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What Are Bishops For?

Well, what are bishops for? I am not being facetious, or more than usually impertinent, but this question was left hanging in the air around the ‘Futures of Anglicanism’ course. We were privileged to be in the company of two bishops, with the opportunity to talk to them both in the intervals between the formal parts of the course, a privilege which we relished (more later). Bishop Gregory Cameron and Bishop Gayle Harris are particularly fine examples of the genus episcopus.

The question is apparently not as settled as you might think and was raised in a paper for General Synod as recently as February 2009. In ‘The Governance of the Church of England and the Anglican Communion’ (GS Misc 910), Dr Colin Podmore said:

Episcopally Led and Synodically Governed’?
3.21 It is often said that the Church of England is ‘episcopally led and synodically governed’.
Working as One Body commented, ‘This useful and convenient phrase may, however,
tend to conceal the fact that the bishops are part of the synod and that the leadership they
give is in and to the whole synodical body’. That is, in fact, only one of a number of
difficulties with the phrase ‘episcopally led and synodically governed’. (For example,
lay people also occupy leadership positions in the Church and its synods.) Both the
Archbishop of York and the Bishop of Durham have criticized this phrase (not least in the
debate on the resolution to which this paper responds), and it is indeed apt to mislead.
3.22 While it is true that the Church of England’s bishops are charged with governing their
dioceses synodically (ie, with the advice of the representatives of the clergy and laity in
the diocesan synod and the bishop’s council), the phrase can be heard as implying that the
Church of England is governed by synods. As Working as One Body pointed out, synods
are parliaments (legislative and deliberative assemblies); they are not governments. At the
diocesan level, bishops not only lead but also govern and that has implications for the role
of the House of Bishops at the national level.

‘Charlotte‘ commented on ‘Thinking Anglicans’ that Dr Podmore’s paper:

takes a very high view of the office of a bishop and the authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Though the authority of a bishop is not to be exercised except synodically, and not without consulting priests and lay people, Podmore’s analysis maintains that priests and lay people do not have authority equal to that of the bishops.


I leave this question hanging in the air (perhaps any readers will have something to say on the general topic in the comments?). The point made in discussion was that the Greek episkopos means ‘overseer’, someone who provides oversight. There are two problems of association with this definition: the first is that, curiously, the noun ‘oversight’ means something that has been overlooked in the sense of forgotten. More seriously, ‘overseer’ to anyone with any knowledge of the slave trade means the man on horseback  who spurred the slaves on sugar plantations onto ever greater efforts by the use of a bullwhip.


My dictionary defines ‘scope’ as meaning:
1. opportunity for exercising the faculties or abilities; capacity for action
2. range of view, perception, or grasp; outlook
3. the area covered by an activity, topic, etc.; range, eg the scope of his thesis was vast

I have some other suggestions for the job description of a good bishop, based of course on ancient Greek (what else?) Eschewing the abomination of neologisms with a Latin prefix and a Greek suffix, I suggest the following improvements on ‘Episcope’,  using Greek prefixes:

  • Amphiscope: Looking at both sides of a question
  • Bathyscope: Being aware of the depths while aspiring to the heights
  • Colonoscope: Detecting bullshit
  • Cryptoscope: Solving life’s little (and big) mysteries
  • Diascope: Making a window into men’s souls
  • Endoscope: Looking remorselessly within every file in the cupboard
  • Extrascope: Looking at the bits the Archdeacon isn’t telling you
  • Gyroscope: Measuring people’s orientation (actually, this is one of the existing job descriptions which could be dropped?)
  • Interscope: Reading between the lines
  • Kaleidoscope: Rejoicing in the rich diversity of God’s creation
  • Megascope: Ensuring the Church does not ignore the obvious
  • Metascope: Keeping an eye on the life beyond
  • Microscope: Remembering the detail
  • Neoscope: Knowing how to introduce the new
  • Oscilloscope: Working out which way the wind is blowing
  • Paleoscope: Valuing the old
  • Periscope: Communicating with the above in order to transmit to those below
  • Polyscope: Wearing many hats (and not just mitres)
  • Prososcope: Looking onwards, pointing the way
  • Stethoscope: Listening out for rumblings in the Body of Christ
  • Telescope: Keeping a watch on the horizon
  • Ultrascope: Linking congregations throughout the diocese, and diocese with diocese

What do you think? What are the essential attributes of a bishop which are missing from this list? (Or have I included some which have no place in the list of episcopal talents?)


