A bishop finds the episcopacy wanting

Published March 1, 2002

The following is the full text of an essay entitled The Episcopate which Bishop Michael Ingham wrote for the book All Who Minister, edited by Maylanne Maybee (Anglican Book Centre, $24.95). An adapted version appeared in the print edition of Anglican Journal.

A “bishop” who has set his heart on a position of eminence rather than an opportunity for service should realize that he is no bishop.


Authority for ministry in the church originates with baptism. This has been one of the great theological rediscoveries of modern times. The laos – the people of God – constitutes the fundamental order of ministry in the church. Every Christian, by virtue of baptism into the death and resurrection of Christ, is called to be a minister of his gospel. It is for this reason that the gifts of the Holy Spirit are given. And for the same reason the church has from earliest times chosen people to exercise particular ministries, rooting the authority for them in Christ himself through the baptismal community. It is necessary to begin here because we need to remind ourselves that ordained ministry is derivative of the laos, and not the other way around. This is particularly important in the case of bishops. Anglicans have tended to elevate bishops to a level of ecclesiastical nobility. They walk last in liturgical processions, dress in elaborate haberdashery, receive grand titles – no longer “the Reverend” but “the Right Reverend” or “the Most Reverend” – and a higher stipend. They are accorded positions of honour in church and society and, unlike most people today, are elected for life and with a high degree of tenure. There is keen interest in the process that creates them, and almost no process for removing them. They are the object of ribald jokes (“as the actress said to the bishop…”) and cruel delight when one stumbles or falls (“French Cardinal Found Dead in Paris Brothel”). Collectively and individually, they are held accountable for the growth or decline of the church, despite such obvious exaggeration of their effectiveness. In short, the episcopate looks like a desirable thing to have, if a fearful thing to hold. It is the object of both adulation and contempt. Yet the image of bishops as supreme monarchs and absolute rulers – occasionally fostered by bishops themselves in moments of insecurity – is perpetuated not so much by long tradition as by the modern church itself. We exhibit some of the co-dependent behaviour of a dysfunctional family. We create the very conditions we want to reject. Both ordained and lay alike are complicit in supporting a system that disables talented individuals, inhibits healthy relationships, and frustrates reform. I will say more about this later, but it is important to know that bishops have not always been regarded thus in Anglicanism. Richard Hooker, arguably the greatest theologian of the English Reformation, had a “low” view of episcopacy:

Though bishops may justly claim apostolic descent, yet the absolute and everlasting continuance of it they cannot say that any commandment of the Lord doth enjoin; and therefore must acknowledge that the church hath power by universal consent upon urgent cause to take it away, if thereunto she be constrained through the proud, tyrannical, and unreformable dealings of her bishops.

Hooker regarded the episcopate as a good thing but not a necessary thing. In his view, the purpose of bishops is primarily to be bearers of apostolic faith and teaching. This understanding led the English church, unlike some of its continental counterparts, to retain bishops in the sixteenth century after the break with Rome. But in the seventeenth century, some discoveries were made of early church documents that had been unknown to the Reformers. They included the second-century letters of Ignatius, Hippolytus, Ireneus, and Cyprian. They contained what we might call a “high” view of episcopacy. Thus:

Let all of you follow the bishop as Jesus Christ did the Father. Wherever the bishop appears, there let the people be, just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic church. Whatever he approves is also pleasing to God. He who honours the bishop is honoured by God. He who does anything without the bishop’s knowledge is serving the devil.

Ignatius established the bishop as the principal celebrant of the eucharist and, therefore, president of the assembly. Hippolytus asserted that episcopé contains the fullness of the other ministries, so that ordination is to be conferred by the bishop alone. Ireneus declared the bishop to be the principal teacher of the apostolic faith, while Cyprian said episcopacy confers leadership of all church councils and secures the unity of the local church with the universal. Thus, by the second century, the episcopate had become the primary order of ministry from which the other orders were deemed to flow. This position has profoundly influenced Anglicanism from the seventeenth century until today. It is now customary for the bishop to preside at the eucharist when he or she is present. Non-episcopal ordinations are not recognized. A diocese is understood as a regional grouping of churches gathered around a bishop. Both diocesan synods and national synods give the order of bishops separate voting power. Ordinals in the various Prayer Books throughout the Anglican communion emphasize the universal as well as the local character of the church, with the bishop as the link between them. Anglicanism continues to embrace both “low” and “high” views of episcopacy (as about many things). There is, however, general agreement across the communion on what is expected of a bishop, and this is expressed, for example, in the Canadian Book of Alternative Services:

A bishop in God’s holy Church is called to be one with the apostles in proclaiming Christ’s resurrection and interpreting the Gospel, and to testify to Christ’s sovereignty as Lord of lords and King of kings.

