If nothing else, the announcement that Sarah Mullally was to be the new Bishop of London was entertaining in the way that it flummoxed all the pundits and predictors. As the inimitable Richard Coles put it: ‘In your faces, haruspices‘. But then followed the slightly predictable rush to judgement, with a number of comments made interpreting the ‘meaning and significance’ of this rather surprising appointment. Peter Ould was quite positive about the skills and outlook that someone with Sarah’s background would bring. Paul Richardson was rather less positive about having another senior bishop who is ‘not a theologian’. Others were, sadly, just unpleasant.
Although Paul Richardson’s comments were not well received by some, he was actually making an observation about the Church and its leadership as a whole, rather then evaluating this appointment on its own terms. Should the bench of bishops have a particular shape, or contain particular skills and knowledge—in this case, where is the theological depth overall? The problem here is the supposition that the Church as a whole has any strategy; to my knowledge, diocesan appointments are made with a view to the needs of the diocese, and not with a view to the strategy of the Church.
But is it actually helpful to make any comment at all? From a human point of view, it has to be asked who would want to be a bishop in the Church of England right now? It is an institution facing multiple pressures, with (if anything) greater rather than lesser challenges ahead, where the relentless decline in attendance still shows no obvious signs of slowing down, and trying to operate (as any institution is) in a more fragmented and complex context than ever. Anyone appointed to such a position needs sympathy and encouragement rather than evaluation and assessment before he or she has even started the job. Perhaps this is a time to be ‘swift to hear, slow to speak, and slow to become angry’ (James 1.19). Many will have seen it as vitally important that a woman has been appointed to a senior position; but equally many have been frustrated by this, and protest that Sarah was appointed ‘because she was the best for the job’. All this conversation raises three dangers for me.
The first danger is that we forget that any role in ministry is not simply a job to be done, with skills, competencies and aptitudes required which can be supplied by ‘the best candidate’ who brings the appropriate qualifications. I am very conscious of the importance of skills and competence, and have seen at first hand the problems in ministry caused by practice incompetence—but if we think this is what ministry is primarily about, even for a bishop leading the complexities of a diocese in a global city—then we have forgotten the keep the main thing the main thing. At her ordination as bishop, Sarah was asked:
Will you be diligent in prayer, in reading Holy Scripture, and in all studies that will deepen your faith and fit you to bear witness to the truth of the gospel?
Will you lead Christ’s people in proclaiming his glorious gospel, so that the good news of salvation may be heard in every place?
Will you faithfully minister the doctrine and sacraments of Christ as the Church of England has received them, so that the people committed to your charge may be defended against error and flourish in the faith?
These are not mere activities, but are about fundamental life orientation and character. I trust that these things will be as important in London as they ever are anywhere else. Clergy are now spending more time in administration than they are in preparing teaching and preaching and in theological study combined, and as far as I can see it isn’t leading to growing churches!
The second thing easily forgotten is that ministry is not a career, and becoming a bishop isn’t the sacred equivalent of becoming a secular CEO. I am reminded of the joke about the bishop visiting a parish, and being left alone with the vicar’s son whilst waiting for lunch to be served.
Boy: How did you become a bishop?
Bishop: Well, I sang in the choir, and was the best chorister. Then I went to theological college, and was the best student. Then I was ordained, and I was the best vicar. So they made me a bishop. Why do you ask?
Boy: Because before you arrived, my dad asked ‘How on earth did that man become a bishop?’!
Bishops are not primus super pares but primus inter pares—first amongst equals. Institutionally, there is responsibility for decision-making, and ecclesially all clergy make an oath of canonical obedience (though of course this is primarily directed to the authorised liturgy of the Church). But theologically, we need to focus a little more on Augustine’s perspective: ‘For you, I am a bishop. But with you, I am a Christian.’ At the ordination of a bishop, the question is not asked ‘Are you the best person for the job?’ but ‘Do you believe that God is calling you to this ministry?’ Confidence comes not from the transparent processes of the Crown Nominations Committee, but from the promise of Jesus: ‘I chose you and appointed you, that you should go and bear fruit that shall last.’
A little while ago I was wondering whether to apply for a particular post, and even got to the point of talking to my bishop about it. But in prayer one day God said to me very clearly, almost audibly ‘Do not apply for that post’. That was enough, and that was the end of any further thought. I have applied for posts in the past, where I thought (probably rightly) that I was the best for the job—but had no settled sense that God was actually calling me to it—with the result that the interview did not go well! The ordained father of a friend recently died at a good age though after a long illness. The friend said to me ‘He was very able, and could have gone a long way ‘in the church’. But he chose to give his life to ministry in the parish’. The Lord preserve us from every only paying lip-service to the importance of ‘coal-face’ ministry. What matters is not whether we are best qualified, but whether God has called us.
The third thing we easily forget is that individuals are not that important. I say this rather guardedly, because I am aware of all the research that says leaders can make a real difference in organisations, and because I have seen it close up. When I taught at St John’s College, Nottingham, every day I would walk up the stairs to my study past the pictures of former principals, each with a pen-portrait biography underneath their picture. You could see the way the life of the college had ebbed and flowed with the different leaders that it had. And yet, in the end, we are not saved by leadership. Matt Ridley wrote a fascinating reflection this week on whether there would ever be an interest in creating ‘designer babies’ even if we could. He first notes how difficult and unpleasant have been many of the geniuses in history—but then makes a fascinating observation about the importance of individuals.
Individual intelligence is overrated. This is partly the well-worn argument that lots of other characteristics determine success, especially energy and diligence. We know people who are too bright to be decisive; or conversely achieve much in spite of their apparent disadvantages. However, I mean something more than this. I mean that human achievements are always and everywhere collective. Every object and service you use is the product of different minds working together to invent or manage something that is way beyond the capacity of any individual mind.
All too often institutions look for multi-talented individuals as leaders who will, in themselves, solve all the problems and overcome all the challenges that the institution faces. But institutions are not saved by individuals—still less the Church of England, even less the church of God. Salvation comes from the power of God, working amongst the people of God through the action of the Spirit of God. Godly leaders will have a key role in that—but the leaders themselves are not the source of salvation.
Theologically is it also worth pointing out that the church is not constituted by its bishops; the episcopacy is not the esse of the church, even if it is given for the church’s bene esse. And episcopal leadership is exercised by a whole range of people, not just those who have been appointed bishops in the institution of the Church—more so now, in the age of the internet, than perhaps ever before.
When I meet the Lord face to face on the Day of Judgement, there is one question I am absolutely certain he will not ask me: ‘How well did you get on with climbing the greasy spire of church preferment?’ (I’ve got a feeling that the question might not even make sense to him.) But I think I know what he will ask:
‘Did you you fight the good fight? Did you finish the race? Did you keep the faith?’ (2 Tim 4.7).
Perhaps those are the kinds of questions we should be asking of our leaders—because in the end those are the only ones that matter.
Don’t forget to book your place at the the Festival of Theology on Jan 30th!
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