I take a look at the Church of Ireland Gazette most weeks. I was interested this week to see Canon Ian Poulton – who is Rector of a group of parishes in the rural South – questioning the wisdom of the Church of Ireland’s current review of dioceses and episcopal ministry.
We’ve had one or two abortive attempts to do this in the past. I’ve never had much enthusiasm for it in Scotland. That’s partly because experience tells me that this is an area in which one can invest much time and effort in all sorts of plans only to see them taken apart on the floor of General Synod. I also haven’t worked out how one can embark on something which seems to look sensible and in the interests of good governance without it beginning to feel in practice like the management of decline.
But there is another reason – which is to do with the way in which we think about and practice episcopal ministry at present in our church. There are many traditional pictures of what a bishop is for – pastor to the clergy; leader of mission; focus of unity; teacher and guardian of the faith. There are some internal conflicts about the role – most obviously the well-known pastor-manager bind.
In Scotland, we’ve been moving towards a greater emphasis on the bishop as Leader of Mission. That understanding has been reflected in our Whole Church Mission and Ministry Policy which sees the missional energy of the church as located in the diocese under the leadership of the bishop.
It seems to me that the understanding of the role and ministry of the bishop makes us more growth orientated and less likely to want to prioritise what looks like a move to efficiency and rationalisation. The bishop is the encourager of clergy and congregations .. attempts to develop a sense of strategic direction … ensures that there is training and resourcing for ministry.
I think it also means that the bishop has a role in the interface between the church and the world If you look around our church you can see that role being worked out in terms of media profile. As larger churches decline, we are becoming more ‘mainstream’ in terms of our visibility in local communities. In some places, our bishops are being seen as leaders of the Christian community which ways which are almost post-denominational.
I have a feeling that it is this kind of episcopal ministry which Canon Ian Poulton is asking for. It’s hard to plan. It grows in response to the gifts of individuals and the opportunities which context provides.