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Hallo again to all.

Over the last decade (or thereabouts) there has been a disturbing number of tawdry situations in which a bishop refuses to resign or to admit wrongdoing, clinging to his title and trappings and bishopric and budget through it all. Sometimes these under-attack bishops defend themselves with barristers; sometimes they defend themselves with government troops provided by a sympathetic head of state. More often than not they also defend themselves with press releases and websites and public speeches.

White bishop from chess setThe most recent example to come to our attention is a bishop who was removed by an ecclesiastical tribunal and then reinstated on appeal on a technicality. We shan't say his name because he has chosen to defend himself with barristers, and we aren't interested in being slapped with a lawsuit. (Anglicans Online some years ago needed to hire an attorney to defend ourselves against claims brought by a madman who believed that he was a bishop, and we didn't think that was a good use of our money.) Madmen who believe that they are bishops are decidedly unpleasant people.*

There is a wide variation in cultural understanding of what it means to be a bishop. There's a pastor in the USA right now who is being accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with members of his congregation. He calls himself a bishop, and therefore reporters and his congregation do, too. As far as we have been able to determine, he did not become a bishop by any process that we Anglicans would recognize, but in the world that he lives in, he's a bishop. We recall the 1997 motion picture 'The Apostle' in which the lead character, a charismatic preacher on the run from the law, starts a new life in a new city and calls himself 'apostle' because he thinks that 'bishop' is too mundane a title for a person as exalted as himself. There is a denomination that refers to most of its elders as 'bishops', which is for them a term of longevity more than rank.

In holy wars of previous centuries, there wasn't much debate over whether or not someone was a bishop, because the concept of 'bishop', just like that of 'mayor' or 'knight' or 'priest', was embedded in and well understood by the ambient culture. There could have been counterfeit bishops, of course, along the lines of San Francisco's 19th-century counterfeit emperor, but we submit that a counterfeit bishop would in that era have been no more plausible.

The Emperor NortonWhen a bishop under pressure to resign starts to defend himself with demonstrably false statements that seem to venture across the boundary into the absurd, we are reminded of a 2001 research paper by an American psychiatrist, 'Faith or delusion? At the crossroads of religion and psychosis'. You can't read the whole paper without paying US$35 to its publisher, but unless you are a trained psychiatrist you probably wouldn't gain much from it. The abstract intrigues us:

In clinical practice, no clear guidelines exist to distinguish between "normal" religious beliefs and "pathological" religious delusions. Historically, psychiatrists such as Freud have suggested that all religious beliefs are delusional, while the current DSM-IV definition of delusion exempts religious doctrine from pathology altogether. From an individual standpoint, a dimensional approach to delusional thinking (emphasizing conviction, preoccupation, and extension rather than content) may be useful in examining what is and is not pathological. When beliefs are shared by others, the idiosyncratic can become normalized. Therefore, recognition of social dynamics and the possibility of entire delusional subcultures is necessary in the assessment of group beliefs. Religious beliefs and delusions alike can arise from neurologic lesions and anomalous experiences, suggesting that at least some religious beliefs can be pathological. Religious beliefs exist outside of the scientific domain; therefore they can be easily labeled delusional from a rational perspective. However, a religious belief's dimensional characteristics, its cultural influences, and its impact on functioning may be more important considerations in clinical practice.

Rudyard Kipling wrote a short story about the The Man Who Would Be King. It's a compelling tale, but the Man described therein is not delusional at all, just opportunistic and naïve, and his fate is exactly what you might expect of a counterfeit king whose true nature is revealed to angry subjects. Only time will tell whether The Man Who Would Be Bishop is delusional, opportunistic and naïve, or perhaps just utterly narcissistic. We suspect that most people in his orbit have already made up their minds.

See you next week. We have measured data to prove that's not a delusion.

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Last updated: 3 October 2010

*Perhaps someday there will be a madwoman who believes that she is a bishop, but so far no such person has come to our attention.

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