Part Five What does a bishop bring?
The local church is the whole Church in that place. Singly and together, those Christians are witnesses and worshippers of Christ, and even if they are two or three, even if they are just one single Christian, the Lord makes their witness good, true and effective. That church is part of the communion of saints, made holy by the Holy Spirit, who enables it to pray and to ask for gifts, insight and power required for its witness to the world around it. And the Lord supplies it with what it needs and asks for. He sends it persons from churches near or far, who bring those gifts.
A bishop is a missioner sent by other churches to us, in particular sent to us by Christians of other earlier generations, that is, from the churches of the past. This missioner s responsible for our re-supply. He has to point out where we are compromised and weak, where our gospel is skewed, where some aspect of our witness seems to be missing. He has to refer us again to the Scriptures, and to the whole back catalogue of Christian experience of all the saints, martyrs and teachers of the Church who open Scripture to us and present from it that insight that we had neglected.
So this missioner comes to us to bring us whatever we lacks, and whatever we require to pass on to the world around us. He comes to us as out of the past or the future, from any time but our own, and he brings with him whatever our own time needs. His job is to keep the Church directed toward whatever will keep our society going, what will enable it to produce a new generation, and equip that generation for life.
So the question of bishops is not a minor and insignificant one. The bishop is sent to open each church to the whole gospel so the Church can open the nation to life. What the bishop is to the local church, so the church is to the nation. The question is whether the present generation can bear to hear any voice but its own, whether it can bear to admit its own mortality and concede that it must pass on the life that it has received and be glad. All issues of the ministry of the Church are simply about the transmission of life, both biological life and cultural, which results from the grace of God.
So these truths not only get our intellectual assent, but they are manifest in the way we gather and meet and arrange ourselves, in such a way that the watching world can see that we are witnesses to the value and complementarity of men and of women. We wait for one another, we suffer, put up with one another. Christians undergo a passion, in which our desires are frustrated, and we wait, while what doesn’t belong to us is stripped away. The very form of Christian assemblies show that men wait and women wait, and we do so because we look forward to what we do not yet have.
The bishop is the missioner from all churches to this particular church, and from all generations to this present generation. Since the missioner has this commission, I suppose you could call him a commissioner. You could equally call him an apostle (since he is sent), or an overseer, inspector, supervisor, or a chairman, president or moderator. It is as if there is just one very large panel or college of these missioners, which selects the men to send to each local church. We need not ask whether these are Roman Catholic or Orthodox or Anglican or any other denomination, for each of these bishops is representative of the whole unchanging worldwide Church.
When they do not hear what the Church says, the leaders and opinion-formers of our nation become merely representatives of, and advocates, for the present adult generation. They assert the rights of this generation over the hopes of generations past and to come. Only the Church represents generations other than this present one, and so advocates for the future generation. Only the Church is dedicated to such long-term inter-generational communication, the transfer of gifts up and down the line of human generations, for Christians are witnesses of the communion of saints that God sustains through time.
So the bishop must bring to the church here and now all the insight of the Church of all ages and places. He must bring the future into the present, and remind the present church to keep itself open to the future. The Church must remind the present generation to keep itself open to what is new, and to the hope of its renewal. Only someone who advocates to us for generations other than our own can help us. Only this figure can enable each local church to receive and to pass on the whole deposit of faith, and so give to the nation the whole vast account of human flourishing that the Church has received from God.
Nothing says more clearly that the present hierarchy of the Church of England is not interested in remaining part of the Great Church, than that they put a woman forward for the office of bishop. The figure who stands for continuity is replaced by another figure representing a complete break with all previous witness and ministry. Such a self-contradictory figure owes nothing to the generations of Christians who passed on the gospel with the scriptures, and us the worship and teaching, who remained faithful through all opposition and persecution, and through centuries of tyranny that continue today. They communicate only their own wilfulness, ignorance and confusion. But when they are challenged and discover they cannot give adequate reasons for the break they have made, they become strident and it becomes clear that their loyalty is to power rather than to the Lord.
The present hierarchy does not appear concerned for the churches of Africa, Asia or South America, for whom missing male leadership results in loss of civil society and peace, and female and child poverty. It assumes that previous generations of the Church and churches in other parts of the world had no reasons, or no good reasons, for ordaining men to service in the Church so that men could serve women, and women could be secured and emancipated by that service. The message of our present hierarchy is that there is nothing for men to do, there is no real significance to the role of man, that their contribution is not wanted, and that men can take themselves off, as they are now doing, into depression and addiction, dependency and violence. But when the opportunity or hope of leadership is taken away from men, the consequent tribalism and totalitarianism are suffered by men and women alike.
The moment the Church starts ordaining women to the role of priest, and even more of bishop, the Church stops being the Church. Suddenly the nation has no one to bring it insight and encouragement from other generations. Then our totalitarians don’t have anyone who can stand up to them, because, apart from the faithful Church, no one has the conceptual resources by which to do so. Our totalitarians have a clear run, and women are suddenly very vulnerable.
A ‘woman bishop’ could be bishop only in the Cult of the Present Generation. This is the generation so afraid of what it has received, and so unable to take the risk of love, that it has closed itself off from all other generations and no longer wishes to live. For this generation’s sake, the Church must stand against this generation. It must continue that unchanging Church, one, holy, catholic and apostolic faithful to the gospel, to the form of ministry and to the commission that it has received.