You are called to guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the Church; to celebrate and provide for the administration of the sacraments of the new covenant; to ordain priests and deacons; and to join in ordaining bishops; and to be in all things a faithful pastor and wholesome example for the entire flock of Christ (p. 638).

The newly ordained bishop is given a shepherd’s staff to symbolize the office as chief pastor of the diocese, and a Bible as a sign of authority as chief steward of God’s word and sacraments. Other elements in the rite stress the self-discipline required of a bishop, prescribing habits of regular prayer and study, the ability to listen and to take counsel, qualities of compassion and truthfulness, and a desire to nourish the spiritual lives of the whole people of God. It is a daunting task indeed, and those who are given it know its weight. Yet the actual living out of these expectations is fraught with difficulty. This is because they both express and reinforce inherent contradictions in episcopacy itself and in the church as a whole.


I remember a day early in my episcopate when I entered a room full of friends and colleagues, people I had known for twenty years. I was astonished when they all stood up. In the next few weeks, my jokes suddenly became funnier, my casual observations strangely more profound, and great interest was taken in my well-being in a way never shown before. Even though I had been elected from “inside” the diocese and was personally known, the process of distancing and elevating had begun. It was well meant, a sign of respect given to the office more than to me, but it had the effect of drawing an invisible veil across long-established relationships. It felt alien and disempowering. I began to sense information was being “tailored” to manoeuvre me in particular directions, and was surprised when an episcopal colleague said, “Two things happen when you become a bishop. You never eat a bad meal, and no one ever tells you the truth!” I was overwhelmed with demands. Every organization within the diocese wanted me to articulate my “vision” for the church. Every priest and deacon wanted time with me to establish a new pastoral relationship. Those clergy my predecessor had refused to license came to assure me of their undying gratitude for my election. Every lingering parish conflict turned up fresh at my door. Volumes of mail arrived in truckloads. I was asked to make decisions about matters of which I had no understanding, about which I did not know how to get accurate information. There were staff contracts to negotiate, organizational systems to redesign, critical gaps in diocesan policy to cope with, and confirmations. Confirmations. I started out joyously down this road, sweeping into filled churches with expectant and slightly apprehensive faces, enjoying the nervousness of the clergy, sensing the last hopes of parents that perhaps the bishop might be able to get through to their youngsters. I was aware, of course, that confirmation is a sacrament in search of a meaning, but I was determined to seize the moment as an evangelistic opportunity, to inspire the congregation, to catch the imagination of the candidates. Ten months later my preaching had regressed fifteen years. I had exhausted everything there is to say about confirmation in the first six outings, and the next fifty became a listless repetition. Time pressures left me with no spaces to think or prepare. I began arriving at churches in breathless haste, and composing sermons during the introit hymn. Standing in the pulpit or at the chancel step, I would start to speak with my mind a mere half-sentence ahead of my mouth. The thought of doing this until retirement was appalling. Other contradictions began to emerge too. I was encouraged by clergy and laity alike to be courageous in leadership, to help the church face the difficult challenges ahead, to be an agent of change as well as of tradition, to speak the truth in love. This was enormously supportive, but when I did speak the truth in love, I was met with howls of disapproval, accusations of apostasy, and even more mail. Kortright Davis remarks, “When the bishop speaks, everybody listens. So the bishop has to be careful to speak with everybody in mind.” This is true, but how hard it is. It can easily become a retreat into inoffensive blandness signalling the loss of integrity. For a bishop, guarding the unity of the church and maintaining the integrity of one’s own faith convictions is no easy matter, especially in our theologically polarized climate. There is a deep temptation to moderate rather than to lead. Openness to other points of view and the capacity to respect the deeply held convictions of other people is an essential characteristic. But so is the gift of discernment and submission to the word of God. Episcopal ministry frequently involves painful choices between faith and unity, between resolving conflicts and making unpopular decisions, and it can feel like a cross on which the soul permanently hangs. There is a price to be paid for these contradictions in terms of spiritual and physical health. But there is an even greater one to be paid by a bishop’s family, where the pain of seeing one’s spouse deeply hurt and constantly tired is compounded by the inability to do anything about it, and by the necessity of maintaining a positive public appearance all the while. Bishop Steve Charleston of Alaska recently resigned his see because of the stress of episcopal ministry on his family life. He said this:

