help in the long term.

The Indaba later in the morning was far less driven by process and, whilst we agreed to keep with the theme, we broke down into our Bible study groups to address issues around our ministry in the face of environmental concerns and global warming.  We heard penetrating accounts of the changes being already experienced in parts of Africa and of the environmental damaged impacting on people’s lives.

We recognised how small projects such a planting trees, recycling and changes in our lifestyles are important – but ultimately it needs fundamental changes in the way in which economies work and in what we understand by ‘economic growth’.  My take is that this is a fundamental gospel issue and cannot be sidelined as a secondary concern for enthusiasts – the Good News has to be for all creation – which from the outset has resonated with the phrase from Genesis – “and it was good”.

Thank you to all who have been saying that they want to be a positive 1/650th about how good this conference is and how much they are valuing their time here.  Next week we start to look at how we take the Communion forward and how we deal with diversity and disagreement – I suspect that those who have found listening and talking not to their liking, will be far more comfortable with such processes.


Lambeth Day 10

26 July 2008

A characteristic which appears to be common to all bishops is that they have opinions.  So, if you take 650 bishops and bring them to a campus in Kent, you have 650 opinions about most matters you discuss.  If, as a commentator on church matters, you want to run a particular slant to a story, then you are almost guaranteed to find an opinion to support the line you are taking – even though it may only be a 1/650th of the truth.

As we poise midway through this Lambeth Conference this appears to be exactly what is happening here at Canterbury and a distorted picture is emerging about Indaba Groups, the Bible Studies and the Conference outcomes.

I can report that I am really enjoying both my Bible study group and the Indaba Group – they are good opportunities to share experiences, clarify what others are thinking and they give focus as we address key areas for our mission and ministry.  Most important of all, they are forums for building relationships and, in a Communion which is fundamentally about relationships then, that is no bad thing.  So this 1/650th of the conference is encouraged by the process and valuing an outcome which feels deeply spiritual, as we build bonds of fellowship and trust.

There are those who want to rush forward to address the BIG issue, sweeping aside less important issues for the Communion.  But how could we meet as a worldwide communion and not be engaged with the challenge for the world coming from global warming?  Earlier this evening Professor Chris Rapley , Director of the Science Museum, encouraged the Communion to fill the vacuum of moral leadership in the world as we face of the mounting evidence that unless we change the way we release carbon dioxide, then the damage to the planet’s atmosphere is going bring disastrous consequences.

Over the past 10 days I have met so many bishops who are clearly leaders in their community.  Together, we represent a body of leadership which is well placed to give the moral leadership which is so absent from the politicians.  To do so we would have to re-order our priorities.  Issues within human sexuality are important, how we shape our Communion and cope the variety of approaches to the authority of scripture is important – but our stewardship of God’s gift in creation is fundamentally important for a church whose vocation comes from the one who came that we might have life and have it abundantly.

So the Conference goes on, my Indaba Group has moved off process and is finding its own way to address the issues, whilst my Bible Study Group has become an increasingly good place to be.  The outcomes are at present ‘soft’, which is frustrating for those who want ‘hard’ outcomes.  I think that these will follow quite swiftly, but they will have more ownership because they will come from the relationships which this conference appears to be fostering.

I was talking with another Bishop earlier today and he agrees with this analysis – so this blog represents 2/650ths of the opinions here at Lambeth.


Lambeth Day 1

17 July 2008

Well, we have arrived here at Canterbury and, apart from some inconsequential registration hiccups, all is going well.  The one thing which has immediately struck me is the diversity of the Anglican Communion as reflected in the Bishops and their spouses. The inevitable queues speak eloquently of the numbers who have committed themselves to this conference and to engaging with each other in studying the Bible and being together.

It is quite clear that this conference has been set up as an opportunity to listen to each other.  I encountered one journalist who was clearly looking for conflict and was a little disconcerted to find that the group I was with were very much wanting to commit themselves to listening, sharing and understanding. So we are set to be counter cultural as listening, sharing and understanding appear to be in short supply in our fast, media rich world!

One can’t help feeling that the minority who have stayed away are missing a significant moment and our listening and understanding will be diminished by us not having their contribution.  I have already has some great conversations with Bishops from different parts of the world and it all bodes well for the coming days.

………and for those who are wondering, the three Bishops from the Diocese of Lincoln have arrived safe and sound!