Martyn Percy: Some Critical Comment on “Bishops and Ministry Fit for a New Context”


One can hardly do better than the satirical takes on the latest attempt at rebranding and reorganising the Church of England: its governance, purpose and priorities; Dioceses and where they fit in; and Bishops as leaders.  The latest report is peppered with the familiar terms and tropes of contemporary ecclesial ‘committee-speak’ (e.g., support, resource, accountability, mutual, action, regional, mission, etc), and in nearly all respects, reflects the triumph of mechanistic visions for the church, replete with functional-instrumental language that is geared for reification, namely tangible signs of success and growth. If you are looking for symbolic, organic or reciprocal-contextualised models of the church, this denomination is not for you. It is hard for most folk to put this into words. But across the land, supporters (as distinct from recognised members) are finding that church has become alien, with the day-to-day church-speak no longer connecting or making much sense. And as for inspiring us in wonder, to contemplate or critically reflect, well, that boat sailed some time ago, and it is now ploughs its own furrows in different seas.

If you read this report, you get the picture quite quickly. Theology is (as usual), a casualty; MIA or AWOL – missing in action or absent without leave. The functionality with which such reports are concerned betrays the anxieties of the authors.  God is something to be marketed and sold.  More sales lead to more success and growth, which affirms the original endeavour. The functionality of this hermeneutic is hard to question, and even harder to break. This leads the church down its own rabbit hole.  Culture must be engaged with, but only as a means to an end, which is the project of devoted to success and growth of the church.  

In commercial terminology, this is not even akin to a customer-survey, or a marketing questionnaire.  Church leaders don’t seriously want to hear from the public about how it might improve services to the community, or learn critical lessons from culture that challenge and change the service-provider. No.  The drivers of such functionality simply strive for better techniques that deliver what they believe the public require. Such leaders forget that commitment is voluntary and fluid, faith optional and belief varied. 

The essence of the Consultation Document is a mooted shift from spatial episcopal oversight to one that is situational and subject-based.  A number of commentators have had some mirth with ‘Bishop for Brexit’ (surely, according to Boris Johnson, this is already done?), climate change, education and the like.  Something of this already exists.  There is a ‘Lead Bishop’ in debates within the House of Lords on higher education (until recently, the Bishop of Winchester).  Yet to the best of my knowledge, there is no episcopal House of Lords equivalent for further education.  

Should this matter?  Yes. The percentage of people in further education from the Asian, Black, Mixed, and other ethnic groups increased from 19.3% to 22.6% in the last five years.  There are well over one million more students in further education than higher education in England, and the opportunities that arise from further education and higher education have an important story to tell about social division and economic opportunity in the UK.  That said, let us not forget that the Church of England and its Bishops in the House of Lords only have relevance to English affairs. The structures and practices of higher education in Wales is similar to England, but not to Scotland or Northern Ireland. 

As we have mentioned ‘Brexit’, it would be unwise to ignore the potential for overlapping episcopal oversight that is likely to emerge, including areas that may stoke confusion or even conflict.  My reading of the Consultation Document is that it envisages a kind of fusion model of government-by-cabinet with the familiar ethos of episcopal kyrierarchy.  If power and authority shifts from the ground (spatial) to the situational and subject-based, the net result will be inherently non-local and anti-democratic.  The business of representation – whether accountable or symbolic – will shift to arenas where Bishops have designated responsibility and opinions.  Or perhaps Bishops may go further and claim vicarious expertise on behalf of the church and its collective members.  

I think this is misguided and muddled, and will lead to confusion and conflicts within the church.  For example, does the Bishop for Agriculture and Fisheries connect up with the Bishops for Rural Affairs, or Foreign Affairs, and/or Brexit.  Is the row about the English fishing industry – I am not denying its serious importance – located in the rights and concerns of those working in the industry; or territorial waters and quotas; or sustainability, climate change and ecological concerns?  Which Bishop has the right knowledge and experience for this brief?  Moreover, the next time a spat breaks out between English fishermen (note, not Welsh, Scottish or Irish) and their French or Spanish counterparts, is this a ‘Brexit’ issue, or indeed Foreign (or Home?) affairs, to say nothing of Agriculture and Fisheries?

Readers of the Consultation Document may also worry about how subject-areas and situations become priorities, or deemed to be more subordinate.  The armed services have a Bishop already. Should the police and the emergency services be placed on the same representational footing?  Policing in England is by region, with Scottish policing distinct and separate. Similar devolved powers and identities have crystallised in healthcare.  Coastguards are more complex.  Most of the media is regulated by Ofcom, but that covers the UK, not just England.  Does the Consultation Document envisage Bishops commenting – morally or in any censorial capacity – on press, television, cinema or other public output?  It should be noted this has not usually stopped Church of England Bishops before – they have often lapsed into “speaking for the nation” – forgetting that their remit is England, not the entire UK. 

We might also question the inherent hierarchies ascribed within government-by-cabinet.  Let us take the Department for Health and Social Care.  The Secretary of State is Sajid Javid MP, supported by Edward Argar MP (Minister for Health)Gillian Keegan MP(Minister for Care and Mental Health)Maggie Throup MP (Minister for Vaccines and Public Health)Lord Kamall (Minister for Technology, Innovation and Life Sciences) and Maria Caulfield MP (Minister for Patient Safety and Primary Care). 

These are all important areas, and which of our Bishops has never had to comment on the proposed closure of a local hospital, or perhaps on the need for a public inquiry? Or Covid-19 crises? Or perhaps just generally on the pressures faced by the NHS, care-workers in care-homes, or the lack of nurses perhaps caused by Brexit? One also has to factor in the Department for Work and Pensions holding the brief for disability (Chloe Smith MP, the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work) and well-being (David Rutley MP, the Minister for Welfare Delivery).

