Bishops and Transforming Love


by the Very Revd Dr David Ison, Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral

Over the last few months the Vacancy in See Committee of the Diocese of London has been working to set out our view of what kind of bishop we need for the next stage of our journey together.

The Committee has been keen to connect our hopes with the content of the (modern English) Ordinal for bishops, to put the current challenges we face into the historic context of the mission of the Church. To help that process, I read through the Ordinal to find the words, prayers and questions which frame the calling of a bishop.

One of the things that struck me was how the content of the Ordinal is related to its origins in the sixteenth century conditions of Christendom and schism: in particular the concern for what in modern management-speak is termed ‘outputs’ (what the bishop and the Church are to do) as opposed to ‘outcomes’ (the fruits we bear). There’s a lot about proclamation of the Gospel so that it may be heard, gathering and feeding the flock, teaching rightly and guarding against error, and building up the unity and love of the Church. But there’s not so much that relates to the Great Commission in Matthew 28 to ‘make disciples of all nations’, or much about the revelation of Christ in the love of his people for one another as in John 13 and 17; when the reality of day by day mission is that God’s love for us in Christ is made present and visible in the love of the Church for one another and for the world – or not. The Church in the Ordinal is spoken of as a single community of love in space and time, and bishops are charged with loving ‘their people’; but they aren’t directly charged with loving those who are outside the Church, not least because when the Ordinal was drafted there were few people known to be outside the Church apart from ‘heretics’ and a few of other faiths.

There are two consequences to this. One is that bishops can carry a huge weight of expectation, being given an almost messianic level of responsibility for shaping the life of the Church and leading its mission in individual isolation. As with churches seeking parish clergy in times of stress and decline, dioceses look for someone who will rescue and transform their situation: and although there’s a lot a bishop can do, she or he is liable to damage their physical, mental and spiritual health in trying to do it without the Church being alongside.

And the other consequence is that we as the body of Christ don’t take seriously enough our responsibility for being the evangelistic community of love which leads people to Christ. Of course we need to have living faith, and witness to it: and we do so through how we live much more than in what we say, and by how we love those around us, within and outside the Church. It’s our job corporately to boldly proclaim the Gospel of Christ, confront injustice and work for righteousness and peace in all the world, and so make disciples of all nations, and not the job of the bishop to do it for us.

And how do we see that happening? I have been greatly challenged over the last weeks by the response of the Coptic Church to the extreme persecution to which members of its community have been subject: bombed, beheaded, beaten, shot and killed just for being Christians in Egypt; most recently at least 26 men, women and children killed in the Egyptian desert going to pray, in between the Manchester bomb and the London Bridge killings. Bishop Angaelos, the Coptic Bishop in the UK, has not only called for forgiveness, but love: addressing the terrorists he has said, ‘the violent and deadly crimes you perpetrate are abhorrent and detestable, but YOU are loved…. You are loved by me and millions like me, not because of what you do, but what you are capable of as that wonderful creation of God, Who has created us with a shared humanity. You are loved by me and millions like me because I, and we, believe in transformation.’

Here is a bishop speaking out for love, boldly: bearing witness to the love which is held not just by him but by the community of faith, by a Church which is determined not to retaliate with hatred but to make disciples of Christ through the witness of love.

Here’s a challenge to Christians in this country as to how we proclaim Christ by living out the love of Christ in the face of terrorism and violence and frightened communities.

And here’s also a challenge to the Church as to how we help our bishops, in being the Body of Christ together: not expecting them to sort everything out for us, but together to build a community of love which puts Christ at the centre and enables everyone, wherever they start from, to find the power of the transforming love of God.