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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

A Bishop's Consecration

Today I was in York for the consecration of the new Bishop of Doncaster, Peter Burrows.  He was a student of mine at Salisbury in the early 1980s, and it is always good when past students reach senior positions. It seems like a long journey since the days when he wrote Old Testament essays for me to mark. Doncaster is in my former diocese of Sheffield, so it was good to see old friends from there as well.  

As it was Candlemas, the last of the 40 days of the Christmas season, we sang, charmingly, ‘Angels from the realms of glory’.  The carol happens to have been written by a 19th century Sheffield layman,  James Montogomery (there is a statue of him outside the east end of Sheffield Cathedral).  If it was chosen for this reason, it was a nice touch.  The preacher (Bishop James Bell of Peter’s former Diocese of Ripon and Leeds) spoke about expectancy and hope, and how Simeon and Anna, waiting for so long, saw God in the face of the Infant who was presented in the temple.  The references to Von Balthazar and the eschaton may have been beyond some people, but it was good preaching  (it is quite a challenge to speak effectively on such occasions and resist the temptation to play to the gallery).  As an aside, speaking of Simeon and Anna’s great age, he said that we should not be too quick to disparage elderly church congregations: maybe there was a quality of expectancy in such communities that could teach us all how to keep hope alive.

Ordinations are tricky events to get right, and episcopal consecrations most of all.  When you have a great space like York Minster, scores of bishops on parade in their red convocation robes, many more robed clergy and readers and a full nave, it is Ceremony with a capital ‘C’.  For once, rather than robe and process with other clergy, I decided to sit in the nave, near the back.  It’s from the back stalls that you really appreciate the strengths and weaknesses of the performance.  Some words I could hear clearly, some less so, some not at all (no problems with the PA system which is excellent, but it is only as good as the people who use it).  The sermon was given from a lectern near the altar, which from the back looked absurdly insignificant.  The pulpit would have given the preacher not only visibility but authority, for he speaks in the name of God.  The choir sang beautifully, but didn’t have enough to do: it would have been lovely to have a joyous Viennese Gloria instead of the responsorial version we sang (I know, I know – it’s about ‘joining in’, so put it down to the prejudices of a cathedral dean). 

However, the real test of ordination services is what message s the rite conveys about the nature of the church.  At consecrations, the message seems very clear.  The bishops are prominent, and when they come up to the platform to surround and lay hands on the candidate, it is hard to avoid the perception that the ordinand is being received into a powerful and tight-knit group.  In rite-of-passage terms, this is indeed what is going on: incorporation into the college of bishops who stand at the summit of a visible hierarchy. 

The trouble is, what does this say about the theological character of the church as koinonia, a fellowship of people, lay and ordained, who in Christ live a common life and break bread together?  The preacher spoke three times about the vocation of ‘bishops and all the people of God’, but somehow this is never articulated very clearly in the way consecration services are choreographed.  Napoleon (I think) said that an army consists of generals who are surrounded by officers and men.  I am sure no-one who was in the Minster today would say that the church consists of bishops who are surrounded by clergy and laity.  But the rite speaks its own message: perhaps this is what we believe after all.

So do ordinations require a new ceremony that will speak more eloquently of the church as the whole people of God and less of clerical hierarchy?  This is a question, not a statement: I’m aware that cathedral liturgy can often look and be experienced as clericalised, in  my own cathedral as much as anywhere else.  But the inclusion of lay people on cathedral chapters since 2000 is perhaps changing all that.  In Durham, the Chapter processes in and out of church in order of seniority, regardless of whether members are lay or ordained.  It may look a bit odd at first, but the message that we in this privileged place at all not because of our position in a hierarchy but through our baptism is, I think, what matters most of all. 

But perhaps all this is a trifle idealistic?  I was glad to be in the Minster today to see a former student and old friend given this awesome responsibility in the church.  Peter, we are praying for you.  


  1. So, Michael, it seems that you have just challenged yourself to write a new hymn for us! To be about, to be for, and to be affirming of, the whole congregation on such apparently top-heavy occasions.

    You've recognised and analysed the weakness; you've got the ability and talent to address it; no backing out!

  2. I found this really interesting, Michael. Thank you. Impressed that you chose to sit in the nave and see it all from that perspective (a bit like your willingness to try twitter!). The first time I went to the consecration of a Bishop, I was struck with huge force by the maleness of it all - the image of all these men converging on other men - that was where the centre of the action seemed to be and I felt excluded from it (even repelled by it!) as a woman rather than as a layperson.
    I do think hierarchy in the Cof E is also an issue along with the careerism that almost inevitably goes with it. I've got very used to it (and can also now understand some of its benefits!), but again, it shocked me when I first came south of the border!

  3. Thank you for this. I think your point extends beyond ordination to much of the liturgical life of the church.

    The ordained persons "The Lord be with you" is dumb without the community replying "And also with you" and yet our careful sharing of leadership within all parts of the church is all too often undone by our liturgy.

  4. Thank you for sharing this reflection, Michael. I think the hierarchical structure of the Church is an inevitable reflection of human nature: it's something we've been doing throughout history. I'm not sure it's possible, or even desirable, to do away with it completely. Sometimes I think that we would do well to ask ourselves whether the structures of the Church (and indeed, wider society) could be modelled more closely along Trinitarian lines. Perhaps that's a bit too much to ask of fallible humanity, I don't know...