Well, this has been a week of bishops!
It began with Monday’s shock announcement from the Vatican, that the Pope is standing down. This created a media furor as commentators reflected on the various and daunting responsibilities of the Bishop of Rome.
Much lower key but of real significance to us was the visit of Bishop Susan on Tuesday. She is still in her first year as Suffragan (i.e. assistant) Bishop in our link diocese of Virginia. Her diocesan bishop, Bishop Shannon, you may remember opened our Ministry Centre along with the Bishop of Liverpool just two and half years ago.
It was fascinating talking with her, not least about how Bishop Shannon is handling the recent secession of some evangelical parishes over the whole gay issue. Clearly painful for everyone, he is working hard for reconciliation while being consistent in his teaching. It can’t be easy. From my personal experience from Vancouver, I think these evangelical churches are making a big mistake. Sadly these breakaway groupings are themselves fracturing.
Then that evening, down to Bishop’s Lodge in Woolton for a meeting of the Bishop’s Council. I serve as one of the clergy representatives for the Archdeaconery of Warrington. (The other half of the Diocese of Liverpool is the Archdeaconery of Liverpool).
Now that Bishop James has announced his own retirement, this was an important meeting. We were briefed how Bishop Richard, who as the Bishop of Warrington is our equivalent to Bishop Susan, will be running the Diocese until, at the earliest, September next year.
But what will Bishop Richard be doing? What do bishops do? One answer is from US bishop, Richard Cushing: “The bishops will govern the Church, the priests will do all the work and the deacons will have all the fun.” That puts me in the middle!
For the key role of bishop is that of oversight. Paul writes to Timothy: “Here is a trustworthy saying: whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task.” That’s the NIV translation of 1 Timothy 3:1; the RSV uses the word bishop instead of overseer. The Bishop is the one with the big picture, the strategic vision for his (or her, in the US) diocese.
And you do need to have the big picture, especially for those areas of a Diocese where ministry is difficult and under resourced. Anglicans don’t cherry pick. The materially richer parishes subsidize the poorer ones through the parish share, a financial expression of being part of one another. We aim to cover the ground, including those inhospitable neighbourhoods.
And we as a parish church are accountable to the Bishop of Liverpool who shares his ministry here with me as vicar. We can’t simply do our own thing; we are part of a much bigger network. This is more that just economies of scale – it is the understanding that the Bishop is the focus of unity, of churches and Christians consciously working together for the Kingdom of God.
And being the Bishop can’t be easy. I think it has taken a lot out of Bishop James. I remember talking to the secretary of the then Bishop of Liverpool, the godly Stuart Blanch, on his appointment as Archbishop of York. She clearly was worried that his health would not stand up to the pressures – and sadly, she was right.
And where do most of the pressures come from? Well, from Christians, from those very people you would expect to receive most support.
George Verwer, the founder of Operation Mobilisation, advised me that in Christian leadership you get most hassle from “spiritual Christians.” They’re the ones who will break you!
That was certainly the apostle Paul’s experience as he writes to the Corinthian church whom he had led to faith: “We are weak in Christ, yet by God’s power we will live with him in our dealing with you.” (2 Corinthians 13:4).
So we pray for our Bishops and for the whole process, in which I am involved in a small way, in appointing the new Bishop of Liverpool.
And root for those who are called to this lonely task.
Here we have a Catch 22 situation: anyone who actually wants to be Bishop is clearly the wrong person. Alternatively, the right person would rather be at the coal face, as shown in this excellent interview of Archbishop Justin at the Trent Vineyard fellowship. (Don’t be put off by the interviewer!)