The roles of a bishop

Posted on December 11, 2012

By Archbishop Colin Johnson

“Which is your church?” It is a question I’m asked in almost every parish I visit, and my answer is almost always a surprise to the questioner: “This one—and all 250-plus other churches in the diocese!”

When a new incumbent is appointed, a service of institution takes place in the chapel at the Diocesan Centre. “Receive this charge which is mine and thine,” are the traditional words by which the diocesan bishop commissions or institutes a priest into the spiritual responsibilites of the parish. The bishop has the spiritual care of all the churches in the diocese, usually exercised through the ministry of the parish priests, unless the bishop is present.

That is just one of the roles of a bishop.

Bishop George Elliott has announced his intention to retire after a long and very fruitful ordained ministry in the Diocese of Toronto of 34 years as deacon, priest and bishop. Diocesan Council authorized the election of a suffragan bishop to be held on April 6, with the ordination and consecration set for June 22. From the parish hall meetings I held across the diocese in June and October, it became evident that we continue to want and need four area bishops to serve with me as diocesan bishop in Toronto. As usual, we will not be electing a bishop for York-Simcoe area but a suffragan (assistant) bishop with ministry in the whole diocese, and assigned to a particular episcopal area after the election, which might be York-Simcoe. (Bishops Read, Brown, Finlay, Matthews, Johnson, Bedford-Jones and Poole changed areas during their episcopates.)  You can read on the diocese’s website about the process of nomination and election, but it’s important to know what a bishop is supposed to be and do.

The Rite of Ordination sets out a number of responsibilities:

  • apostolic proclamation;
  • pastoral care;
  • oversight;
  • governance;
  • linkage/ representation.

Bishops “are one with the apostles in proclaiming Christ’s resurrection” as the good news for every age (BAS, p. 636). The bishop’s first and primary task is not, as is often supposed, the pastoral care of clergy or parishes but rather teaching, preaching, and interpreting the Christian faith both in parishes and in the wider community. This is especially critical in a society where our faith is misunderstood, maligned or ignored. So a bishop has to be an effective communicator. More crucially, a bishop has to be a person of deep faith in Jesus Christ. This is the content of the communication. He or she must be able to live that faith authentically, understand the nuances of the tradition, and articulate it winsomely.

As pastor (the reason a bishop carries the crozier, the shepherd’s staff), much of the bishop’s work is by delegation. The bishop’s pastoral task is one of discernment of the leadership gifts of others, so that across a large array of different places, the church can be built up through a strong sacramental life, the ministry of word, the visiting of the sick, the catechesis of both seekers and the baptized, and the administration that parishes require to function well. The bishop must be a leader, a mentor and a team player because each area bishop will be working with more than 100 exceptionally well trained, competent priests and deacons, and hundreds of dedicated and gifted lay leaders. This is not the usual training for most priests.

The bishop is by definition an “overseer,” which is the meaning of the adjective “episcopal.” He or she frames the missional strategy for the area in consultation with the other leaders and in coordination with the mission of the diocese. The bishop has the “overview” of the needs and the opportunities in the whole area, and provides the necessary unity and discipline (think focus and discipleship, rather than punishment) to listen to God’s call and marshal the resources of the area and diocese to respond to God’s call to service.

The person chosen in the election will be a suffragan bishop of the diocese, with responsibility for the well-being of the whole of the diocese, as well as particular accountability for one region. The area bishops use their own gifts both within their area as well as across the wider church, and are called by ordination to participate in the governance of the whole church. While appointed for a period of time to one area, they can and do work beyond those boundaries and can be (and have been) moved to a different area. Each also takes on special ministry assignments based on their skills and passions. So it is important to think of candidates who could provide ministry in more than one area and complement the gifts of the other members of the College of Bishops.

A bishop is a link person. The Archbishop of Canterbury remarked that the bishop’s role is to interpret the “strangeness of one community to the strangeness of the next community” so that they may be drawn together and mutually enrich each other and join in extending the Kindgom. Bishops link one parish to another, represent the diocese to the wider church and the wider church to the diocese. The bishop becomes the personal face of the church, and specifically the Anglican Church, to those they meet.

And, of course, they do all the other ordinary tasks that bishops do: appoint and supervise clergy, baptize and confirm, license lay ministry, preside at worship, meet with senior parish leaders, work on committees, develop ecumenical, civic and interfaith networks, support parish growth and work to resolve conflicts.

It is an encompassing task, hugely challenging and joyously fulfilling by God’s grace. It is not a promotion or a job. It is, above all, a vocation—the offering of oneself for service in response to God’s call, discerned by the community of faith. An episcopal election is not a political leadership convention but a prayerful gathering of the clergy and laity representing the church in the diocese to discern whom God has chosen to be the next bishop in the church. 

Pray for those who will test their call to this vocation, and for us as a diocesan family, as we affirm that call and receive this new ministry.