The Ven. Guy P. Hawtin preached the following sermon at the Consecration of Fr. John Vaughan, Bishop-elect of the Diocese of the Eastern United States, Wednesday in the First Week After Easter, April 18th, 2012.
✠ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen ✠.
It is commonly claimed that one of the main differences between Lutherans and Anglicans is Lutherans believe bishops are desirable but unnecessary, while Anglicans believe bishops are necessary but undesirable. It, thus, might be well worth exploring why this might be so.
The Internet—a glorious invention—enabled me to discover just what it is that Lutherans find desirable in bishops. Funnily enough, Methodists and even Romans seem to share similar opinions about desirable qualities. Here’s a list of the most important:
“A bishop must have great people skills (they must make eye contact and be able to make others feel comfortable). They must have effective communication skills, orally and in writing. They must have vision—a proven ability to discern God’s vision. They must provide strategic leadership to ensure people develop goals and the plans needed to bring them into being. They must be able to lead churches to vitality and growth and to instill confidence in those who are looking to them to lead. Lastly, they must be able to see things from other people’s perspectives and ‘to bring people together in a polarizing world.’”
One has to admit such qualities would probably address a common complaint that is leveled against many of our traditionalist Anglican bishops—one heard not just from enthusiastic lay people, but not a few clergy as well: “Why doesn’t he DO something.”
Thus the Lutherans seem to value on all the desirable talents for administering large organizations—dioceses, provinces, even lowly parishes. Yet they are also the very same qualities considered desirable for secular leadership—at General Motors, Amtrak, the Bank of America, the Department of Homeland Security, even in the Oval Office.
But there is something uniquely 21st-century about such prescriptions They don’t seem to fit comfortably folks like Saints Patrick, Anselm, Cuthbert, or Elphege. Yet we consider them fine bishops. And what then of Robert Grosseteste, the great 13th-century Bishop of Lincoln—an age just as hard nosed as our own? Grosseteste was an energetic church reformer, but no great practitioner of business or diplomatic skills.
Once a wealthy, well-connected deacon was presented to Grosseteste for elevation to the priesthood—a man it would have been greatly in his interest to ordain. But seeing the man’s elegant clothes, his fine leather boots, the gloves on his hands, the rings on his fingers, and the sword on his hip, Grosseteste exclaimed. “Oh sir, I think you’ve come to the wrong shop. Surely it’s a commission in the army you want.”
This, of course, doesn’t mean that there haven’t been great bishops with commercial experience and a track record of business success. St. Ambrose of Milan—who brought St. Augustine of Hippo to Christ—was a highly successful businessman at the time he was elected—so successful and worldly, in fact, he tried to decline the episcopate. He was tied up, dragged, struggling, into the cathedral and ordained deacon, priest, and bishop in one fell swoop.
If anybody brought business and political skills to the episcopate, it was Ambrose. So what qualities did he look for in a bishop? “Turn all to the Lord Jesus,” he told the candidates at a fractious electoral synod. “Let your enjoyment of this life be with a good conscience, your endurance of death with the hope of immortality, your assurance of the resurrection through the grace of Christ; let truth be with simplicity, faith with confidence, abstinence with holiness, industry with soberness, conversation with modesty, learning without vanity; let there be soberness of doctrine, faith without the intoxication of heresy.”
Phew! Quite a list that—but not a word said about communication skills, strategic leadership, church growth, or even the vision thing. Clearly, by today’s standards, he wouldn’t make a very desirable bishop. Makes one wonder how the Milanese Church survived under his care, doesn’t it? Amazingly well, actually! But then again, Ambrose was only expanding on St. Paul, the most effective and efficient church planter of all time. The Epistle encapsulates Paul’s notion of the sort of qualities that make a good bishop. Tellingly, they are exactly the same as those for priests and deacons:
“A man who is blameless, loyal to his wife, vigilant, circumspect and hospitable, a teacher; not given to drink, not inclined to lash out impulsively, not avaricious; but patient, not one who enjoys a scrap, not envious, a firm but loving father with experience of life in the secular world, but not caught up in it.”
Again, no mention of communication skills, strategic leadership, church growth, or the vision thing. So let’s ask that fashionable question:
What would Jesus do? He, after all, is the ultimate authority. St. Luke tells us that at the Last Supper Jesus had to put a stop to an unseemly squabble about which of the apostles were going to get the top jobs in his earthly administration.
“The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them,” he told them, “And those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.”
And this, of course, explains why folks looking for bishops with strong communication skills, and strong track records in the realms of strategic leadership and church growth—not to mention the vision thing—tend to conceive of the episcopate as being desirable but unnecessary, The laying on of hands, after all, doesn’t confer these sorts of gifts. In fact, the qualities Jesus, Paul, and Ambrose cite as necessary for the job are a real impediment to efficient, businesslike administration.
Truth to tell, the qualities Jesus, Paul, and Ambrose insist are necessary in bishops—and in priests and deacons, for that matter—run totally contrary to the way in which human beings are genetically wired. The qualities Christ prescribes require a constant struggle against our basic masculine instincts.
He demands, for instance, that we be nurturing when we naturally tend to equate it with weakness; forgiving when we are normally inclined to be retributive; loving when we are naturally self–absorbed; and humble when our fundamental flaw, our Original Sin, is pride.
St. Paul might seem to be stating the obvious when he says: “If a man desire the office of bishop, he desireth a good work.” But the fact of the matter is that while the work is indeed good, the actual qualities it demands we bring to it make it—from the human perspective at least—absolutely anything but desirable. AMEN.