Postscript. It seems a propitious moment to be thinking about this question. According to The Church Times of today, 23 September, ‘Meeting heralds new era for episcopacy’

Mary Johnston, a lay member of the General Synod, who heads a grouping of liberal Catholics, was also present. She was one of about 60 participants, who included male and female bishops, priests, and lay people. She said that the day had been “worth while and very positive. “It was exciting that Rowan said he wasn’t out to achieve ‘balance’, but he wants something more profound and prophetic. He wants a reappraisal of what it means to be a bishop.

Mmmm. The blog post is dated the 15th, the conference was on the 19th. I can hear some spoil-sport saying ‘Post hoc, maybe. But not necessarily propter hoc?’

 Post postscript

Dave Walker has drawn the perfect Christmas cartoon in answer to the question ‘What are Bishops For?’.

Note: I am indebted to Savi Hensman for the amended definition of ‘Ultrascope’ and to Grandmère Mimi for the inclusion of Colonoscope and Kaleidoscope, with their respective definitions.

21 comments on this post:

Eddie Green said...

Thought provoking. And finally got you added to my on-site blog roll.

I however like overseer .. as I see it as less hierarchical than leader. The bishop needs to see the big picture, support and encourage and enable the ministry of those in her care.

Lay Anglicana said...

Thank-you, Eddie – both for the comment and for adding me to your blog roll.

I also like “those in ‘her’ care”…

My comments about ‘overseer’ are of course a bit of a tease. Although I have known bishops who set about their task with a metaphorical whip in their hands, it really doesn’t fit 99% of the bishops I know – it is hard to imagine Bishop Alan (Wilson) so armed, for example. Although – alarming thought – he might now do it as a joke!

15 September 2011 18:56
15 September 2011 16:43
UKViewer said...

There is so much to be said here, but a couple of existing documents can be referred to:

Canon C18 of Diocesan Bishops

Briefing Notes for Vacancy in See Committee’s

Both documents give extensive guidance, although suitably vague to allow some freedom of action. Bishop’s are also constrained by various measures of Synod which direct their actions in particular situations. The Clergy Discipline Measure among others:

If I reflect on the question on what are bishops for, I might come up with a list based on a generic military job description for a Senior Officer:

Firstly a brief mission statement:

A Bishop is the leader who has oversight, authority and responsibility and pastoral care of a diocese or area within their diocese.
a. taking responsibility for the pastoral care, welfare, morale and motivation and inspiration of all clergy, lay ministers and parishes.
b. communicating effectively with one’s diocese, diocesan colleagues and those with other roles and responsibilities, and professional and community groups, both orally and in writing, through visitations, briefings, reports and presentations;
c. taking responsibility for one’s own personal, ministery and professional development.

Day to Day:

a. training and developing clergy and laity in all ministry roles and bringing them to a high state of service in ministry and discipleship.
b. preparing new christians for baptism, confirmation and lifelong discipleship.
developing clergy and laity for new roles, qualifying them to serve where required in the diocese.
c. assessing the effectiveness of ministry training.
d. encouraging, identifying and recognising vocations to ministry and preparing candidates for selection and training.
e. ensuring that worship and liturgy are available to parishes and communities through
appropriate ministry diocese wide.

The Diocese and church:

a. identifying ministry and pastoral objectives and assessing ways of achieving them;
b. motivating and leading clergy and laity through synod and chapter, preparation and training to to achieve objectives, often in difficult cultural pastoral and ministry conditions;
c. preparing or modifying dicoesan mission strategies and plans; and their delivery mechanisms.
d. allocating clergy and laity and ministry resources effectively to achieve objectives;
e. keeping church buildings, clergy accommodation, liturgy and heritage assetts available and accessible for the service of their congregations and communities.

