Bishops. Why? Who? What?

Bishops: I seem to spend quite a lot of time thinking about them, probably because most of them are a complete enigma to me.  Why do they want the position in the first place, I wonder.  Status?  Power?  Gorgeous robes?  People to answer their letters.* I asked a friendly cleric:  “Bigger pensions” was his cynical response.

Small can be beautiful at all sorts of times and for all sorts of reasons.  Think of the Anglican church for example.  It has around 80 million members, give or take those like me, who can’t make up their minds whether Anglican Bishops still preach the same Gospel I have believed in for the last 80 years.  That Church has 77 Archbishops, with the Most Revd Justin Welby at the top, (first amongst equals) and 706 Bishops.  Thinking about all that lot as individuals is way too much.  So let me restrict myself to just the Church in Wales so that it can become much more manageable.

In Wales we have five bishops and one Archbishop, who has just announced his retirement next May.  It was this announcement that turned my mind to the subject of Bishops in general and Welsh ones in particular.

Dr Rowan Williams, a Welsh speaking Welshman, became Archbishop of Canterbury in 2002, the first to be appointed from outside the Church of England in modern times.  But he is something of an exception.

Lord Williams of Oystermouth, as he is now, gained a starred First in Theology at Cambridge followed by a D.PHil and a DD from Oxford.  He then joined the College of the Resurrection in Mirfield, Yorkshire, where he both trained and lectured, before returning to Cambridge as a lecturer in Divinity, and where he was ordained in 1976.  He returned to Oxford as Professor of Divinity before becoming Bishop of Monmouth in 1991 and Archbishop of Wales eight years later.

First Class degrees in Theology used to be quite normal amongst bishops in years gone by, but nowadays it’s rare to find a bishop with a degree in theology at all.  Certainly, the Church in Wales bishops have studied several different subjects but theology doesn’t come high in the list, if indeed it is there at all.

The next Archbishop of Wales will most likely be one of the remaining five and rather than being ‘chosen’ it seems more probable that it will a case of Buggin’s Turn or the next most senior bishop. 

That will be Bishop Andy of Bangor who was consecrated in 2008.  He was born in Wales, has learnt a sort of Welsh and read Law in Cardiff but then studied Theology for two years and Pastoral Studies for a year in Nottingham.  He is divorced from his first wife and has recently remarried one of his divorcée priests.  He is also a champion of Same Sex Marriage.

The trendy Bishop of Bangor on his recent wedding day

Next in line would be Bishop Gregory of St Asaph (c.2009) who is alleged to be the most ‘orthodox’.  Born in Wales but not into a Welsh speaking family, his first degree was in Law, at Oxford.  Then he studied theology at Cambridge and spent a year at the now defunct St Michael’s College in Wales.  He has one wife (a Roman Catholic) and three sons.  He, too, is a great champion of SSM.

The next three bishops are all much more recent appointments but on the other hand they are all women which may give them a great advantage.

Dr Joanna Penberthy was appointed Bishop of St David’s in 2013.  She was born in Wales though she is not a native Welsh speaker.  She has a BA from Cambridge but information about her doesn’t say in what subject so I am guessing it wasn’t in Theology.  She trained for the ministry in the evangelical Cranmer Hall, in Durham but her recent PhD (2019) degree was in Quantum Physics.  She is married to a Vicar and has one grandchild.

In 2017 Revd June Osborne was appointed Bishop of Llandaff in Cardiff having been Dean of Salisbury. She is described as a “ground breaking” figure — perhaps because she is not from Wales and speaks no Welsh and her degree, from Manchester, is in Social Sciences.  She, too, trained for the ministry in Nottingham and Cambridge and was a great committee member.  She is married to a barrister.

Left: Bishop of St David’s (the Quantum Physicist and Right the ground breaking Bishop of Llandaff

Finally, the Rt Revd Cherry Vann was appointed Bishop of Monmouth in 2020.  She is a graduate of the Royal Schools of Music and trained for the Ministry at Westcott House in Cambridge.  Before arriving in Wales she had no connection with the country or the culture whatsoever but she at least broke new ground by being the first lesbian bishop in a partnered same sex relationship.

I’m sorry to sound so negative about these five people.  I am sure they are exceptional human beings with all sorts of skills and talents and strengths that allow them to go about their daily lives lovingly and effectively. They undoubtedly run their offices and committees and finances much more efficiently than many of those saintly bishops of old; but they are not steeped in scripture, and they lack the deep fundamental biblical knowledge that would allow them to make wise judgements in a modern world.

I am dismissive of all of these Welsh bishops for a very good reason.  Despite their limited qualifications and their tiny congregations they seem to think they have some God-given right to re-write the Prayer Book in favour of same sex marriages in church in the sight of God.  They have been trying to force this on reluctant parishes for many years, most recently with —“A Bill to Authorise Experimental Use of Proposed Revisions of the Book of Common Prayer” at the end of December.  Despite the tremendous opposition in the Anglican Church throughout the world these few Bishops seem to think their learning and understanding trumps the wisdom of the ages. 

There is something vital here that these bishops, and many others like them, cannot understand. While telling themselves they are fighting a faith war they are merely engaged in a culture war. They have actually changed sides and it is a tragedy for all of us that this has happened.

*The Bishop of Llandaff, in these straightened times, has just appointed someone to “process correspondence.”   I’d like to assume that meant answering letters, except that the clergy don’t do that any more!

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