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Why not cut some bishops?

20 May 2009

There are more suffragans than is healthy for the Church, argues John Bickersteth

Too many of them? A recent consecration of a bishop

Too many of them? A recent consecration of a bishop

It intrigues me that Church of England bishops seem to be regarded by the public today much as they were when I was consecrated to be one in 1970: namely as “a good thing for the country” at best, and at worst an amiable irrelevance. Perhaps this is because (as current polls suggest) most people still perceive themselves as believers in God.

None the less, I have come to the conclusion that too many bishops are being appointed for the health of the Church. As it is difficult for serving clergy to agree openly with this view (partly out of loyalty to their bishop, partly because some of them might become bishops themselves), I hope that among the million-or-so faithful in the pews, someone might ponder my argument.

A few statistics first:

1. In 1961, there were 13,500 full-time parochial clergy in our Church; currently there are 8616.

2. In 1961, there were the same number of dioceses as there are now, 44; so there were and are 44 dioce-

san bishops. But the number of suffragan/area/provincial bishops (all full-time) has grown from 44 in 1961 to 70 now. Thus there are now 114 bishops responsible for 9000 clergy, whereas, less than 50 years ago, there were 88 bishops shepherding 13,500 clergy.

3. The total expenditure by the Church Commissioners on bishops’ pay, housing, and administrative costs and their staff’s pay was £9,617,786 in 1999. Rounding that up nine years later to £10 million, every bishop is costing the central Church more than £100,000 each year (out of this, his pay as a diocesan is £37,000, and as a suffragan £31,000).

Yet, although bishops cost dioceses and parishes nothing directly, indirectly they do, in that, because of that £10 million, the Commissioners have that much less to shell out to dioceses.

YET my argument is not primarily about the money involved: £10 million is not a huge sum in the overall budget. It is, rather, that the ratio of bishops to clergy has got itself into a twist. For centuries, the Church managed with many fewer bishops (as late as 1900, there were only 42).

To have all these extra ones today speaks of a sort of nanny state in the Church; it is faintly ridiculous. Of course, the population has grown dramatically, but the number of clergy has dropped steadily, and the bishops are primarily for the clergy, as the Ordinal suggests.

As chief pastors, it is their duty to share with their fellow presbyters the oversight of the Church, speaking in the name of God and expounding the gospel of salvation.

The charge is a long way from including one of the last duties I was called upon to perform, which was to bless the first lavatory a medieval church had had. Actually, I rather enjoyed myself as I indulged in this fun and relaxing use of my time.

Blessing new lavatories may be an extreme instance of what keeps bishops busy from one year’s end to the next. Parkinson’s Law operates overtime, and it is not an idle life. But no one at any level of the Church appears to be considering whether their work is actually episcopal: archdeacons could do almost all of it, free as most of them are from being in charge of parishes.

Of course, civic, educational, and business leaders and the armed services much prefer to have a bishop, if possible the diocesan, properly dressed, to grace their occasions rather than a competent archdeacon.

So, for the most part, do parish churches, not giving enough thought about whether it was right to invite their bishop to preach at the patronal festival. A cope and mitre is much more impressive than a senior cleric in the person of the archdeacon, God forgive us — however inspiring the latter’s words. Unfortunately, this cleric looks in church just like their own vicar.

It would take a long time to upgrade the perception of arch­deacons, but I believe that, for the credibility of a Church getting too full of chiefs as the Indians disperse into the jungle, the disparity ought to be tackled.

I think the only way to address this would be in im­minent vacancies in suf­fragan or area posts. Both provinces would need to have a small committee to be convened when a vacancy comes up. The diocesan bishop, whose almost sole responsi­bility it is to choose new suffragans, and two or three lay people and clerics from the diocese would meet the committee to discuss the pros and cons of making a new appointment.

It is essential that the issue is not left solely with the diocese, as it would be almost sure to go for a reap­pointment. After coming to a de­cision, the (augmented) committee would recommend whether there should be a replacement.

Thus a gradual whittling down of suffragan numbers would occur: slowly, yes, but to achieve it faster would be impracticable and unattrac­tively drastic; not English, either. The Church will need time to get used to devolving more responsibilities to archdeacons.

But perceptive people would begin to notice a change. “Not before time,” would be the universal verdict from both clergy and lay people, if com­ments I have asked for in the past few months are anything to go by.

Laymen and women must give the lead, as it would need the most unselfish of diocesans to opt for doing without a fellow bishop on his staff. Anyone willing to stick his or her neck out could take a dip into uncharted waters by writing, either generally or about a particular case, to the Provincial Registrar in York or Canterbury. God go with you: it could be an interesting maiden voyage.

The Rt Revd John Bickersteth was Bishop of Bath & Wells 1975-87.

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