The episcopacy really needs reform…. I believe the majority of the House of Bishops would say the greatest frustration in their ministry is that they don’t feel able to live out a spiritual style of leadership. They find themselves constantly enmeshed in the managerial sides of leadership. The whole system is designed to seduce a man or woman into a feeling of being constantly involved with all the decisions. Times for reflection, quiet prayer, daydreaming, conversations, storytelling, listening, walking, looking at the earth – all of those things are not prized. So the temptation is to minimize the spiritual and to maximize the managerial.

Charleston’s comments illustrate the dysfunctional family system that is sometimes the church. We ordain bishops to be spiritual leaders, for which they are generally well equipped, and then give them responsibilities of corporate management, for which they are quite untrained. We dress them in purple and fine linen, and then complain about aloofness and hierarchy. We expect them to be people of prayer, wisdom, and learning, and then to attend endless meetings and reply to an avalanche of letters. We make them caregivers to the pastors, then give them great power over appointments and careers, setting up patterns of dependency and resentment for many clergy and their families. We encourage them in a ministry of transformation, but reward them only for actions that promote system maintenance and tranquillity. In this context, the actual practice of episcopal ministry today does not allow for the fulfilment of episcopal vows. It is no secret that many bishops are unhappy with their roles, just as many in the church are unhappy with their bishops. What can possibly be done?


