Back to Basics Bishops

Fr Barry Orford asks important questions about how the Church of England goes about appointing bishops and what a bishop is. Has an obsession with managerialism prompted us to lose sight of the true episcopal vocation to serve and care for the flock of Christ?

When the Pandemic recedes, the Church of England will face one of its biggest challenges, and therefore biggest opportunities, in recent times. It needs to find humility, and learn afresh what the Church is here to be. Vital to that will be rediscovering what purpose bishops should be serving.

It was inevitable that the House of Bishops should be strongly criticized for going beyond what the law required in their response to the first lockdown. In fairness to them, however, they can never please everyone, and this was a situation none could have anticipated.

Nonetheless, it has released an explosion of anger and frustration against the Church’s leadership which had been building up for some time. As a result, we are in territory where the historic relationship between bishops, their clergy and their people is seriously threatened.

The contributory factors are familiar: complaints from clergy that their bishops have no time for them; mounting wrath with ever-increasing diocesan management posts with high-flown titles while churches are deprived of priests; frustration in parishes at being treated like financial cattle whose role is to be milked relentlessly for diocesan funds; suspicion at how those funds are being used; rage at the way parishes are falling victim to schemes for “rationalization” hatched by diocesan officials, and so on.

However, as I have spoken and corresponded with priests and lay people something more has become apparent. Not only are they disillusioned with many of their bishops, they no longer trust them. They are frequently not convinced that all diocesan bishops have the interests of the faithful at heart.

To mention but one sensitive issue, those who are working as parish priests frequently do not believe that their Fathers/Mothers in God are actively upholding the parish as the most important unit in the Church’s outreach – hence the episcopal willingness to keep parishes without priests, to threaten with closure churches deemed to be “failing”, and to pressurize churches into suspending services on the pretext of keeping people safe from COVID-19. Behind this discontent is a rising conviction that bishops, with honourable exceptions, are management people rather than spiritual leaders.

Under Justin Welby, we have seen the creation of a bench of bishops cut mostly from the same cloth – frequently evangelical, unfamiliar with the Anglican tradition’s emphasis on liturgical and sacramental worship, and often hazy about its distinctive approach to theology and spirituality. As a colleague remarked to me, “In the Church of England today, the ordained ministry has ceased to be a vocation and become a career structure.” Looking at the present episcopate, the pattern of advancement becomes depressingly familiar.

How much responsibility for this lies with the Crown Nominations Commission? With them, finding candidates for the episcopate seems to have become a matter of box-ticking, and selecting individuals from approved lists of safe names. Are serious scholars or theologians ever put forward for nomination?

No doubt the CNC will claim that it is committed to genuine discernment in selecting bishops. I therefore ask the CNC, when are its deliberations attended and assisted by experienced guides in the Ignatian principles of Spiritual Discernment? A rhetorical question, because what the CNC means by discernment appears to be managerial and political calculation with a dusting of piety.

If priests and parishes are to recover confidence in their diocesan bishops, then episcopal material must change, which means the process of electing bishops must be changed, along with the expectations the Church has of its bishops.

Whatever means we employ for making episcopal appointments, they must have at their heart the conviction that a bishop is to be above all someone whose priorities are prayer, sacramental worship, the pastoral care of their clergy, learning, and absolute dedication to helping parishes flourish under hard-working priests. It is not enough for such ideals to be recited at episcopal consecrations, only for new bishops immediately to become functionaries of the present Church Managerial.

There are those who would fit this bill, but they are unlikely to feature on lists of individuals deemed acceptable for episcopal election, and if made suffragans are rarely appointed as diocesans. Some might see what I am saying as unfair to our bishops and the CNC, and an absurdly idealistic view of what contemporary bishops should be. Nonetheless, I am undoubtedly not alone in thinking our present ways of appointing bishops are flawed by fatal misconceptions of the episcopal office. We need leaders who will act as true shepherds to their clergy and people.

The dissatisfaction of priests and parishes with the present leadership is a fact. If the Pandemic does not goad us into a return to basics, then the outlook is indeed bleak. The future does not lie with streamed services, or maintaining the Institution, or inflated schemes for mission. It lies with the greatest possession we have, parishes served by dedicated priests. 

Fundamental to renewal will be the restoration to us of bishops committed to supporting and inspiring those parishes, as well as being desperately needed spiritual leaders and teachers. It is time for us to raise our voices and demand the reforms which will bring us such leadership.

The Revd Dr Barry A. Orford is a retired priest and an Emeritus Fellow of St Cross College, Oxford.

4 thoughts on “Back to Basics Bishops

  1. Spot On! Our Suffragan Bishop recently invited himself to a Zoomed PCC, ostensibly to conduct Bible Study (!). When it was over he stayed on, again without seeking our views. The substantive issue was whether or not we should pay our Parish Share in full. He started the discussion by saying that if we defaulted we might well not get a Vicar at all when our one left. (We currently have half a vicar). His words and body language were those of a bully.
    Traditionally such actions were left to Archdeacons so it would appear that Suffragans have little to do in these troubled times.

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  2. I didn’t follow all the details but agree Bishops need to be the best of the best not just administrators. Personally the ‘ church’ generally has a monumental task ahead of it ….if it can’t make itself seen to be relevant to society at large bishops won’t have anyone to bishop over anyway and the church will wither on the vine

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  3. I am much relieved to see Dr Orford’s articulate and timely account of the major issues facing clergy and laity under the present archiepiscopal regime (I hesitate to call it ‘leadership’). As a retired I am able to exercise rather more freedom and therefore wrote a parish magazine article in the autumn on ‘The Death of Deference’. Bishops need to be challenged directly when possible – especially, for example, to have it pointed out to them when they exhibit bullying or harassing behaviour. They are all too used to parishes being meek and mild. It is time they were strongly disabused. I agree entirely with the point about theological illiteracy on the bench of bishops. Don’t even start me on pastoral care, I’ve seen too much.

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