The responsibility of bishops
Posted by Kirsten Birkett, 26 Jan 2021
Kirsten Birkett examines the promises made by bishops and how those are seen in the Living in Love and Faith resources.
When we were ordained as bishops we were asked, ‘Will you promote peace and reconciliation in the church and in the world and will you strive for the visible unity of Christ’s Church?’ And each of us replied, ‘With the help of God, I will’. As we have acknowledged, we do not all agree over some matters of great importance for the well-being of Christ’s Church and how they relate to another question our ordination put to us: ‘Will you teach the doctrine of Christ as the Church of England has received it?’ We feel the tension among ourselves between uniting the church in its differences and pressing for decisive decisions in the contested areas about which each of us feels strongly. Nevertheless, we are united as bishops in our commitment to promote peace in the Church and to strive for the visible unity of the church.’
Living in Love and Faith, pp. 422-423.
I do not for a moment think that the job of a Church of England bishop is easy. Not at any time, and particularly not now. It is not a job I would want. We should, all of us, pray for our bishops, frequently.
We must continue to pray, and ask, that the Bishops stand by their word. It is good and right that they are united as bishops to keep the promises of their ordination. These promises are heavy with responsibility, and there may be many amongst the Bishops who genuinely do not see how to follow them right now.
The verbs of the promises are important. Bishops are asked to promote peace and reconciliation, and to strive for the visible unity of the Church. I think we can commend the House of Bishops for doing everything possible to keep these promises. In this contentious issue of human sexuality, there have been decades of debates, reports and studies. The current suite of resources for Living in Love and Faith shows the fruit of a massive effort. In commissioning these resources, the House of Bishops has invested a huge amount of time and money, and has shown a genuine desire to listen to all voices within the church. They have clearly promoted peace and reconciliation – the preface by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York is testimony to that. They have striven, collectively and individually, and in what they have devoted church resources to, for unity.
I would also add that there is clear evidence that the Bishops have kept another of their promises made at ordination:
Will you be gentle and merciful for Christ’s sake to those who are in need, and speak for those who have no other to speak for them?
The bishops have promised to be gentle and merciful, and to speak on behalf of those who have been wounded. People who have struggled with issues of sexuality and identity have experienced less than gentleness and mercy in many churches, even if this was not intended. As sinful humans we are not generally good at speaking to those we don’t understand. It is always easier to exclude and condemn than it is to engage and listen, and we fail Christ when we do so. Responses that hurt can range from embarrassed ‘let’s not talk about it’ to outright bigotry and aggression. It is right for bishops to call upon us to listen to those who don’t fit established norms, in whatever way. This the bishops have made every effort to do.
Clearly many bishops feel tension with the other ordination promise mentioned:
Will you teach the doctrine of Christ as the Church of England has received it, will you refute error, and will you hand on entire the faith that is entrusted to you?
Here, they are asked to teach. Teach what? the doctrine of Christ as the Church of England has received it. This is an interesting distinction: not the doctrine of Christ as expressed in Scripture, although of course the original writers of the ordination promises assumed they were the same thing. At the moment, that is precisely one of the issues under contention; as LLF demonstrates, there are disagreements over what exactly Scripture teaches. But here the Bishops have a slightly easier task: merely to teach the doctrine as the Church of England has received it. This is one of the few areas which are relatively uncontested in the presentation of LLF. What the Church has historically held is fairly clear, even if many now disagree with it. That is what Bishops have promised to teach.
But we have our responsibilities too, as the church. The congregation is asked and answers:
Will you continually pray for him? We will.
Will you uphold and encourage him in his ministry? We will.
Well, do we? How many of us even know how many bishops there are in the Church of England? How often do we pray, not just generically in church on a Sunday, but privately and individually? Writing this, I have had to stop and pray, as I realise how infrequently I deliberately think of my bishops and pray specifically for them, much less for other bishops in the country.
We ask that the bishops keep their promises: to teach the doctrine as received; and as they do so, to strive for unity, even if in a difficult world it cannot always be achieved. Similarly, we should keep our promises, made on our behalf every time a bishop has been ordained: we should pray to uphold those who have this responsibility.
LLF finishes with ‘An Appeal’ from the bishops:
Therefore, we exhort you to walk with us in a new stage of our common life in Christ so that, ‘speaking the truth in love’, godly discernment and right decisions can be made over contested matters of identity, sexuality, relationships and marriage, for ‘we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ’ (Ephesians 4:15)(p. 420).
That is a right appeal, and we all wish to see these things happen. We want the bishops to have godly discernment, and to make right decisions in these critical areas. So let us pray. Urgently, and fervently. We have promised no less.
1. I quote here from Common Worship, ‘The Ordination and Consecration of a Bishop’, https://www.churchofengland.org/prayer-and-worship/worship-texts-and-resources/common-worship/ministry/common-worship-ordination-0#mm015
Dr Kirsten Birkett is Theological Consultant to Church Society.
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