I want to make some practical suggestions for reshaping episcopal ministry. All of them arise from a theological understanding of the laos – the people of God – as the fundamental order of ministry in the church, essentially reversing the tradition from the second century. We need to re-establish the sacrament of baptism as the primary call to ministry of every Christian. If this is accepted, it follows that the threefold order of bishops, priests, and deacons is intended to serve and sustain the laos, not the other way around. Ordination is the setting apart by sacred rites of persons with special gifts and charisms to support the body of Christ and his mission in the world. We should be enabling these persons to exercise their gifts by releasing them to do what they do best. Systematic obstructions need to be removed by better use of the abilities of others. Reshaping episcopal ministry must mean recovering the primary apostolic purpose of the office as expressed in the ordinal, and shedding whatever is not found there. This can be summarized in four principal functions. 1. To proclaim and interpret the gospel of Christ to the church and to the world. The church today has a profound need for gifted teachers and skilled communicators of the word of God. And in fact, there is a remarkable number of them in our midst. Bishops should be elected from among them. Rather than looking for the candidate most able to represent our theological party, or least likely to offend the largest number, we should call into leadership those whose evident faith in Christ communicates itself authentically and commands the deepest recognition, or else those who can call forth faith in others by inspired instruction and persuasion. Bishops should be teachers of the gospel first of all. This requires a large degree of freedom from administrative and managerial functions. Supervising offices, spearheading programs, hiring staff, sitting on boards and committees, performing bureaucratic tasks, wading through legal work, preparing budgets, being consulted about every decision – unless these tasks are clearly related to the proclamation and interpretation of the gospel, they are not part of a bishop’s purpose, and should not be part of a diocese’s expectation. Episcopé is not called forth from people with administrative ability but from people with spiritual ability. In many Canadian dioceses, however, reform is prevented by financial cutbacks and diminishing diocesan staff, particularly in the north. The Canadian church will have to consider drawing together the administrative and financial functions of separate dioceses into single centralized provincial offices under effective lay leadership, and freeing bishops from unnecessary duties. In some dioceses, as national funding has been withdrawn, bishops may have to retain responsibilities as parish incumbents. The model already exists among Indigenous bishops, and it may need to be extended across the church in more imaginative ways. This in itself would require a change in the role and expectations of bishops. We should feel free to imagine new models of ministry for bishops beyond current diocesan patterns. In the USA and New Zealand, examples exist of non-territorial bishops, primarily for Indigenous people. Canadian Indigenous people rightly look upon these models with interest, but we may soon have to extend them further if dioceses themselves start to dissolve, for example, in the current crisis of litigation. Also in England, we have the example of a bishop as a commissioned evangelist with a national ministry of teaching and proclamation. In the USA, a bishop heads up the national program of training for new bishops, and there are several examples of episcopal teams working together in different configurations, as we have also in Canada. There is no reason to restrict the ministry of a bishop to a diocese, any more than to limit a priest’s minstry to a parish. Some creative imagination here could make up for the lack of resources. Bishops themselves will have to relax their hold on jurisdiction to allow collegial models to develop. 2. To guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the church. This sounds like an inherently conserving role – the brakes rather than the accelerator. Certainly, in our dysfunctionality we interpret it as such, and discourage bishops from forays into new theological territory or non-traditional approaches to ministry. The effect can be deadly on creative minds. It threatens to reduce the episcopal bench to slumbering elders in the grip of terminal caution. But there is nothing about guarding the faith that necessarily requires an overwhelming prudence. No ministry grounded in Jesus Christ could be authentically afraid of risk and the crossing of boundaries. Maintaining the unity of the church today requires acts of courage and risk taking. In this rapidly changing spiritual environment, old approaches won’t do. Genuine faithfulness requires openness to new knowledge, willingness to re-examine accepted orthodoxies in the light of compelling truths in other disciplines such as the arts, sciences, philosophy, and other religions. Guardianship need not mean simply “holding the traditional line.” It should also mean preventing spiritual decay and intellectual atrophy. It should mean tossing the occasional hand grenade into the closed rooms of dogmatism that so often passes for Christian education. Christian orthodoxy, properly understood, has always been open to contemporary intellectual thought, and has sought to use it as a vehicle for the gospel. But there is a massive intellectual fraud being perpetrated on the church today by those who claim orthodoxy to be co-terminous with the repression of theological creativity. The alacrity with which any bishop who utters a speculative idea gets pounced upon is actually depriving the church of the bold leadership it needs. There is certainly no place for theological recklessness within the episcopate. Rather, a corollary of guardianship is that the church should be equipped to engage the modern world in debate on its own terms for the sake of salvation. The Anglican tradition has been well served by scholarly bishops with the ability to bring Christianity into contact with contemporary thought, and vice versa. Some have been iconoclasts, some rogues, but most have advanced the mission of Christ by making faith accessible to those for whom traditional language and belief are no longer credible or salvific. The church needs to encourage adventuresome bishops as well as conservative ones. 3. To provide for the administration of the sacraments of the new covenant. Bishops are to ensure sacramental ministry is everywhere provided for so that the church may be fed and loved. This means the bishop must continue to have authority to ordain and to license. But it also suggests the essential skill of delegation. One of the duties that ought to be delegated is confirmation. In the Orthodox tradition, confirmation is administered by priests. This is a practice to which we should move, or rather return, for in the Western church confirmation was reserved to bishops only after the