One bishop without a home, and one bishop with two

In January, there was an odd story from the Episcopal Church of South Sudan and Sudan: Precious Omuku, an Anglican priest from Nigeria who currently works in Lambeth Palace for Archbishop Justin Welby, was made a bishop in ECSSS.abpandbps

He’s not a diocesan bishop, but has rather a roving, ambassadorial role.

According to the Revd. Dr. Joseph Bilal, a board member of the Justice, Peace and Reconciliation of the Province of ECSS& S, Bishop Omuku will continue to work in his base at the Lambeth Palace as special adviser of Archbishop of Canterbury on Anglican Communion Affairs. “He will not necessarily be move out from his base at Lambeth Palace, but he will continue with his duties as adviser of the archbishop of Canterbury on Anglican Communion affairs. He will be keenly involved on issues of sustainable development, justice, peace and reconciliation in South Sudan and Sudan,” Dr. Bilal explained.

What’s odd about this? It’s not odd that a person ordained in one country became a bishop in another country. (The bishop of Waikato in New Zealand was ordained in the Church of England. Desmond Tutu was once the bishop of Lesotho.) It’s not odd that a bishop is doing a non-diocesan role. (The bishop of Algoma is about to become the principal of a theological college. There is a “bishop at Lambeth.“)

The oddity has something to do with place.

For Anglicans, geography shapes the church. The Church of England, for instance, divides the entire country into parishes, groups parishes into deaneries, deaneries into archdeaconries, archdeaconries into dioceses, and dioceses into provinces. The bishop is the head of a diocese and an archbishop is the head of a province. Other Anglican churches do things in various different ways but all still maintain in one way or another that a bishop is linked to a particular place, called a see. You can give up that see later on and still remain a bishop, but to become a bishop you need to be linked to a place.

So it’s odd, then, that the church in the Sudans should consecrate someone to be a bishop without a place but rather with a role.

I probably would have let this oddity pass me by except I then read another odd story about bishops and place recently: the suffragan bishop of the Diocese of Virginia, Susan Goff, has now become an assistant bishop in the Diocese of Liverpool. The oddity here also has to do with place: a bishop is to be linked to a place, as Bishop Goff, already is, but it is to be one place. Now Bishop Goff is a bishop connected to two places. I have no doubt that the link between Liverpool and Virginia is strong and important to both dioceses. I want to take nothing away from that relationship. But in ecclesiological terms, this particular move doesn’t make much sense. (And, indeed, Bishop Goff had to post a video clarifying that she’ll only be in Liverpool up to two weeks a year.) To ask one particular question: who is Bishop Goff’s metropolitical authority? Is it the Archbishop of York (through the bishop of Liverpool), as it is for other bishops in the northern province of the C of E? Or is it the rather diffuse metropolitical authority of the Episcopal Church (through the bishop of Virginia), as it is for other Episcopal bishops?

The church is full of oddities, ecclesiological and otherwise, and I’m usually content to let them go unremarked upon. But these particular oddities reveal some deeper confusion in our Anglican thinking about bishops. There are many voices (with which I heartily agree) that tell us about the importance of all orders of ministry, about the need for priests and lay people to take an active role in governance and decision-making, and so forth. In the Anglican tradition, bishops are not the sole locus of authority. Readers of this blog and my books will know how frequently I have nattered on about the importance of involving more voices in determining the direction of the church, rather than just those that wear purple shirts.

Yet at the same time we have this fixation on bishops: who they are, what they do, what they say. We develop fancy ways of referring to them (+ or ++, which is an oddity for another time). We struggle to call them by their first names. We surround their visits with a kind of aura. The result of all this is that we are developing this unstated assumption that the only things that matter in the church are what bishops say. There’s no reason that ECSSS could not have appointed a priest or lay person as its roving ambassador. If the Diocese of Liverpool wanted to cement its ties with Virginia, the bishop could have made a priest or lay person from Virginia a canon in his cathedral. But in each case, it was decided the role needed to be filled by a bishop—a response to and a furthering of this over-emphasis on episcopal ministry. And that emphasis has real world impacts, not least the proliferation of bishops and dioceses in a church like ECSSS so that ever-smaller regions of the country can feel like they have an adequate voice at the table.

If you’ve read this far, then you’re probably as far into the weeds of Anglican ecclesiology as I am. These situations are not the most pressing issue facing the church or the world. But they are odd. And in their oddity, they reveal a rather worrisome trend in the life of our churches.

5 thoughts on “One bishop without a home, and one bishop with two

  1. Paul Bayes

    Interesting, but in the case of +Susan not odd. +Susan remains a Bishop of Virginia Diocese and of TEC to whom we in Liverpool have extended an invitation to minister with us. This requires the formal approval of our Archbishop which he has gladly given; but +Susan does not have the episcopal equivalent of dual citizenship or a dual allegiance. Not complex, then; but nice. It will be great to have +Susan’s wisdom enriching our Diocese.
    Paul Bayes (Bishop of Liverpool)

    1. Jesse Zink

      A helpful clarification, though it still seems odd that a bishop would minister in two places, given the close connection between place and ministry for that order of ministry. But if neither odd nor complex, then hard to see what is “historic” about it, as announcement presented it.

      And glad of the rich links between the two dioceses that lead to such moments, odd or not.

  2. Thanks for this, Jesse. I was puzzling over these appointments a bit myself, and have various thoughts, not least their peculiar non-geographical character.

    At the same time, don’t these appointments simply recognize that bishops have a unique representative role due to their apostolic character: being a focus for unity and representing the local to the universal and the universal to the local, all the while doing so in consultation with lay and ordained leaders in their diocese? Quite simply, Anglicans (like Roman Catholics, Old Catholics, some Lutherans, and the Orthodox) do “representation” primarily through bishops.

    E.g. Virginia Report 3.51: “The episcopate is the primary instrument of Anglican unity, but episcope is exercised personally, collegially and communally.” This episcopal authority is “crucial and distinct,” even in the context of local forms of synodality that include various forms of representation.

    Whenever bishops meet, they do so as people acting within and resourced by vast networks of relationships: there is no such thing as a prelate isolated from their context, which includes just the sort of lay and ordained governance that you often mention.

    1. Jesse Zink

      I whole-heartedly agree with the bishop being the link between the local and universal. That underscores, I think, a bishop’s connection to place (and one place, at that). Think of the Lambeth ’88 call for bishops to “bring your diocese with you.” That made sense (even if observed more in the breach) because bishops are linked to one place.

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