Rootless, isolated, and churched out

02 September 2009

But being a bishop is still a privilege for which I am thankful, says Kenneth Stevenson

Eighth Bishop of Portsmouth: Dr Stevenson and his portrait

Eighth Bishop of Portsmouth: Dr Stevenson and his portrait

WHEN I went to my first meeting of the House of Bishops as a member in October 1995, I sat at the back (like a good Anglican) and watched.

This provoked me into playing two games. The first, an easy one, was to identify who were the prefects and who were the rogues. I soon came to the conclusion that the system — the Church — produced too many of the former, and too few of the latter.

The second game was to spot the defining job that someone held be­fore he became a bishop, and how this affected the way he was ap­proaching the discussion. Some bishops are manifestly former parish priests; others were theological teachers; some were involved in lay training; others worked a great deal with ordinands. Some ran cath­edrals, often giving them a convinc­ing civic awareness, while others were arch­deacons, who seemed to know the ropes better than the others.

The more I looked back on that meeting, and the persisting oddity of its being an all-male gathering, the more convinced I became that when people are made bishops, they need to be aware of those shaping min­istries.

This can help them to grow into their new role, and not remain what they once were. Otherwise, they will get in the way of colleagues per­forming those tasks — for example, the director of ordinands.

Bishops need to take the breadth of their diaconal and priestly ministries with them into their episcopate. But sooner or later they will encounter three aspects of the job, which may initially come across as limitations, but can, in the end, become real points of liberation.

THE FIRST is rootlessness. However welcome the bishop is in his cathed­ral (not all are, but I have been lucky to be one who is), and however wedded he may be to his chapel (and I certainly am), there is an inbuilt rootlessness about the job. It stems not just from being in a different church every Sunday, and all those confirmations and institution services, but from being regularly on the move, making con­tact with local authorities, schools, and commercial companies. That mobility is a very apostolic ministry, and is a sign that the bishop is a missioner, an evangelist for the Church.


The second aspect is isolation. Bishops have to learn to cope with making that final, difficult decision, and to learn to live with it, especially when there may well be a clamour of opinion to the contrary, complete with accusations of “not really listening”.

It may be about a priest who has got into some kind of trouble, and is in denial about it. It may be about a dysfunctional parish, where relation­ships have broken down.

In my early years as a bishop, when I went to a naval dinner and found myself sitting opposite an admiral, the subject of the loneliness of com­mand came up. For me, this was timely, as rather more people were telling me my job than was good for them — or for me.

I don’t remember exactly what was said, but I went back home after­wards aware of somehow having been sorted out. I realised that this isolation was about being a pastor for the whole Church.

The third aspect is about di­gestion. A bishop has to spend quite a proportion of his time immersed in focused church work. It may be a concentrated round of public litur­gies, all of which have to go well. It may be a pile of correspondence, most of it urgent rather than im­portant. Or it may be one of those intractable disputes with legal resonances, where process rather than justice is paramount.

There is a saying in my household: “Kenneth, you’re all churched out!” And this is a sign that diversionary action is needed. Hobbies help enorm­ously in refreshing the mind and body. Outside interests can help me return to base with a less narrowly ecclesiastical frame of reality. All of this can release a bishop to be a prophet for the Church.

IN ONE of John Mortimer’s Rum­pole stories, the Lord Chancellor has a red judge in for a good talking to, accusing him of “judge-itis”, the symptoms of which are “pomposity and self-regard”. These are certainly part of what Charles Wesley de­scribes as a “calling’s snare”, in a verse from “Forth in thy name, O Lord, I go” which is all too frequently omitted.

To be fair, from my recollections of some of those interminable General Synod speeches about nothing in particular, it is by no means confined to the episcopate.

Yes, bishops have to learn to watch what they say (although preferably not all the time), and not shoot their mouths off publicly at every oppor­tunity. But there is a difference between being carefully prepared and believing that everything you say is going to be of earth-shattering importance.


“Bishop-itis” can get out of hand, and resemble what Clement Attlee once condemned in leaders as “the continual beating of the breast and airing of agonies in public”. This is what a fellow-bishop once described to me as “the high apophatic angst”, a dynamic that can ensure that discussions go round in circles, just in case a decision might be reached.

Bishops perhaps need to take themselves — and the Church — less seriously than they often do, because, in the end, it is God’s Church, not ours, and he is the one continually re-shaping it. Perhaps that is why bishoping is such a huge privilege, especially when assisted by good colleagues, as I have been.

For all the tight corners I have known in 14 years in post, I can still leave it profoundly thankful. A Bishop of Portsmouth can appro­priately sum all this up from the poem “Ulysses”, written by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who lived on the Isle of Wight: “I am a part of all that I have met.”

Dr Stevenson retires as Bishop of Portsmouth this month. This is an edited extract from his farewell address to the diocesan synod, the full text of which is at

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