By Archbishop Colin R. Johnson
We have a newly elected Bishop. You will know who that is by now, but as I write, that election is still weeks away. For a short time between now and the installation of the 14th Bishop of Huron, I am serving as the Episcopal Administrator of the Diocese, a caretaker role during this significant change in leadership.
This Diocese is my first Anglican home. I became an Anglican as a student at Western and was confirmed in St. Paul’s Cathedral. Shortly after, I felt a call to ordained ministry and have now retired – my wife says, “failing at retirement” – after some 42 years of ministry, the last fifteen as Bishop and later Archbishop of Toronto.
Some years ago, Bishop Jo Fricker asked a group of children gathered at the chancel steps if they knew who he was. There was a long, awkward silence. He asked again, and one little boy put up his hand and answered, “We don’t know and we don’t care!” Much laughter; much truth!
So what is a bishop and what do bishops do? For a long time I was a bit flummoxed, too. I would unhelpfully list all the things I did in the course of a day. A day in a bishop’s life is a lot like flicking through TV programs with a rapid-fire channel changer. What happens at 9 rarely has anything to do with what’s on the agenda at 10, 11, and 12. And no two days are the same. The ordination rite lists no fewer than 20 different roles, and that does not include several that actually take the most time, including CEO of a complex not-for-profit, mostly volunteer-driven corporation with 200 branches!
In my own chats with kids, I settled on just three symbols to give a bit of a handle on Episcopal ministry: a microphone, binoculars and a bridge.
The most important role is “to be one with the apostles in proclaiming Christ’s resurrection and interpreting the Gospel, and to testify to Christ’s sovereignty as Lord of lords and King of kings.” Hence the microphone – a tool to proclaim good news clearly, of life rising in the midst of death, of compassion in the face of trauma, of hope overpowering despair. A bishop not only speaks and personally models this life in action, but invites and supports others in that witness. So a bishop ordains deacons, priests and bishops, and presides at baptism and confirmation initiating new members into the faith. The bishop is chief pastor, missioner and teacher of the faith in the Diocese but never alone, always in the midst of the community of the faithful.
The ancient Greek and Latin words for “bishop” (episkopos, episcopus) continue in the English adjective, episcopal. The words mean “overseer”. The bishop has a governance role in leading the Diocese through its synod and councils, in matters of discipline and establishing policy, in setting direction and priorities. But I chose the image of binoculars rather than magnifying glass because the leader’s essential role is to “see over”, to scan the environment and look beyond the immediate horizon. Episcopal ministry is the leadership role of searching for opportunities as well as dangers, of seeing where the Church needs to go in response to God’s call, analyzing the swirling patterns, discerning danger and taking calculated risk. These are gifts in the service of the Christ’s mission and not exercised alone.
Finally, the bishop is a bridge builder. Another Latin term for the bishop is “pontifex”, or “bridge”. Why? The retired Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, said that as bishops move from place to place, “They interpret the strangeness of one community to the strangeness of the next.” The bishop carries the story and experiences that knit people from different places and traditions into a stronger unity by sharing the wisdom, the joy and pain, the insight and strength of different parts of the Church. A bishop links parish to parish within the Diocese, and represents and holds up the unique life of the Diocese to the wider Church and reflects the experience of the wider Church back to the Diocese. Similarly, the bishop is the bridge into the Anglican expression of Christianity in ecumenical and interfaith dialogue as well with the secular culture. That is why the bishop is the “sign of unity” – not imposing a static uniformity but holding together the diversity of being Anglican in ways that can strengthen the whole.
So microphone, binoculars and bridge – simple everyday images of an ancient ministry. Others might choose different symbols, but I find these three helpful in negotiating my way through the hugely intricate and not well understood role of bishop in the 21st century.
The Most Rev’d Colin R. Johnson is the Diocesan Administrator.