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Pontificating prelate or lumpy shopping-bag?

09 January 2015

This is an opportune moment to re-evaluate the position of bishops - and our expectations of them, argues Philip Welsh

NOW that the debate about women bishops is resolved at last, this seems a good moment to divert attention away from determining who can be a bishop in the Church of England to a fresh look at the prior question of what the Church's bishops are actually for.

I once took part in that group exercise where people position themselves around a room according to how they think they relate to each other. It was a diocesan staff group, and we took it for granted that the bishops placed themselves at the centre. That bothered me. It wasn't just the question who they thought they were: it was just as much the question who we thought they were.

It is natural to think of our bishops as the centre, particularly when we consider them to be the focus of unity. But this is dangerous if it suggests the kind of centralising in which parishes seem to exist for the sake of the diocese; or if it contributes to that sense of dependency by which everything has to be referred to the bishop; or if it increases our tendency to think that bishops have more directive authority (as opposed to moral authority) than is in fact the case.

If, though, we turn this picture inside out, it gives us a Church in which parishes are at the centre, and bishops are at the boundary. More than that, bishops are the boundary. And it expresses the bishop's traditional role in a way that is less oppressive - not least to bishops themselves.

First, a boundary provides identity, because it gives shape to something. Part of the bishop's ministry is to enable the diocese to find a sense of its identity, as the Church at regional level, that helps to place local Christian loyalties within a wider Christian world.

Second, a boundary sets limits. In part, this relates to the disciplinary role of bishops, as they define the limits of acceptability within their diocese in terms of pastoral practice. It also relates to the bishop's teaching office (and to the traditional chair - not throne - that goes with it).

Boundaries provide the security that we need to exercise our freedom. A bishop teaches as one who keeps firm the Church's doctrinal boundaries, not to control inquiry, but to hold the ring, within which Christians can with confidence explore their own understanding of the faith. It is an exercise of service, not domination - not magisterium but ministerium.

Third, a boundary is a place of going in and out. Part of the ministry of bishops is responsibility for initiation (their historic baptismal ministry, now generally limited to confirmation), and for ordination. It is bishops who thus regulate membership of the Church, and of the clergy. In this way, they have a particular ministry to Christians in liminal situations, as they prepare to enter a new stage of their Christian life.

Fourth, a boundary is a place of meeting. It is where the rest of the world starts. This, too, reflects part of the bishop's ministry: to help the Church in the diocese relate to the wider world and to wider society. A bishop tries not only to hold a diocese together, but to hold it together with the wider world. In this way, it is the bishop's job to "pontificate": literally, to make bridges - though, if a boundary is a place of meeting, it is also a place of vulnerability. It is where you are susceptible to attack; and that, too, may be part of a bishop's ministry in representing the Church to the wider world.

Centre or boundary, our habitual models for thought matter in helping to shape our unconscious assumptions. We need to shift from instinctively seeing our bishops as the hub of a wheel, and to think of them instead as more like one of those old-fashioned string shopping bags, designed to hold together a lumpy assortment, allowing the Church to be the untidy shape it is, and probably ought to be. 

TO REGARD bishops as the boundary is not to make them marginal. What I argue for is a Church whose identity at the human level comes from a clear sense of its boundaries rather than a strong sense of its centre. To see the bishops as the boundary is to affirm their distinctive responsibility for the identity of the Church: its discipline, teaching, membership, and ministry; and for its relations with the wider Church and the wider world.

That is not marginal, but it does relieve bishops from assumptions (theirs or ours) of a centralised authority that is alien to the Church of England, and unworkable anyway. It affirms the priority of the local, and reflects the experience of the average church member - and of not a few clergy - that what goes on at diocesan level is far from central to their concerns. Of course, that could reflect a narrow parochialism. But, if bishops can pontificate in a proper sense, parishes can be properly parochial.

THERE is a sting in the tail. If it can be dangerous to see the bishop as the centre of the diocese, it can equally be dangerous to see the parish priest - who shares the bishop's cure of souls - as the hub of the parochial wheel. The new world of women in the episcopate might be the jolt we need to take a fresh look at our assumptions all round.

The Revd Philip Welsh is a retired priest, living in London.

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