Our recent clergy conference in the Edinburgh Diocese concerned in part our thoughts on the upcoming election of a new Bishop.
For, dear C of E reader, we get to elect ours. Instead of a crown appointments committee, we have a proper X-factor style judging contest.
Actually, it is probably less like X-factor and more like Miss World. The way the canons of our church structure it, it becomes a sort of theological beauty contest, with a presentation and questions. So, a bit like Miss World, but with fewer bikinis.
By that I mean, of course, that candidates are fully clothed, not that we ask our candidates for the episcopacy Not To Wear Their Bikinis.
And now, let’s have a pause to get that image out of our heads…
Anyhooo. It was interesting to see who was looking for what in a Bishop. We are living in the legacy of (at least) two Bishops in Edinburgh: the previous Bishop but one, Richard Holloway, and the newly retired Brian Smith, who ordained me. I have tremendous affection and respect for them both. Richard was the one who brought me into the church, as I reluctantly left behind my cradle catholicism, and with them the twin virtues of being a Yorkshire-born, Irish-heritage catholic – lots of incense and no real theology. At the time I “converted” to use my parents’ term and “swapped” to use mine, I was a singer at St Mary’s Cathedral Edinburgh. I was a nominal catholic only in the sense that I didn’t really have any thoughts about God but liked the idea that we were somehow better than the Anglicans. I made the mistake of listening to Richard’s sermons, and it got me thinking. That was new for me and it turned out badly, with me eventually getting Ordained in the first year of Brian’s term as Bishop inEdinburgh.
The diocese that Brian inherited was quite divided. Richard’s profile and the vigour with which he was (often mistakenly) reported inevitably divided opinion, and there were some rather mad schisms within the diocese by the time he retired. These were over all the normal issues one would expect dioceses to be divided upon. Brian worked quietly, and very hard, in healing a lot of these divisions, and over his nine years, did heal and foster respect to a remarkable degree.
That is the legacy left to us of our previous incumbent, Bishop Brian Smith. A glorious eccentric (who on earth else has a collection of oscilloscopes?), who could more likely be found head first in a skip exploring its contents than supping sherry at the New Club, he managed somehow to bring us all to a common understanding – which was his own understanding of us as individuals. In effect, he taught us that we were were all worth knowing. Brian did not have the media cache that Richard had and still has, and his voice was less often heard. But he had an intellectual ability which was far ahead any of his clergy, and had developed enough political nous as Bishop down south to use every stratagem to keep us being kind to one another.
Those two models of being Bishop express two varying desires for the next Bishop of Edinburgh amongst the clergy present at the conference. There are those, mainly men in their late fifties, who were looking for a Totem – a standard to rally round. Something along the lines of how Richard Holloway was – a notable name, someone the public would have heard of. Someone who they could be proud of, and admire. In many ways they were looking for, if not a father figure, a Champion. That model of Episcopacy was good in many ways – it raised the profile of the church, it gave a significant voice to the liberal wing of the church (which especially in Edinburgh made the piscy church far more in touch with the people within the diocesan area), and increased the confidence of those who worked in it. However, during that time, numbers declined, and the diocese was terribly divided.
The model of Brian was one where the profile is not as high, where he was reluctant so speak out on the “big issues”, but instead focussed on the smaller issues – things that mattered in the daily lives of the church and clergy of the diocese. He resourced churches in their mission and ministry when they needed it, and avoided interfering when they didn’t. He didn’t engage in large diocesan-wide initiatives, knowing that the diocese was so diverse there was no one-fit solution to anything.
As a result of Brian’s work, one of the great virtues of our diocesan clergy conference is that everyone likes one another. Genuinely. There are many in the conversation whose place on the theological spectrum I don’t know. And many of those who come from the opposite ends of the liberal/conservative/anglo-catholic/evangelical spectrum to myself are the ones I end up spending a good deal of time with. The divisions, the differences of opinion are still there, but we all feel blessed at our communion with one another, strengthened by our time together, and we seek to love one another, rather than retreating into the traditional tribal groupings.
I suppose ideally, we would have both models of Bishop – a standard, a voice, but someone who can bind us in the bonds of love. But to seek that is to fall into the traditional trap of “Wanted for the Bishop of Edinburgh – God. Must do email”.
For my part, I want someone who can recognise how blessed we are to have genuine bonds of love for one another – bonds which are very awkward at times of crisis such as the Anglican Covenant issues. Blessedly awkward. I want someone who will tell me the absolute truth in times of pastoral crisis, and stick with me as I wade through it. I want someone who can resource the mission of each individual church. I want someone to tell me new things. And above all I want someone who will safeguard the place of those I call theological opposites, my brothers and sisters in Christ.