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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

On the Next Bishop of Durham

Tomorrow is St John the Baptist’s Day, the forerunner of Jesus. He did not know the name of the one who would be revealed as the saviour of the world.  But he was to look for the man ‘on whom you see the Spirit descend’.  This is what he recognised in Jesus. He spoke of him as the promised Lamb of God and people began to follow him.  They called him Rabbi, ‘teacher’.  St John the Evangelist who tells us this seems to be saying that four things mark Jesus out: his spiritual charism, his sacrificial vocation, his teaching, and his insight into human nature.  Four marks of messiahship.
And perhaps they are four marks of leadership in the church in any age, although we do not look for or need little messiahs. Next Saturday we shall ordain new priests here at the Cathedral. So what do we look for in the church’s leadership as we pray for them?  We also await the announcement of our next bishop.  The Commission which recommends the appointment has finished its work. We can expect a name within a few weeks. Whoever he will be (and I wish I could say that it might be a ‘she’), we have been praying for him long before he himself has realised that this is his destiny. But perhaps it will help our prayers if we think about those qualities John the Baptist saw in the Christ who was to come.  What kind of person should occupy the See of Cuthbert? What kind of men and women does the church need in its priests? Obviously, people who put the imitation of Christ above all, who will do what Jesus tells the healed demoniac in our gospel reading: tell everyone what great things God has done.
I don’t suppose our new bishop needs me to tell him what bishopping is about. But it may help us as we prepare to welcome him, we hope this time for a period of many years, to think about these marks of anointing that a spiritual leader should emulate.
First, charism.  ‘The one on whom you see the Spirit descend and rest.’  It goes without saying that we need a man of prayer, reflection and inwardness, whose vision is shaped by a deeply nurtured relationship with God.  Yet it needs affirming that this is fundamental to spiritual leadership.  There are plenty of good theologians, people who are well read, tough, financially shrewd, articulate, kind and caring, expert strategists, and passionate for justice.  These qualities are all important in a bishop.  But like patriotism, they are not enough.  What is remembered in great church leaders is the charism of spiritual wisdom born of a deep and rich inward life.  I wonder if it is becoming harder for senior appointments in the church to be made with regard to this sine qua non. We don’t know if the next bishop will be a well-known figure with a large following, or whether he comes to us as one unknown, not yet burdened by high office.  Whichever it is, we pray for this charism in him, for under the constant scrutiny of public gaze, only the Spirit of God will set his priorities in order, stop him from thinking of himself more highly than he ought to think, save him from burning out.  Only the Spirit will be his safeguard against the cult of celebrity that bedevils public life today. Only the Spirit can save him from himself. And this goes for priests too.
Secondly, vocation. John says: ‘Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.’  There is a kind of dying to oneself in leadership that is part of its vocation.  Priests and bishops know what it costs to bear public office in the church.  Sydney Smith, that sharpest of clerical wits two centuries ago, said that what bishops loved most about their role was a dropping-down deadness of manner in other people because bishops had favours to bestow.  I hope we shall have a bishop who is free of the need to receive deference or to give it. The truth about a privileged position is to that it can often mean being laid on the altar of relentless demand.  The new bishop will need to see through the glamour of the job to be a servant of the servants of God.  He will need to model to an often demoralised and discouraged church the real nature of vocation, how it is self-offering for the building up of Christ’s body and the service of the world.  He will be blamed for many of the church’s ills: its decline both in numbers and influence, its waning finances, its fragile morale. It would be unfair to blame anyone personally for these realities whose causes are complex and not always well-understood.  But leaders often find themselves cast into the role of sacrificial victims.  That requires patience and humility when a bishop’s leadership is strange and baffling to some, and marginal to almost everyone else. A strong sense of calling is necessary.  
Thirdly, what I want to call  intelligence. When Jesus comes, he puts a question to those waiting for him: ‘What are you looking for?’  They say to him, Rabbi which means teacher.’  I don’t hesitate to say that the next bishop must be a good rabbi, literally in Hebrew a ‘great one’, like a guru, literally a ‘heavy one’, or as we might say, someone with gravitas. This means he must be a good theologian, that is, someone who constantly asks the question: how do we speak of God in the modern era?  How do we read the signs of his presence and activity?  What account do we give of Christian faith in a complex world of many faiths and meanings, and in particular, this secularised western society of ours?  What does God want for North East England and for this diocese? How can religion be offered as a credible and attractive path for scientists, philosophers, economists, historians, artists, politicians, thinking people in all walks of life?  It seems to me that these are inescapable tasks for a bishop today, and no less importantly, for priests in parishes too.  How the church engages in apologetics and evangelism in this climate will have far-reaching consequences for the intellectual survival of Christianity as public faith in this century.  Our leaders need finely nurtured Christian minds, be immersed in the Bible and Christian tradition yet also wear their learning lightly.  There must be simplicity in their depth.  That calls for real religious intelligence. It’s what it means to be a rabbi
Finally, insight.  St John says that one of Jesus’ first acts is to look at Simon and say, You are to be called Cephas: Peter, the Rock. Later in the gospel he records that Jesus ‘knew what was in the heart of everyone’. The gifts of insight, perceptiveness, discernment cannot be overrated in public life.  A bishop has to move among the great and powerful of the land without losing his integrity.  He sits at the apex of a complex, disparate institution and has to understand why it is what it is.  At times he must speak for a wider public, even the nation, if not in Durham, then in the House of Lords.  He will face difficult issues to do with the future of the establishment, relations with other faith communities, women bishops, gay marriage and human sexuality where he must hold the ring amid fractious disputes.  More intractably, he will be a senior public representative of religion at a time when many people see no place for faith, as I’ve said.  He will not be able to arrest the devastating slide in church attendance, but he may perhaps help the church not to despair.  He needs to be a ‘dealer in hope’ as Napoleon said about leaders. He will need to be a shrewd politician, know the art of the possible, temper vision with reality.  But he will also need not to be afraid of change, of taking risks, of thinking the unthinkable, of being a prophet for our times. And more intimately, he will need to have insight into the daily lives of parish clergy and the communities they serve, and this of course is the special task of our parish priests. To do this pastoral task priests and bishops must listen carefully to many disparate voices, be present to them, commit themselves to them without reserve. 
‘Who is sufficient for these things?’ asks Paul in one of his letters.  Who is sufficient to lead the church in telling what God has done, becoming the kind of society he speaks about in today’s epistle, living the transforming and transformed life where there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus. It is an impossible job, of course. Anyone offered it would surely respond instantly by saying, as bishops of old used to when they were dragged off to be consecrated, nolo episcopari:: I do not want this. Only a fool would want it.  But to be a fool for Christ is also at the core of the job-description.  For our next bishop, and for our new priests, this may be food for thought and prayer in the days that lie ahead.
23 June 2013 (Trinity IV, the day before St John Baptist's Day)
Galatians 3.23-end; Luke 8.26-39

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