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A continuing apostolic succession

30 January 2015

We shouldn't overlook the symbolic significance of episcopal ministry, argues Lucy Winkett

Hands on: the con­secration of Bishop Libby Lane as shown on the BBC website

Hands on: the con­secration of Bishop Libby Lane as shown on the BBC website

IN 2015, with the historic consecration of the Bishop of Stockport and the controversy over who will and won't lay hands on the new Bishop of Burnley, bishops still make news. And, now that the Green report has said that bishops, (together with other senior leaders) will be chosen from a talent pool, the people must fervently hope that bishops will not be plucked from the shallow end.

Bishops, like the rest of the Church, are easy targets for detractors, but some uncertainty about who or what a bishop actually is has surfaced in the discussions about how to prepare people for senior posts. We tend to describe bishops as "a pastor to the pastors", or "chief evangelist", or "a focus for unity". It's in all our interests that bishops should have as much credibility as possible in the public square, exercising their ancient role of "pontiff", or bridge - still able sometimes to make connections that wouldn't be made otherwise. They operate, too, in a demanding administrative environment, where respect for the office can't be assumed.

Because we are an historical, episcopal Church, sometimes that means that we are also, to coin a phrase, a messy Church, living with the consequences of deals done long ago. It was Elizabeth I's instinct that ensured bishops were retained in the Reformation settlement, when her more Protestant critics complained that the Church was "but halfly reformed". Today we understand ourselves as being episcopally led and synodically governed which - alongside its strengths - from time to time drives us quite literally to distraction. But if, as we acknowledge in the Creed, we are part of "the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church", bishops are a vital - that is, living - sign of that.

The symbolism of this week's two consecrations is potent, not by accident, but by repetitious design. Through the laying on of hands, new bishops - who in their turn will lay hands on the next generation - come to embody a living, breathing tradition, that affirms our communion across time, from the past into the future.

If our communion across continents and centuries is expressed not in synodical motions, or even in doctrines, but through people, then those people should be as diverse as the people they serve. Alongside demonstrable competencies in strategic leadership, they must show also the marks of a scriptural discipleship, which is often characterised by reluctance, grief, apparent failure, persistence (especially when praying seems futile), a willingness to be changed, and a capacity for both courage and fearless generosity.

Liturgically, the sign that a bishop is a bishop is his or her cathedra, or chair, indicating that the chief task of the bishop is to sit down and teach. The old English biscop, derived from the Greek episkopos, is simply one who oversees, suggesting that a bishop is one whose primary task is to contemplate, or watch over the people, from their chair, and say what they see. It is from this chair that they invoke the Holy Spirit in ordination and confirmation, and the sign of this invocation and transmission of the Spirit is human touch. They are anointed and they anoint. They are blessed and they bless.

A new emphasis on these more enigmatic, but distinctive and potent, symbols of episcopacy could communicate powerfully in a contemporary society that recognises and understands symbolic action. And these core attributes of episcope should surely still underpin the search for those who might be called to live it - not least because the challenges they face are huge.

In fact, episcope - oversight - is exercised throughout the church by clergy and lay people alike, women and men, one of another. And so these roles are intimately connected. Inasmuch as the bishop over-sees me as a priest, what I want most from him or her is what, I believe, my congregation needs most from me: that they see, when I am celebrating the eucharist, that I am talking to someone I know. This isn't an over-emphasis on personal piety, but an ecclesiological necessity for the flourishing of the episcopal structure because wit-nessing this, in the bishop, and among the congregation, nurtures my trust in God, as well as in them, and fosters my willingness to walk with them the way of Christ.

In wanting to grow our faith and deepen our trust in God, we learn not a list but a language. And we learn to be church, not least from the presence of the men, and now women, who will be our bishops, and whose company saves us from generational arrogance by the customs that they carry in their hands.

The Revd Lucy Winkett is Rector of St James's, Piccadilly, in the diocese of London.

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