A Tautological Bishop?
In October, Dr Jo Bailey Wells, the current Bishop of Dorking in Guildford Diocese, was announced as the Anglican Communion’s first Bishop for Episcopal Ministry. Dr Bailey Wells, a former chaplain to Archbishop Justin Welby, will begin her new role in January 2023.
According to Anthony Poggo, the Secretary General of the Anglican Communion, this post is designed to “foster a collaborative, engaged, enriched fellowship among the bishops of the Anglican Communion, inspiring ever greater companionship, learning and interchange between provinces. This will build on the outcomes of Lambeth ’22, taking forward the Lambeth Conference Calls as well as the renewed relationships between bishops across varying provinces. It will also help to equip bishops for ministry, supporting them not only in their particular contexts but also for engaging in the wider Communion.”
Is the tautology of the title ‘Bishop for Episcopal Ministry’ evidence of a navel-gazing Church irreversibly turned inwards on itself? Has no bishop ever been for Episcopal Ministry until now? Presumably at present, Dr Bailey Wells will be Bishop for Episcopal Ministry only in those Anglican provinces that accept women in Episcopal Ministry. There is no indication of the clamour for such a figure beyond the Anglican Communion Office; how many bishops worldwide wanted this?
At a time when Church of England parishes must adhere to the Safer Recruitment process whereby “our recruitment and selection processes are inclusive, fair, consistent and transparent,” little of this is evident within the press release. We are merely told that this post “was agreed by the Anglican Communion’s Standing Committee” at its last meeting in London, and that it “has been created to build on the success of this year’s Lambeth Conference.” Alas, this proclaimed ‘success’ is nowhere defined.
The press release notably gave little information on how widely this position was advertised throughout the Communion, the application process, and when interviews took place. Neither did it explain how the post is funded. The bare announcement was accompanied by the customary slew of congratulatory paragraphs from usual suspects.
In the name of upholding Episcopal Ministry, Dr Bailey Wells is confined to an episcopal ministry unlike any other in the Anglican Communion. She will have no diocese and no parishes. She will pastor no incumbent clergy and no parishioners. The liturgical roles unique to a bishop, ordination and confirmation, will not be hers in the normal course of events – the laying off of hands?
Discipline and defending the faith are also part of Episcopal Ministry, but there is no indication that she will have any such power in relation to any errant bishop. In short, she is shorn of regular Episcopal Ministry in order to promote Episcopal Ministry. No doubt this makes perfect sense within the corridors of the Anglican Communion Office.
A Bishop’s ministry is exercised in fellowship with the whole church, clergy and people. Once more it can be asked, what is to be gained in removing a bishop from a geographically-defined pastoral ministry, and from the whole people of God? It is not clear from the role as described why it had to be a bishop appointed to such a position. Could these functions not be carried out by a lay person with comparable expertise? Why must they always require a flash of purple and episcopal stipend?
One argument might be made is that Dr Bailey Wells has experience of Episcopal Ministry and brings that perspective to the role. However, that unique selling point is being lost; she is now being removed from Episcopal Ministry in order to be for Episcopal Ministry.
Might bishops on the ground not find support in their ministry from their colleagues in the same province, their Archbishop or Primate, or retired bishops? Would a local input not be more relevant to the growing dioceses of the Global South, rather than imposing the mindset of managed decline so prevalent amongst western bishops?
This enthusiastically-announced position appears to diminish Episcopal Ministry as a ministry to the whole church by taking it away from the whole church. It also distorts the nature of Episcopal Ministry by removing the essential aspects of pastoral oversight to local churches and clergy.
Can an Episcopal Ministry distorted still be Episcopal Ministry promoted?