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
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
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
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