What are bishops for?

By Martin L. Smith

Taking my usual walk around the Tidal Basin yesterday, I was pondering our upcoming episcopal election. A wry quotation from Claire Booth Luce popped into my head: “Anyone who is not confused today cannot be thinking straight.” Understanding what a bishop is meant to be and do has become complicated. So many expectations are now heaped on the role: What person could possibly fulfill the wish list of ideal skills in our “profiles?” I can’t help shaking my head over it all. I have had the experience of being a chaplain to the House of Bishops though turbulent years. I have been a chaplain to a Lambeth Conference, and the spiritual director and confidant of quite a few bishops. I know the harm done by the cruel unrealism of our current projections onto the office of bishop.

The path round the Tidal Basin—alongside the Jefferson Memorial, through the Roosevelt Memorial and now past the glorious new monument to Martin Luther King Jr. —is quite an intense place for reflecting about leadership! And there are two images that helped me focus on the core vocation of bishop. There is the bronze statue of FDR sitting down in his wheelchair, and now there is the grand stone image emerging of Martin Luther King standing tall. Sitting and standing represent two fundamental aspects of the episcopal vocation.

A core symbol for the bishop’s office is the chair. Traditional language of a see, of having a cathedra, or official seat, comes from the ancient practice of sitting down to teach. Teachers help us find meaning, and no one should offer themselves to be a bishop who doesn’t want to serve by helping us concentrate on the fundamental issues of what life means in the light of the gospel. God help us if we prevent that ministry by turning bishops into tortured managers.

As well as symbolizing the call to articulate the gospel’s meaning with us, the chair resonates with other pastoral needs in today’s world. When all seems constantly in flux, when technology is racing and the ground is heaving under feet, we need leaders who will sit down with us, to center us, to stabilize, above all to help us focus. The bishops who have inspired me all have been good at sitting down. They put roots down quickly. They are willing to sit round the table and roll up their sleeves. They have a knack of leveling with us and getting to the point. As pastors they have known how to minister simply by sitting with people.

The complementary symbol for the bishop’s office is the vantage point. Episkopos simply means supervisor or overseer. It implies the vantage points enabling a leader to see the big picture, to take in the larger context, to relate what is happening in a particular spot to movements in the main organization and society at large. Larger vision is intrinsic to the bishop’s office, and the willingness to stand up for the imperatives of the big picture of God’s world in its predicament, and God’s promise of the Kingdom. The new King monument is a thrilling artistic expression of the ministry of standing out and standing up for the demands and hopes of God’s bigger picture! No one should be a bishop whose nature is to be immersed in the local scene alone. God calls for the practice of standing up to see ahead and around and even afar, and the willingness to pay the price of reminding us of our larger connectedness: it always arouses resentment.

My walk brought me back past the Holocaust Museum, and I glanced up at my old office there, and thought about a letter Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, wrote to the church in Ephesus, en route under armed guard to his inevitable martyrdom in Rome. Advising the laity about their relationship to their own bishop, he wrote, “Pay special attention to the bishop when he is silent.” Here was a leader who kept the mystical core of his faith intact, who continued to be in awe of the profound mystery of God, and the way the crucified Christ brings us, through his vulnerability, into personal intimacy with that mystery. There’s nothing sentimental about that intimacy, and holy silence is our protection against glib religiosity. A visit to the Holocaust Museum induces the kind of silence Ignatius wanted to see a bishop practice. Well, we can kill our bishops by smothering them under our projections, so my hope is that candidates will come forward who won’t let us, because they maintain in prayer their own intimate connection with the mystery of God. Bishops who pray don’t pretend to have answers to everything, and they can foster our humility, which in the Episcopal Church today should be a high priority. We have good but hard times ahead.

Martin L. Smith is a well-known spiritual writer and priest. He is the senior associate rector at St. Columba’s, D.C.

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