Lay Anglicana said...

Thank-you for this full and helpful reply.
I found this quote from Canon 18 interesting:

“Every bishop is the chief pastor of all that are within his diocese, as
well laity as clergy, and their father in God; it appertains to his office to
teach and to uphold sound and wholesome doctrine, and to banish and
drive away all erroneous and strange opinions; and, himself an example
of righteous and godly living, it is his duty to set forward and maintain
quietness, love, and peace among all men.”

I have always found the managerial side easy enough to understand – as Kathryn says, organisations need managing. What it harder to quantify, I think, is the reason for a bishop’s carrying a shepherd’s crook. It is explained well in this Canon, though I still find it hard to think it works in practice. I know bishops delegate ‘the cure of souls’ to the priests in charge in each parish and in fact how could they do otherwise?

Hugh Valentine said...

I’m glad to see this question of ‘What are bishops for?’ being addressed. It is an historic function there to serve the Christian community, and I see no reason to end it but several reasons to reform it.

A small matter, but perhaps illustrative of something: bishops wear episcopal rings and also episcopal crosses – pectoral crosses, suspended across their chests. Now, all this is taken to proclaim their authority and, along with the ring and the purple shirt, makes clear their status. But pectoral crosses dangle rather, and can easily get in the way. So one observes what appears to be a practical solution, viz. slipping the cross into the jacket inside pocket or a shirt pocket. Now, what fascinating symbolism. The cross represents Christ and the essence of our Christian faith. And it routinely gets tucked into a pocket for convenience. Do bishops, one wonders, ever consider this – how it looks, what it may be interpreted as saying? Tucking Jesus conveniently away… So far as I know I am the only person to find this episcopal convenience so revealing. Whilst on the question of bishops, one has also to mention the favoured use of the crozier. Whether it is bejewelled and ornate or the simple shepherd’s crook, this ovine symbol seems frankly patronising today. (Montaigne ‘On Sumptuary Laws’: ‘The law ought to state that purple and goldsmithery are forbidden to all ranks of society except whores and travelling players’. Perhaps, here, bishops – this could be a serious point – too often fall into the second category).

Lay Anglicana said...

Good morning – how nice to hear from you again. I am tempted to suggest that pectoral crosses be turned into brooches rather than pendants – this would get rid of the dangling problem and be nicely unisex, if the episcopate is to welcome women into its ranks.

So far as the ovine symbol is concerned, I agree with you that the 21st century expects the sheep to have a more active say in the relationship. Room for musing…

25 September 2011 09:00
25 September 2011 07:28
17 September 2011 16:52
15 September 2011 18:08
Muriel Sowden (@fragranceofgod) said...

As a Methodist, the phrases “What is a bishop”? and “What sort of bishops”? are pretty inflammatory!
I wondered what place the Apostolic Succession has in your musings?

Lay Anglicana said...

Thank-you, Muriel. For me, the idea that because only men have been made bishops, therefore only men should be made bishops is a complete non sequitur.
You might just as well say that all the apostles were Semitic, with dark brown hair and brown eyes, therefore the first blond Aryan bishop that was appointed broke the Apostolic Succession (IMHO, YMMV etc…)

15 September 2011 20:47
15 September 2011 20:34
Kathryn said...

I wonder whether “supervisor” might carry slightly friendlier connotations than “overseer” despite them having similar meaning.

My first thought when I think of the duties of a bishop is that they are responsible for the pastoral care of other clergy; perhaps this is something that all clergy should do a little more, though from what I see online I think it would happen naturally if more had the opportunity to talk to one another.

The next thought is that priests celebrate the Eucharist and do various other “priestly” things under license from the bishop; some sacraments or rites (confirmation, ordination) are not passed on to the authority of priests, and still require a bishop.

So I would think about the question in terms of “why do we need someone to preside at the Eucharist, ordain people, baptise people, give blessings, forgive sins?” and see the priests as acting on behalf of the bishop. This, of course, makes having female priests but not female bishops absolutely laughable, but there it is.

