Much ado about bishops: time for a more humane dispensation?

By Jill Segger
January 9, 2013

There has been much ado about bishops of late. First, the Church of England's House of Laity rejected the consecration of women, to the consternation of a majority in their own communion and the incredulity of wider society. Then the Catholic Archbishop of Westminster soured the Nativity season - perhaps the tenderest of all our celebrations of the mysteries of faith - with negativity about same sex love and marriage.

Now, with its statement that civil-partnered gay clergy may become bishops as long as they promise sexual abstinence and renounce their previous sexual activity, the Established Church shows itself to be in a deeply damaging state of confusion about the relationship between civil partnerships and marriage, about faithful and committed relationships, about love and trust, the imposition of impossible conditions and about the nature of a vocation to celibacy.

Ekklesia colleagues who have a far greater knowledge of the ways of the Church of England than I do, have written eloquently of the implications of the House of Bishops' statement. I find myself in sympathy with the child in the probably apocryphal story who, on seeing a bishop in full fig, turned to her mother and said, “Mummy, what is that man for?

The Society of Friends, in common with other dissenting faith bodies, manages its corporate life and witness without bishops. But we differ from them all in having no ordained ministry of any kind. Some may say we have no clergy - we are more likely to say we have no laity. Because we must all take responsibility for each other's learning processes, we are all teachers, just as we are all, in the words of the Quaker writer Edgar Dunstan, “humble learners in the school of Christ”. Because we have no individually defined ministers, we must all minister to each other. Because we have no hierarchy, there are passages of life in which we step forward in responsibility and others in which we lay that down and return to anonymity. Because we are without figureheads and hold a Testimony to equality, no individual, however wise or experienced, carries the weight of representing the tradition. Whether a Friend is Recording Clerk of Britain Yearly meeting or an Elder of the country's smallest Meeting, they undertake their service for a period of three years before passing it on to another.

This is a humane dispensation. It exalts no one and makes no one subject to scrutiny based upon prejudice or unrealistic expectations. No one is pumped up and no one is undermined – humanity in all its messiness - error, ambivalence, wisdom and foolishness - journeys in the company of equals without bearing the burdens of status and privilege or of being looked to for binding and authoritative decisions.

It would be ridiculous to suggest that those faith bodies in the apostolic tradition should dispense with their episcopate. But it does not seem unreasonable that they might be encouraged to ask what a bishop is for. The obvious answer is likely to be 'to teach'. But teaching is not done solely by sermons and theological papers.

What a system requires of a man (note the single gender noun) is what, to a large extent, forms him. If he is to be subject to unkind and intrusive demands in relation to his most intimate and loving experiences, he will be deformed. He may feel that concealing the truth is the only way to protect himself and those whom he loves. This is not a good lesson. And what is learned, will, even if unconsciously, be taught. How a person lives forms a large and significant part of what others will learn from them.

To require of a bishop that he must always be the un-nuanced mouthpiece of a dogmatic system is to undermine the very faith he is mandated to teach. The system becomes his master and his position within it dependent upon conformity. Freedom-giving truth may all too easily be lost amid anxiety or ambition. If this troubles him, a system which demands certainty and frequently displays a flawed notion of strength, will perceive him to be undecided or weak. Rowan Williams, surely one of the most sensitive, thoughtful and deeply spiritual religious figures of our time, has been castigated as 'woolly' in many quarters.

Where there is a hierarchic concept of 'authority', the figure in whom it is invested usually takes on aspects of privilege. The right of Anglican bishops to sit in our legislature is the worst manifestation of this. Being addressed as 'my lord' or 'your grace' is relatively trivial, but evidently places a certain strain upon the humility and realism of some men, as may the rather fine houses with which many of them are provided. Privilege isolates and although there are many excellent churchmen who have remained grounded in the lives of those they are there to serve, the centre of gravity of the episcopal system too often appears to pull in another direction.

Both by giving too much status and influence and by imposing conditions and exclusions which do violence to charity, the present culture around bishops seems increasingly unfit for purpose. If those churches whose structures depend upon bishops are to speak to and serve the wider communities in which they exist, the time has surely come for them to learn from the events of the past weeks and months. The signs of the times indicate that if religious leaders are to have that genuine authority which is grounded in humility, they must look and sound more like the society from which they are drawn.


© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: You can follow Jill on Twitter at:

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