Earlier this week, Adrian Hilton (who writes the Archbishop Cranmer blog) reprised his hosting of Martyn Percy’s views with the offering of a new set of 95 Theses, in the year of the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s original. (Contrary to suggestions in online discussion, Luther’s are not dull and rambling, and are worth a read. They form a progressive argument against indulgences in a developing sequence, and were written as a sixteenth-century proposal for an academic disputing—so if they are not quite as succinct as a Twitter post then perhaps we should not be surprised.)
In contrast to Luther (and setting aside the tongue-in-cheek pretentiousness of such a comparison), Percy’s proposals are rather thin, and noticeably repetitive. The comparison with a ‘mess of pottage’ (from Esau’s trading of his birthright in Gen 25.29) occurs more than once, and the central assertion, that bishops should be pastor-theologians and not managerial leaders, is repeated in different forms through the list, though not particularly in a way which develops the argument. Perhaps the most interesting thing about the list is that I agree with Percy’s central premise, that the central calling of bishops is to have spiritual vision, and not simply be pragmatic management gurus.
Doctrine is vital for the life of the church. Bishops need to know it, guard it and teach it. Bishops who cannot teach faithfully and ably are failing in one of their core callings.
As I have expounded previously, simply drawing on the etymology of ‘episcopacy’ tells us that this role is in part about having vision, seeing the lie of the land, the bigger picture, and what needs to happen—and then seeing that it gets done. So there is a role of implementation, but that finds its place in the context of visionary leadership. What we disagree about is what kind of vision bishops should have.
The root of my disagreement stems from what appears to be a lack of awareness on Percy’s part in two directions. First, he seems oddly unaware of what is actually happening in the Church—odd because of his breadth of experience and writings on aspects of ministry. Though he claims that the Church has ‘cut itself off’ from traditional models of episcopacy, there hasn’t been any change in liturgy, and changes in selection processes have often been in response to poor decisions in the past, which were too often based on an ‘old boys’ network’ and personal patronage—masquerading unconvincingly as the ‘spiritual discernment’ that Percy advocates. And he appears oddly unaware of the age we are living in; in noting that bishops in the past were also ‘overseers of much broader regions and territories’, he appears to be harking back to an age of Christendom, where to be a bishop meant to have a respectable standing in society by virtue of their appointment. Do we need to return to Christendom to renew the Church, then? And what theological grounding does this have?
In parallel with this, Percy argues for an understanding of bishops as intellectuals, something he again repeats more than once. ‘For the first time since the Reformation, we now have no bishops who have held a university post in theology. This is no small scandal.’ This is an odd concern for several reasons. University education has changed almost beyond recognition in the last 30 years, and what is demanded of those in full time (as opposed to honorary, part-time or consultant) roles bears little relation to the demands of the past. The concern also takes no account of the growth in research qualifications amongst not only bishops but clergy—a growth that some have questioned the value of. As one friend of mine commented:
Woah, hang on. Haven’t we had Bishops who were Intellectuals and theologians for the last 50 years. How has that worked out for us Maybe it is time to rediscover an apostolic and missional vision for episcopacy? Perhaps that is what is already happening.
Percy himself has had only 4 years as a curate in full-time parish ministry, and no incumbency experience, and there is a much broader call for future bishops to have credible experience in parish ministry than there is a call for ‘intellectual’ leadership. If clergy on the ground resent one thing more than any other, it is being told what to do by someone who has never had to do it themselves.
This leads to the second observation about lack of awareness—lack of self-awareness of what he is saying and communicating. It is not a little ironic that he is calling for greater theological understanding whilst making some basic theological errors himself. He describes ‘imperative of the Kingdom of God’ as ‘a holistic vision for humanity, communities and creation’, whilst appearing to ignore the fact that this is a theological idea which is intimately linked to questions of discipleship, and cannot be detached from questions of repentance and faith, rather than offering a blueprint for wider society (for which we need to turn from kingdom to creation as a theological category). And, in common with many others in the liberal tradition, he has a strong distaste for focussing on questions of growth (see points 78 to 80), and would rather see this as sitting in a ‘balanced’ way alongside other concerns. But the Church of England can hardly be accused of a historic over-concern in this area, and it would be interesting to speculate when this might become a major concern if not now. More significantly, it is impossible to read Jesus’ parables of the kingdom, many of which draw on metaphors of the organic, without seeing growth as a central theological quality, since ‘God is the God of the living, not of the dead’ (Mark 12.27) and ‘with God, nothing is impossible’ (Matt 19.26). Most notable from Percy’s list is that which is central to the ordination liturgy, that bishops (along with presbyters and deacons) should actually build faith in God. As one commentator on the blog post puts it:
The C of E might be healthier if it took the trouble to ensure that its clergy all believed all of what the Creed says. It is ridiculous, and far worse than merely ridiculous, to have vicars who don’t believe in (say) the Resurrection of Christ. If clergy do not believe, but retain their parishes and cures, they are thieves, frauds, and liars – as is the Church that inflicts them on Christians. Is that the sort of person whom the C of E thinks fit to be in the clergy, and to be ministers of God’s grace ? It is a long time since C. S. Lewis remarked on the oddity of a layman finding out that he believes more than his vicar. A Church of unbelieving clergy is not equipped to preach a Gospel it does not believe.
And here is the curious thing about Percy’s whole approach: why does he think that reform of episcopal appointments will be the salvation of the Church? Research does confirm that leadership makes all the difference to the health of the Church—but leadership is exercised at many different levels. Did Alpha arise from a bishop? Did the New Wine movement start with a diocesan initiative? Was church planting an episcopal idea? Was Luther a bishop when he nailed his theses up (which he probably never did)? Very often the role of bishops in practice is to give space for what God, and leaders on the ground, are up to and see where it leads.
None of this answers the practical question facing the leadership of the Church: how do we address issues of competence and practical management in an era where we seek the spiritual renewal of both Church and nation? There is a ‘target’ to be aimed at, but in attacking the people rather than the shape of the post, Percy is shooting at the wrong target. (And shooting he is; it is hard of avoid the personal insults that he sprays around at episcopal clergy colleagues, deriding the quality of their preaching, which must of course include his own diocesan bishop recently installed.) What should our response be to poor planning, bad decision-making and failed financial management? These issues are genuinely inhibiting the ministry and theology of the Church and they need to be addressed. And this probably raises more questions about the design of the role than about the appointment of the individuals concerned.
But in amongst all this there is a personal question. If you read Percy’s impressive CV alongside this post, then it screams one thing on every line, written in the invisible ink of resentment and frustration: ‘Pick me! Pick me!’ Alongside his scorn for current episcopal post-holders is the equally strong conviction that he himself would do a much better job. This is not an uncommon note to be sounded across the Church.
When I announced that I was living my role as a Personnel Manager to pursue ordination training, the first response of one colleague was ‘Oh, you will be a bishop!’ It would have been tempting to take this as personal flattery, were it not for the fact that this was someone working in recruitment consultancy who had just completed a major project on the selection of clergy and clergy leaders for a major US denomination. But I am not a bishop, and I am not likely to become one—and that is the case for most clergy, if only because of the numbers. There are still around 9,000 clergy in the C of E, and not much more than 100 bishops, so the odds are not good, and the ‘greasy spire’ is tall and very thin. (And there are many ways to exercise episcopal ministry other than being an episcopos). What people like Martyn and I, now in our 50s, need to discover is to be at peace with our vocation in terms of the place of ministry in which God has put us. If we do, then our engagement with contemporary challenges will be more positive, more gracious, and a good deal more outward looking than what has ended up as a piece of resentful ecclesial navel-gazing.