Then I would ask why priests are not given full authority to ordain other priests (I worry less about confirmation given that nobody has quite decided what it is anyway).

The management stuff is just about the church being an institution full of human beings who need some management from time to time.

Lay Anglicana said...

Yes, I think I prefer ‘supervisor’ to overseer.

You are right of course that a large part of a bishop’s duties are managerial and entirely comparable to other managers.

But, as you say, it is the priestly aspect that is a little baffling at times!

17 September 2011 17:00
15 September 2011 20:48
MisterDavid said...

I’ve always like ‘facilitator’ as a general leadership term (although it is a Latin, rather than Greek, root – forgive me!).

Literally it means ‘someone who makes things easy’ – I don’t know enough bishops to know if this is a forlorn hope or not though 😉

Lay Anglicana said...

Welcome to Lay Anglicana, Mr David. I like your blog (especially yesterday’s piece, ‘Hooker is my Homeboy’ – it is Hooker that will keep this lot together in the end, if anyone can!)

I’m not anti-Latin (though I was always hopeless at gerunds and still bear the scars from our Latin mistress’s withering scorn expressed in chalk missiles). But I don’t like made up words like ‘tele-vision’ which are both Greek and Latin!

I like ‘facilitator’ – let’s try and get it introduced!

17 September 2011 16:57
16 September 2011 14:39
Savi Hensman said...

I see bishops as, to a large extent, linkers of congregations in the area they cover with one another, and their diocese with other dioceses, denominations and Christians past and present.

Lay Anglicana said...

Thank-you, Savi, for highlighting an extremely important part of a bishop’s role which we had unaccountably left out!

I will try and dream up a suitable ‘-scope’ to describe it, or perhaps yours is a better definition than mine of ‘Ultrascope’?

If, despite all our best efforts, the Anglican Covenant is adopted, bishops will certainly be needed to try and implement it. There is a lot of mutinous muttering going on in the backwoods to the tune of ‘we’re a long way from Canterbury’!

Welcome to Lay Anglicana, and thank-you for taking the time to comment.

18 September 2011 16:12
18 September 2011 14:19

[…] that made me giggle this week were Lay Anglicana’s “What are Bishops For?“, Vic the Vicar has a hilarious “whoops Eucharist” moment. Gurdur’s post […]

Lay Anglicana said...

Thank-you, Lesley. I can think of no nobler task than to brighten your day!

21 September 2011 08:06
21 September 2011 06:19
Claire Maxim said...

It is interesting that a clergy view seems to be that a bishop is there to look after them. I have always assumed that a Bishop is responsible for her entire flock, both lay and ordained.
As a former engineer, I note that an oscilloscope merely measures the strength and phase of a signal, ie detects what is actually happening. Bishops need to know what is going on, as well as what they think should be going on. They then lead across the gap. I hope.

Lay Anglicana said...

Welcome to Lay Anglicana, Claire, and thank-you for commenting.

I was certainly struck at the recent installation of our new area dean when the archdeacon read out a letter from the bishop. Whereas I had seen the area dean as the first tier of management/firefighter when things go wrong between priest and people, re-organiser of benefices etc, the letter only once mentioned his relationship with churchwardens and otherwise dwelt exclusively on his role as supporter of the clergy. Bishops likewise, as you say, have a dual role.

Thank-you for your explanation of the function of an oscilloscope (admit to being well out of my depth here!)

23 September 2011 21:40
23 September 2011 21:18
Grandmère Mimi said...

Bishops are, first and foremost, to be servants, which role seems to have been been mostly swept aside in the discussions of their lesser roles.

24 September 2011 20:44
Lay Anglicana said...

You are right of course – I suspect the problem may be that none of the hewers of wood and drawers of water have the temerity to remind the bishops of their role as servants – servant-kings possibly, possibly, but servants nevertheless.

24 September 2011 21:00
Grandmère Mimi said...

Jesus said, ‘The greatest among you will be your servant.’ Of course, the words are not just for bishops; they’re for all of us.

24 September 2011 21:39

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