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Hallo again to all.

Assorted episcopal bling'Tell me: what exactly is a bishop?'

We get this question frequently, from friends and co-workers, and from complete strangers who believe that Anglicans Online is a reference desk. In some denominations, a bishop is the leader of a local congregation, rather like an Anglican vicar or rector. In other denominations, 'bishop' is a rank intermediate between 'pastor' and 'elder', or, in one case, a rank intermediate between 'priest' and 'apostle'. Wikipedia has a long and detailed article about the historical role of bishops in the Christian church. And the Church of England, presumably because of a stream of questions, has published a 23-page explanation of what bishops do and how much they cost.

In our Anglican world, a bishop is an authority, often the leader of a diocese, and has been consecrated in Apostolic succession. But even among Anglicans, there is wide variation in the relationship of a bishop to a church. Some provinces have archbishops; some have arch bishops. Sometimes there is a bishop who has jurisdiction over other bishops, often referred to as a 'metropolitan'. Some bishops are elected within their diocese; other bishops are appointed by their metropolitans or primates. In England, bishops are appointed by the government. We've seen cases that are called elections, but which smell to us rather like the elections that were held in the Soviet Union. Bishops often have power, and any process that can give power can be subject to manipulation, usually in the name of the Holy Spirit.

The Monty Python skit 'The Bishop'Such arcana. We think it's safe to assert that the vast majority of the human race lives and dies without really understanding (or wishing to) the difference between a suffragan bishop (or is that phrase more properly 'bishop suffragan'?) and an auxiliary bishop. In the world around us, the world where we buy our groceries and have our hair trimmed and get shoes repaired, the concept of 'bishop' is entirely defined by news, cinema, and literature. Almost no one cares whether Bishop Foxhat was elected, appointed, or the winner of a lottery. But when Bishop Foxhat is mentioned on television or YouTube or in a newspaper, it is that mention, and not millennia of tradition, that defines a bishop in the fickle eye of the public. In fiction and cinema, bishops are usually rather imperial and often villainous (not always; for example, Bishop Myriel in Les Misérables was anything but a villain).

Recently we have seen three news stories of international prominence that featured Anglican bishops. The Bishop in Jerusalem stands accused of using the power of his office to help his relatives. The Bishop of Southwark was reported involved in a 'curious incident'. And on the positive side, the Bishop of California was arrested, sixties-style, in an antiwar protest. He told us that he felt that mainstream churches were being increasingly marginalised, and that it took an act like this to get the world to listen to what he had to say.

It saddens us that many of the bishops who do manage to get the world's attention either get that attention with dubious behaviour, or use that attention to promote dubious goals or enhance their own power. Some bishops are too busy being good shepherds, healing and caring for their flocks, to have any time left to vie for global attention. Other bishops seem to have been interested in the mitre and crozier entirely as a platform for global attention.

Incidents like these seem to define what the world thinks of Anglican bishops this month. The public has a very short attention span, hence the Hollywood expression that 'you're only as good as your last movie'. Next month, who knows what a bishop will do that attracts attention? But if your bishop does something that you think advances the Kingdom of God, why don't you write a note thanking him or her. Positive feedback for positive acts.

See you next week.

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Last updated: 17 December 2006

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