sacrament of Christian initiation was divided in two – into what we now call baptism and confirmation. Confirmation by priests would both restore the original unity of Christian initiation and free the bishop to exercise a more apostolic ministry. In my own diocese, I no longer do parish confirmations (they are held in the cathedral during Easter). This enables me on Sundays to visit churches, to celebrate eucharist, to teach the gospel, to visit clergy families, and to discuss matters affecting the well-being of the parish. It means I am present at normal parish celebrations, and can spend time with people afterwards instead of cutting cakes, posing for photographs, and handing out certificates. It also means I have to preach my way through the eucharistic lectionary without being perpetually tied to the subject of Christian initiation. Other duties can be delegated too. Most bishops spend inordinate amounts of time in career counselling and personnel redeployment. Parish search committees consume hours of travel and consultation time. Undoubtedly, these can be opportunities for good pastoral contact, and can build a spirit of trust and confidence in the diocese and parish. But few bishops are trained in the increasingly complex field of personnel management and development. No major employer in Canada today expects its chief executive officer to handle the personnel department. Every diocese needs to examine its practice of human resources appointment and development, and where possible, release the bishop from direct responsibility. 4. To be a faithful pastor and wholesome example for the entire flock of Christ. As well as the usual things this implies – the striving towards exemplary personal conduct that is the vocation of every baptized Christian, yet without the sin of false moralism or the pride of perfectionism – there are some quite specific things it would be helpful for bishops to model. One is a healthy attitude towards work. The church resembles a dysfunctional family partly because it rewards and reinforces destructive patterns of work. How often do we praise the faithful pastor who spends all night by a hospital bed, or the parish secretary who doesn’t mind being phoned at home? How often do we criticize the priest who has an answering machine in the rectory or doesn’t come to every meeting? There is no other profession in Canada where such expectations would be tolerated. Clergy and laity who respond to these expectations, desiring a reputation for diligence and faithfulness, are actually creating the conditions for burnout and depression. They risk not only their own health but that of their families, who have no choice but to play this obsessive compulsive game to their own destruction. Bishops have heavier work pressures than almost anyone in the church, so one of the most helpful forms of leadership would be for them to renounce compulsive work habits and become wholesome examples of balanced healthy lifestyles. This is not compatible with eighty-hour work weeks or huge amounts of time away from home. A more healthy model would be in the forty-five to fifty-five hour a week range, and this should be a standard condition for all clergy. Personal health necessitates the sharing of ministry. Collegial models of leadership, rather than lone ranger styles, need to be praised and rewarded. Church members should reinforce health by criticizing bishops and clergy who spend too much time at work, and praising those who are not always available because of clearly set boundaries. Bishops must give support to clergy challenged by unrealistic parish expectations, but should start by making public their own family commitments and needs for personal renewal. Being a healthy model means abandoning obsessive work addictions. And if the diocese or parish starts to break down and fall apart because of it, so much the better. The road to health in the church may have to begin with the collapse of the present order. People will not take responsibility for themselves while leaders continually take responsibility for them. Another aspect of episcopal modelling has to do with accountability. Because the ministry of bishops arises out of the laos, it must continually be accountable to it. People of the church legitimately require good stewardship of what they entrust to their bishop. This should take the form of regular annual performance appraisals. In my own diocese I have asked for this, and the diocesan council has set up a process for my annual review. It is not a hostile or threatening process but a helpful one. Properly done, as mine is, it assists me to focus on areas of my strengths and weaknesses, so that I may receive support for the one and direction for the other. All clergy and lay workers should be evaluated regularly in a pastoral and supportive way. One of the reasons many church employees fear and resist evaluation is that it is often poorly done, and done only when there is a conflict. Then it can be used as a weapon. Evaluation ought to be an instrument of growth and improvement. This is one of many areas where we can learn from industry how to manage personnel issues more professionally and carefully. The church ought also to look seriously at setting terms for bishops, as for all clergy. The diocese of Kootenay has done this, establishing a ten-year term for the diocesan bishop. The stress of episcopal ministry is such that this should be seen as a preservative measure to free the bishop to move on to other ministry. It also frees the diocese to seek fresh leadership or to renew its relationship with the present incumbent. Finally, we need to look for ways to diminish the distance that separates bishops from their flock. One would be for bishops to stop what Bishop Richard Holloway at the 1994 Winnipeg Symposium on Ministry called “power dressing.” Expensive haberdashery is intrinsically distancing. Why do bishops need to dress in purple? Roman and Orthodox bishops don’t, except on liturgical occasions. For ordinary dress, they retain the black stock of the priesthood. Perhaps this is an Anglican distinctive we might rethink. It is a small sign, but then we live by signs. I remember going out to a small country church one hot summer day, and halfway through the service, when the heat was unbearable, I took off all my liturgical gear, and stood there as an ordinary human being. An audible sigh of relief went through the church! Some sort of barrier had come down.


Barriers of all sorts must come down. The reshaping of episcopal ministry requires a restoring of the apostolic nature of the office and the abandoning of historical accretions that have attached themselves to the role, to the detriment of the incumbents and the church. It should begin with a rethinking by bishops of the jobs they have accepted. It will have to be supported by clergy and laity, who must stop expecting bishops to be more than the human beings they are. Such healthy rebellion could help put an end to the dysfunction of our present system, and encourage the liberation of the laos to exercise the ministry they have been given in baptism.


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