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Tips for bishops

18 December 2015

Graham James looks at frank advice on the practice of episcopacy


Becoming a Bishop: A theological handbook of episcopal ministry
Paul Avis
Bloomsbury T&T Clark £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £18


THOSE indebted to the scholarship of Canon Paul Avis over the years will find much that is familiar in this valuable “theological handbook of episcopal ministry”.

While it has the merit of brevity, I longed for a more sustained treatment of some of the themes. Perhaps, in a handbook, I should not have been surprised to see more than three pages in the main text listing written resources on episcopal office, but I would have preferred it as an appendix.

The use of numbered points (12 on the bishop in the public square) is indicative that some sections are summaries of Avis’s more substantial volumes (in this case, Church, State and Establishment). Likewise, there are eight points on handling conflict (wise advice here, and applicable not only to bishops), which are essentially a précis of an excellent section in Authority, Leadership and Conflict. If reading this handbook introduces some bishops to Avis’s wider writings, it will have served a good purpose.

Avis recognises that he does not “know what it feels like from the inside to be a bishop”. He does, however, know a great deal about what bishops are called to be and to do, and the merit of this handbook is that it has an objective character, shaped by theology and observation, and isn’t refracted through an individual bishop’s own ministry.

Perhaps it is Avis’s own modesty that means that there is no chapter devoted solely to the bishop at prayer. A bishop is called to hold the diocese in prayer, and this is particularly challenging. Many bishops, when newly consecrated, discover that past patterns of devotional life may no longer be so servicable.

The spiritual dangers of episcopal office deserve some exploration. Bishops who do not seek or allow themselves to be ministered to by others are likely either to find episcopal office unsustainable, or to become distant and remote. Thus it is for other clergy, though episcopal office magnifies the danger.

Since this handbook is entitled Becoming a Bishop, it is clear that it is intended for those who are on the brink of consecration or newly ordained to episcopal office. Even for someone like me, just completing 23 years as a bishop, its value is to take me back to theological first principles, offered sympathetically and yet without pulling punches.

Sustaining episcopal ministry requires stamina, and a recognition that you have to live with your mistakes. William Magee, Bishop of Peterborough in the 19th century, once said: “The man who makes no mistakes does not usually make anything,” a remark borrowed later by the American diplomat Edward Phelps, and often attributed to him. The rock on whom the Church is built, St Peter, certainly knew how to make mistakes in a big way. So do most bishops.

Even if Avis is so respectful of bishops that he doesn’t explore some of the spiritual dangers of episcopacy, his book is to be recommended, not least as an introduction to the mind and work of a scholar to whom the Church of England and the Anglican Communion owe a great deal.


The Rt Revd Graham James is the Bishop of Norwich.

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