I doubt that the Church of England – unable to manage sexuality, gender, equality, safeguarding and other basic social givens – is not ‘oven-ready’ (as Boris Johnson might say) to relaunch itself on an unsuspecting nation with some panoramic remit to offer commentary and guidance on issues and subjects it lacks the expertise to speak on, or the authority to even opine about.  In any case, this would require heavy resourcing from high-calibre advisers, which currently, the Church of England lacks.  But such is the inherent hubris of the Consultation Document, that it cannot reflect on how alien and intrusive this new model of episcopal organisation would be perceived by the wider public.  Moreover, there is an element of motes and beams (Matthew 7: 1-5) on many of the issues that the Church of England has historically ascended its own national pulpit to declaim upon.  My view is that any rights to such sermonizing have to be earned, and are not to be presumed.

We saw some evidence for this in the recent ticking off the Church of England’s Ethical Investment Advisory Group (EIAG) gave to investment companies in their May 2021 publications to the National Investing Bodies (NIBs).  The EIAG chided that international human rights should be respected by the companies in which they invest. Clearly nobody briefed the EIAG that on gender, sexuality, equality and employment rights, the Church of England had in fact opted out of the 1998 Human Rights Act 25 years earlier, precisely so it could continue to affirm and support the very discrimination that the 1998 HRA sought to outlaw.  

Hence, a clergyperson in the Church of England who engages in same-sex marriage with their beloved partner is not at liberty to use the 1998 legislation. The Church of England’s and House of Bishop’s position remains as, “these are good and proper laws for the people of this nation to follow, but they are not for those of us who belong to and preside over the church”.  In a similar vein, Justin Welby delivered a meek rebuttal of the Anglican Church in Ghana, which threw its weight behind the Promotion of Proper Human Sexual Rights and Ghanaian Family Values Bill (2021), which would criminalise same-sex relations, and even make it a crime to simply advocate for LGBT+ rights, punishable by up to a decade in jail. The Archbishop of Canterbury felt he could not do more than chide the Anglican Church of Ghana, as he argued his authority was confined to English affairs.  He had presumably forgotten his censure and banning of the Episcopal Church of the USA, which accepted same-sex marriages, and where they are lawful.  It is unclear why the Archbishop can intervene decisively and quite punitively in the USA, but not extend a parallel censure to Ghana.

I strongly suspect that the deep anxieties and paralysing fears of Bishops, and their palpable sense of utter disarray, is rooted in this latest attempt to reorganise and rebrand.  Bishops have lost sight of their primary purpose, calling and function. That is, being kind and good shepherds, wise teachers, encouraging the faithful, supporting the weak, alleviating the suffering and pains of the poor and broken, and being to their clergy, congregation, churches and all people as Christ is to others.

In the final comments below, I wish to acknowledge my gratitude to Gerald Hiestand and Todd Wilson (The Pastor as Theologian: Resurrecting an Ancient Vision, Zondervan, 2015), and Kevin Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan, (The Pastor as Public Theologian: Reclaiming a Lost Vision, Baker Academic, 2015).  With them, I express a humble hope for the Church of England: that it will begin to recover poise and courage, and somehow find the heart and mind to recover that simple vocation – embody love, mercy, kindness, wisdom and care for all (for God so loved the world).

Bishops are to mediate the wisdom and compassion of God: to be teachers and pastors, after the example of Christ himself, no less. Bishops, together with the churches and communities they serve, are too often held captive by models of leadership. The Bishop as a preeminent pastor-theologian is a particular kind of generalist: one who specializes in viewing all of life from the perspective of what God was, is and will do in Jesus Christ.

Nowadays, many Bishops (and clergy) see themselves as missional target-setters, motivational practitioners and middle-managers, presiding over a dysfunctional organization that needs (their) reform.  The history and tradition of the church does not recognize this vision for episcopacy, and should refuse it.  To save to soul of the church, Bishops need to return to a love of theology.  Not just a nodding acquaintance with a few bright ideas.  

The office of Bishop (and theologian) are not recent innovations, or an executive position.  These roles have ancestry in the leadership offices of ancient Israel: prophets, priests, judges and rulers. The office of pastor was commissioned by Jesus: it continues Jesus’s ministry as the good shepherd of the new covenant community, and as someone who embodies wisdom, inspired by the Spirit.  Bishops are a particular embodiment of this ministry.  Without theological vision, the people perish.  Managers can help implement such vision.  But it is not the task of managers to set out the vision for the people, and proclaim their strategy and tactics as some kind of gospel or missional blueprint.  That is not the good news.

Being a Bishop is not an ecclesiastical ‘job’.  It is, rather, an ‘occupation’.  Bishops are to be occupied with God (for which they need theology and spirituality); and then to be occupied with what preoccupies God’s heart and mind – the cares and concerns Christ has for our broken world and its needy people (engaging in pastoral care).  Thus occupied, a bishop might then occupy some place (usually referred to as a Diocese), and live out their vocation in much the same way that Jesus dwelt amongst us.  For God so loved the world that he sent his only Son (John 3: 16), fully occupied with God, to be an occupant in a small neglected corner of an empire. Jesus was preoccupied with the poor, lonely, diseased, disabled and oppressed.  Thus abiding, Jesus made his abode (home) amongst us, serving, leading, healing, preaching – and giving and receiving hospitality. Likewise, he invites Bishops to dwell in particular times and places, radiating the same love, compassion and wisdom of God we find in Jesus.