Is there a Doctor in the House?
Fr Peter Anthony rewinds the clock 15 years to explore the claim that the diocesan bishops of the Church of England are less theologically qualified than they used to be. He discovers some positive change, some relative stability, and one major area of weakness in the current cohort.
One of the most frequently voiced criticisms I have heard made of the House of Bishops during the COVID crisis by parochial clergy is that our bishops are no longer as theologically capable as once they were. I suspect, though, it is a common complaint of every generation of clergy that their bishops are worse than they used to be.
I decided to subject this intuition to scrutiny and see if there is any evidence that our bishops are less theologically qualified than their predecessors. I offer, therefore, a simple comparison of the academic qualifications of the diocesan bishops of the Church of England in 2005 and in 2020, to see if there have been any noticeable changes.
The evidence I have collected does indeed show that, amongst other things, there has been a reduction in the number who have a PhD. In addition, there are no longer any with the extensive record of academic publication that might be rewarded with a Doctorate of Divinity or who have held a significant university teaching post. In these specific categories, the present diocesan bishops of the Church of England are, as a group, significantly less theologically qualified than their predecessors were 15 years ago.
The parameters of this comparison
I am comparing here the theological qualifications of the diocesan bishops of the Church of England in January 2020 with those in post in January 2005. (1) I make no other claim than that this brief exercise is a comparison of two snapshots in time. If time were unlimited, it would be good to explore other years and periods and to include a wider range of senior staff, such as suffragan bishops. If nothing else, this article is a call for further research in this area, to investigate the initial trends that seem to emerge out of this limited comparison.
My source of information is quite simply each bishop’s Crockford entry and Wikipedia biography. This exercise is only as accurate, therefore, as the detail revealed in those two sources.
What do academic qualifications tell us?
This study makes no value judgement about the relative worth of different ordained ministries in the light of theological qualifications. A degree is not a guarantee that someone will make a good priest or bishop.
A degree does, however, give us some insight into the level at which an individual has proven capacity to think, reflect, and research, and the extent to which they can be assumed to have tested academic knowledge in certain vital areas. Looking at academic qualifications, therefore, does at least give us information on which some initial conclusions and further questions could be based – even if that isn’t the ultimate arbiter of what makes a good bishop.
One development my comparison reveals is a decrease in the total number of diocesan bishops who have no degree in theology at all. In January 2020, 15% (6 bishops) did not have a degree in theology, whereas the figure for 2005 was 30% (13 bishops). That more bishops should have studied theology at least to undergraduate level is a welcome change, arguably an improvement.
Figures for graduate study show little change between 2005 and 2020. In 2005, 39% (i.e. 17 bishops) had some form of graduate degree in theology beyond a BA/BTh (i.e. anything from a master’s degree to a doctorate(2)). In 2020 this had reduced only slightly to 37% (15 bishops). It remains the case, therefore, that just over a third of our diocesan bishops has some experience of theological study at graduate level, and that by January 2020 this had remained at a proportion which is similar, if slightly reduced, to that found in 2005.
The area where the greatest change takes place is in the realm of advanced study at doctoral and post-doctoral level. The total number of diocesan bishops with a PhD in 2005 was 13, representing 30%. Amongst those were two doctorates in subjects other than theology: Tom Butler, then Bishop of Southwark, has a doctorate in electronics, and David James, then Bishop of Bradford, has one in organic chemistry. By this year, those figures had reduced: the total number of PhDs in January 2020 was 9 (22%), with none in any subject other than theology.
An interesting additional exercise is to examine the most recently appointed diocesans – those elected to sees in the past five years. The proportion appointed between January 2015 and January 2020 with a PhD is 14% (2 out of 14 bishops). This is lower than the diocesans as a whole (22% – 9 out of 41 bishops) in January 2020. It would appear, therefore, that as time goes on, the Church of England is appointing ever fewer diocesan bishops with a PhD, and this is noticeable even over the past five years.
The most dramatic change between 2005 and 2020 is in the number of diocesan bishops holding a Doctorate in Divinity. By this I mean the award of a “higher” doctorate which signals the recognition of extensive post-doctoral research in the academic world over many years. I include, therefore, only “earned” DDs rather than honorary ones. In 2005, there were 5 such DDs (i.e. 11%). Rowan Williams, Tom Wright, and Geoffrey Rowell all had DDs from the University of Oxford; Kenneth Stevenson had a DD from the University of Manchester and David Stancliffe was awarded a Lambeth DD in 2004 for his contribution to liturgical scholarship during the genesis of Common Worship. There is now not a single diocesan bishop with a DD, nor one who has held a significant chair or academic teaching post in theology at a university.
The most notable development this comparison shows is that the diocesan bishops have amongst them a reduced number of individuals with proven academic capacity at doctoral and post-doctoral level. Even more strikingly, the presence of a small number of bishops with extensive experience as full-time academic theologians has vanished to zero.
This evidence raises the question of whether the diocesan bishops of the Church of England still have, as a corporate body, the same capacity to undertake theologically informed and academically rigorous reflection on behalf of the Church that their predecessors of 15 years ago had.
My own personal view is that greater thought should be given to candidates’ academic ability when appointments to diocesan sees are made in order to remedy this increasingly worrying gap in the capacities of our diocesan bishops as a group. I am not arguing we need a House of Bishops stuffed full of nothing but donnish boffins. However, it seems clear that the processes used to decide diocesan appointments need to change in order to ensure that at least some candidates with extensive academic experience are appointed to diocesan sees.
The Rev’d Dr Peter Anthony
(1) It should be noted that in 2005 there were two more diocesan bishops than there are now, as a result of the merger of three Yorkshire dioceses into the Diocese of Leeds. This leaves us with a comparison between the 44 diocesan bishops in post in January 2005, and the 41 diocesan bishops in post in January 2020 (the See of Chester being vacant). I include in the 2020 figures the new Bishop of Hereford, whose election was confirmed on 7th January 2020.
(2) This, of course, excludes those MAs given by Oxford, Cambridge and Dublin, which are not additional qualifications.