I arrived in Roanoke, Virginia, last night after a long couple of flights from Manchester. The Diocese of Bradford has a longstanding link with the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia and I am here (with a couple of colleagues) for the ordination/consecration of the new bishop tomorrow. I came here for the first time in January 2012 to get to know the diocese and attend the annual Diocesan Council (equivalent to a diocesan synod in England). So, it is great to meet such wonderfully gracious and hospitable people again so soon.

Of course, this also offers a further opportunity not only to learn about The Episcopal Church (the Anglican Church in the USA), but also to look though its lens at the context I work in in England. If anything, the visit and all the encounters and conversations reinforce the lesson I learned at the Lambeth Conference back in 2008: a bishop is not a bishop is not a bishop.

A bit obvious, you might say, but the common language we use can easily shape our assumption that the same words in the different contexts (and church polities) refer to the same thing. They don't.

For example, this morning I attended a media round-table discussion between the Presiding Bishop of TEC, the outgoing Bishop of SWVA and the bishop-elect. The discussion revolved around how the church is changing as society around changes. For example, depopulation of some areas – largely down to urbanisation – renders some churches too small to sustain stipendiary ministry and the local churches have to try to adapt accordingly. The role of the bishop here was successively described in terms of a 'pontifex' – a bridge builder and connector of people and places as together we discern the will and call of God. They talked about how to maintain presence as some places decline in population or the demographic becomes more impoverished financially.

And here lies the interesting bit – for me, at least.

When they speak of 'parish', an Englishman needs to hear 'church'. An English parish is geographical and demographic: every blade of grass in England grows in an Anglican parish and a vicar is the vicar of the parish, not the chaplain of a congregation. This means that the English parish demands church engagement with civic society, politics, local community and services, people of all faiths and none, and ecumenical obligation. That dynamic does not exist here in anything like the same way. Add to that the fact that the individual parish is responsible for appointing and paying the priest, and we see the discontinuity in the reality behind the common terminology. Hence, the Church of England's parish share system (by which parishes take common responsibility for mission and ministry across the diocese – the wealthier paying more and the poorer paying less) has no equivalent here. And this means that deploying clergy across a diocese is a very different exercise here from in Bradford.

Naturally, this has other consequences. The role of the bishop is not the same as the bishop of a diocese in England where the Church is 'by law established'. Put me and the Bishop of SWVA together with the Bishop of Khartoum in Sudan – our third mutual partner – and we discover that, as I crudely put it, a bishop is not a bishop is not a bishop. Context, history and polity directly shape understanding, ethos, relationship (of clergy to bishop and bishop to people) and practice.

This observation might seem to be what Monty Python calls “the bleeding obvious”. Yet, the obvious isn't always obvious until you look your counterpart in the eye, listen to the language she uses, and ask to what the terminology actually refers. This is an exercise in translation – of words and culture – and it is neither obvious, nor easy.

The media session was followed by a Eucharist for clergy and spouses in the diocese and this was followed by a wonderful lunch and a session for clergy with the Presiding Bishop. It has all been very stimulating. The following caused me to put pen to notebook paper:

  • Some people in the USA who do not buy into the environmental sustainability agenda are finding that expanding poverty is challenging their perception: especially the connection between food, the earth, climate change and migration and their impact.
  • 'Inclusion' has traditionally been used in the church to refer to whom 'we' might wish to include, whereas increasingly we are moving into a world in which 'we' will need to ask who will include us.
  • Clergy a responsible for pastoral discipline, catechetical teaching and associated sacramental provision; their leadership role brings these responsibilities with it and it must be taken seriously as well as creatively. How are 'parishioners' to learn about and understand their place and role in the wider community of the church and not just the local expression of it? Anglicans are – according to their basic ecclesiology – not congregationalists; but, if that is de facto the culture and polity of the TEC expression of the Anglican polity, what are the implications for the church's self-understanding (to say nothing of its mission)?

A final observation that I need to think further about. The Presiding Bishop was clear in a couple of contexts that the church must move to become less hierarchical and more connexional (in the sense of being horizontally networked rather than up-down managed/directed. She also suggested that this is “where the Spirit is leading us”. This echoes some of the discourse in the UK with Fresh Expressions and its assumptions about English societal trends (assumptions I still think are partly questionable). Yet, the bit that struck me was not whether or not this is where the Spirit is leading the church, but who is meant by 'us'.

England is not the USA (for reasons I mention above) and the English parochial system is still essentially 'communal' rather than 'associational'. In other words, 'place' matters to us. When other denominations close down and move out of some of the hard places, the Church of England cannot. Supported and often financed through the diocesan parish share system, presence and engagement are sustained for the sake of the local society and the church's commitment to worship, evangelism and service locally. Buildings are retained where this is sometimes costly and hard to do.

Clearly, all this is contingent on other commitments that are integral to and inherent in English Anglican ecclesiology (and, yes, I do realise that there is a certain apparent tautology in that phrase). The American dynamic and polity are different. This is not to say that the Church of England has it right over against the TEC model – or vice versa; it is to recognise that each brings its own questions, dilemmas and opportunities. However, it also makes clear that we are not comparing like with like – even when we use the same language to describe different phenomena.

We live in different worlds, but in the same world. And that is why such diocesan partnership links are so important not only to the Anglican Communion, but also to the wider Christian Church. When we look at the Episcopal Church in Sudan (ECS) through the lens of TEC or the C of E, or TEC through the lens of ECS and the C of E, or the C of E through the lens of TEC and ECS – especially where all three are held together in conversation and committed relationship – we learn (a) just how difficult translation is, (b) that the contingent challenges and opportunities are complex, and (c) that we need each other to provide those lenses without which we become easily and arrogantly self-justifying.

(I prepared for this visit by reading E.L. Doctorow's Civil War novel The March. Probably a bit tactless, really.)

 

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