Saturday, September 20, 2008

Who'd be a Bishop these days?

Today was the the 39th anniversary of my ordination to the diaconate. For my friend and mentor in early ministry Archdeacon David Lee, it was the 50th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood. His present home parish of Llanishen arranged him a party, preceded by a Eucharist at which he presided and Archbishop Barry preached. It was such a pleasure to be there with him, as often I'm away when he takes a service for me at St John's.

I can't remember when last I heard two sermons inside a week from a Bishop. At lunch we were chatting about this and he said that it's not unusual for him to preach eight different sermons in a week - a huge amount of preparation to do. No matter how much experience you may have, as one with oversight of all the different communities of the diocese and their needs, with relatively rare opportunities to visit them and 'speak to their condition', preparation is not to be skimped on.

Real episcopal care would be a lot more possible and less demanding in a diocese a quarter of the size of ours, given reduced expectation that a Bishop should be an international envoy of his church in overseas partnership arrangements. But we're stuck with what we have. If the Church in Wales shrinks much more we may end up like the Church of Ireland, with the prospect of contracting six dioceses into four or even three. The amount of travel and the range of demands would make oversight even harder.
If only we could re-appraise and recreate the episcopal role for these times. The world has changed so much since the Church in Wales constitution was so carefully formulated to sustain and protect the church as an episcopally directed community.

Travelling to and from Llanishen on the bus, I had the company of Fr. Graham Francis, my near neighbour at St Mary's down the Bay. A chance to catch up on Church in Wales Governing Body. news. I was interested in his take on the decision by the Bench of Bishops not to appoint another Provincial Episcopal Visitor (PEV or flying Bishop) to minister to those who still cannot accept the change (in their perception) to the catholic order of the Church due to Bishops ordaining women to the priesthood. He seemed resigned to it, confirming my view that cross border sorties from Wales into CofE Parishes enjoying flying Bishop support, on special occasions would be the outcome. England will make no more PEVs. When they come to retirement, PEVs can still expect to be called upon to exercise occasional episcopal ministry for another 15 years or so. This must be tough if you hate the modern hymns and liturgies you had to put up with in full time employment. Whenever do you get to 'make your soul'?

The decision of the Bench cuts the number of Bishops in the Province from eight to seven. The Bishops promise to ensure attention will be given to people's doctrinal and disciplinary sensitivities. They are honourable men, acting in the best interests of the unity of the church. But their undertaking wasn't backed by publication of an action plan to demonstrate how this undertaking will be fulfilled. This must be taken on trust. However, they are overworked already. Any local authority making minority services specialist staff cuts would have to be specific about such undertakings, or risk a bad reaction from unions and employees. It's a brave, honest decision, but those who made it are most likely to bear the consequences. The whole church may not be the better for this.

I'm glad to belong to a church that has opened its ordained ministry to women. I don't think it's being implemented nearly soon enough. But I'm aware that people I love and respect argue and feel differently. They need the support and encouragement of like minded spiritual leadership. on their journey. So I'm disappointed PEVs have been abolished. If we'd appointed one or two additional PEVs, the episcopal work-load across Wales would be lightened. More people would get access to the spiritual and pastoral leadership they have confidence in. Does this divide the church? Not if we know we're all one in the love of Christ, and respect those who disagree. They say it compromises the integrity of episcopal jurisdiction - but that's about power, authority and status in the sense 'the world' understands and misinterprets it. Is it only rules that keep us together?

I accept this makes me a heretic in a church of traditional structure and liberal sympathies. But then I don't start from believing that inherited ideas of a Bishop being the sole instrument and focus of unity in mission for a church in a diocese is any longer the way episcopé - oversight of confessing faith communities - is best exercised in support of mission in a setting that is (even in rural areas) subject to the powerful influences of urbanisation and globalisation.

Spiritual guardianship of a territory, set in legal terms, is a Latin colonial notion we've inherited. Do we really need it any longer? Beforehand our Celtic Fathers-in-God were (like flying Bishops) on the move between settlements, mission stations along trails and trade networks that came to bear their holy names. This is supposed to be the age of networks, isnt it? We're scared to revisit that vision in case it proves relevant to what we do or would like to do now. We're scared to upset the Representative Body, or their policemen, the Charity Commissioners. We have our Constitution, all approved, kosher, safe with the State. Who dares rock the boat?

Personally, I don't need the special provision this era of flying Bishops offer, but in my troubled heart of hearts, I wish all Bishops had the freedom to fly wherever their gifts and ministries were needed, properly supported for the task, without all the other stuff they are obliged to hold together under the umbrella of the Church. What are we, what would we be without all our structures and regulations? Are we no longer justified sola fide?

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