THE appointment of prelates has always been, if not a dark art, certainly an obscure one. Why some triumph and others do not is never entirely clear. But is the fog lifting on the process?
The Revd Nick Holtam has recently become Bishop-elect of Salisbury. How did he achieve this? By being interviewed for the post. Instead of a nod and a wink from godly power-brokers who “take soundings” for a living, Nick saw off the opposition in a three-way fight — in a terrifying ordeal by questions.
Interestingly, the panel of 14 included six representatives from the diocese. Locals, it seems, are acquiring the right to add “No” to the list of possible answers when it comes to appointing their next overseer.
But, amid the revolutionary excitement of old ways overthrown, comes responsibility. If we are now to interview bishops who seek residence in our diocesan palace, what on earth are we to ask them? There are five questions I would want resolved.
First, what has the candidate done with his suffering? The presence of pain in his past: does he understand its legacy in his present life? We hurt others and ourselves from our unacknowledged and unexamined suffering; people in power need to be especially aware of this. It would be helpful if the candidate had befriended his personal sadness.
Second, what is the overall disposition of this person? What climate does he create? Do people blossom in his hopeful and peaceful presence, or do they wither in either spoken or unspoken criticism? The successful applicant should live rather than preach Jesus’s “beam in the eye” story. A judgemental spirit, tempting for those in religious authority, is the property of a damaged soul that can create fear but not virtue.
Third, does the candidate make the panel feel homesick during the interview? The best art, philosophy, and religion are concerned with a strange longing for home — with an inner flame we have glimpsed, but seen smothered along the way. We do not need a bishop to construct something new, merely one to help us recover that which we have lost.
Fourth, what is the nature of his vision? True vision does three things: it sees things as they are; it connects people to each other in curiosity and solidarity; and it arises from the being of the leader. People can create around them only what they themselves are.
Finally, does the applicant know that his words are a bright shade of nonsense, a collapsing staircase, a vanity of inaccuracy? Truth cannot be told in formulations, merely noticed in passing and greeted with a smile. The successful candidate will not want anything built on words: he will hope only that life will grow in the gaps in between.
The mitre would fit one such as this.