Friday, 17 March 2017

After listening (2): Philip North and the role of a bishop

So much has been written and said over the last week about the appointment of Philip North to be Bishop of Sheffield, his subsequent withdrawal, and all that happened in between. So much of it angry and bitter, polarising and dividing. And not simply, I've noticed, the usual entrenched poles and divisions. Among women and men who are passionate advocates of women's ministry at all levels of the church, there has been sadness and frustration with each other about how this recent conversation has been conducted, how we should rejoice or protest, how we might be seeking 'mutual flourishing' - and what on earth that even means.

I'm hesitant about adding to the words, the noise, the cacophony. It's taken me a week to feel ready to articulate something. I, like many others I suspect, reached a point where I 'switched off' from the debate because I had reached my personal saturation point. So I may have missed someone having said already what I want to say here. It's not a big thought. But it may just possibly be a thought that tries to nudge the conversation in a slightly different direction.

I don't want to talk about whether Bishop Philip would have been right for Sheffield. I don't want to talk about how the full ministry of ordained women and men might have been affirmed and celebrated in that context. I want to explore briefly what we expect of any of our bishops and how we appoint them in the first place.

One of our basic assumptions about bishops seems to be that they must speak. They must lead through saying the right things, in the right way - whether internally, to the church, or externally, to 'the world'. And we will watch carefully what they say - or have said - and judge them accordingly. They will explain their 'position' (on any number of issues) by what they say, and we will each of us locate them on our personal ecclesiastical 'maps' by what we hear from them.

Bishop Philip has been hailed, from all 'sides' (and it seems there are many), as a powerful, prophetic voice for people and communities that have been pushed to the margins of our society. On the day of his appointment, in an address at Sheffield cathedral, he spoke strongly of wanting to be 'a bishop for all'. He had 'a number of ideas' about how he would work to 'develop and enhance women's leadership' in Sheffield diocese, but wanted to speak to them first before commenting in public, he said. I have no doubt, in the appointment process, he was asked repeatedly to give assurances on precisely this question - and quite possibly to explain, to the handful of people involved in his appointment, what those 'ideas' might be.

But what if that process had unfolded rather differently? What if one of our basic assumptions about bishops was not that they must speak, but that they must listen? And that we would judge a good bishop by the quality, care and attentiveness of her or his listening? Listening which, if it is genuine and deep, always opens the listener to the possibility that she or he might be transformed, moved, challenged and changed?

What if, to extend this thought a little further, there were to be no firm announcement of the appointment of a new bishop until the candidate preferred by the nominations panel had spent a year (yes, a whole year) travelling round their prospective diocese, engaging in 1-to-1 conversations with clergy and lay Christians, and people beyond the church too, not trying to persuade them of her or his suitability for the role, but listening to them intently and receptively? Surely, after such a sustained and careful journey of listening, the candidate should be more confident in their sense of what this particular role will demand of them. And hopefully also, the members of that diocese will have a much better sense of who this person is whom God might be calling to minister with them. But most crucially, the bishop-to-be will have opened her- or himself to be transformed, moved, challenged and changed by those encounters. And that will, if genuine, have been seen clearly by those s/he has visited. And it will also, if genuine, have actually transformed, moved, challenged and changed the bishop-to-be her- or himself. And at that point, and only then, would we invite all involved, diocese and candidate together, to ask themselves and each other whether they can hear the prompting of the Spirit to confirm this appointment.

It would be painfully slow, and hard work. It wouldn't play remotely well in the news media and on Twitter. But it might just land us with some better appointments, some better bishops, and transformed relationships between bishops, their clergy, their sister and brother Christians, and their non-Christian neighbours.

Just a thought.

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