PERHAPS the most surprising aspect of Bishops and their Ministry, the consultation paper that appeared this week, is that it proposes solutions to elements of episcopal ministry which have not been seen as problems hitherto. These include such ideas as that membership of the Lords be detached from seniority; that would-be bishops be offered house-for-duty (palace-for-duty?) posts; and that bishops have done all that they can do in a diocese after seven years, and should move on. As for suffragans, we have heard few complaints about their workload compared with area bishops, and certainly nothing to warrant the label “spare parts”. There is nothing particularly new among the paper’s list of solutions to the very present problem of hard-up dioceses, but we detect a greater resolve to bring about change.
All this could indicate that a true visionary spirit inhabits the paper — that and the frisson of apprehension which it is generating. What is important is what happens next. A church leadership that can argue both for geographical loyalty and national flexibility, local and central funding, ought to be able to accommodate a more democratic consultation. The elevated authorship and the thought that this has been circulating quietly among the Bishops since September create the same concern as the recent set of proposals about the Crown Nominations Commission, i.e. that the bus is already moving before very many passengers are on board. To extend the metaphor, many fellow travellers were lately directed to board the lay-leadership bus, to see where that took them, and have been waiting for the engine to stop idling. We recognise the danger of fruitless debate, but the radical nature of Bishops and their Ministry must trigger a debate about episcopacy and its place in the priesthood of all believers. Given that the title of the paper starts with the phrase “A consultation document”, we will be pleased to see it published swiftly and in full, together with a warm invitation to churchgoers to read it and express their views.
IT WOULD be possible to portray the past four years at Christ Church, Oxford, as a clash between individuals (especially if one were careless of libel charges), but a key function of institutional structures is to prevent misbehaviour by some individuals and prevent harm to others. If the college wanted convincing of its need for a governance review — and its silence on the subject suggests that it does — then the simple evidence of the dispute should suffice. But the Church, too, must review its conduct; for there were long stretches of inaction during the dispute which were as harmful as some of its actions. Church communities may feel complacent because they are not as openly hostile as academics can be; but there is a culpability beneath the failure to support, intervene, and challenge.