Bishops: The Changing Nature of the Anglican Episcopate


A review of Michael Keulemans’s book Bishops: The Changing Nature of the Anglican Episcopate in Mainland Britain.

We are not blessed with a wealth of books about bishops, their function and role, or the history of the episcopate in the Church of England. We are however blessed with more bishops today than ever before. A few years ago The Times referred to it as “episcopal inflation”, noting that the more than fourfold growth in the number of bishops since 1850 had occurred at the same time as the average Sunday attendance has plummeted dramatically. They concluded that we had moved from one bishop per 115,000 people in the pews on Sunday to one bishop per 8,000. Moreover, debates about the qualifications for episcopacy have recently been somewhat controversial, we might say.

So this book, arising out of the author’s D.Min. research, is just what we need to take a step back and try to assess what is going on. Keulemans looks first at the historic development of the episcopate, from the early church, through the middle ages, up to “the creation of the classical Anglican bishop” at the Reformation. With a chapter on Victorian developments, he then surveys the changing nature of the English scene from 1905 to 2005. Additional chapters cover Wales and Scotland. He also did extensive research amongst bishops themselves, and gives us a flavour of his statistical survey and some of the bishops’ own views about the subject. There are several very helpful charts and illustrations.

Two thirds of Christians across the world are organised in episcopal fashion, so it is an institution which has endured. However, as Keulemans rightly notes, for many conservative evangelicals bishops have “become such a constant source of irritation that they would be content to manage entirely without them. It is not hard to see why younger men in particular have got into this negative frame of mind, since they find little evidence of Apostolic qualities in today’s episcopate and are often at the sharp end of its open as well as secret antagonism towards both their churches and theological colleges.”

It is not entirely true that conservative evangelicals would as a whole be content without bishops, as recent enthusiastic commitment to GAFCON shows, as well as the initiatives of AMiE which has a role for bishops. Church Society has called again and again for more bishops loyal to conservative evangelicalism to represent and serve the Church, and General Synod promised many years ago to try and make that happen. Yet the fact that the Church of England has consecrated only one conservative evangelical bishop of “complementarian” views since 1997 (a suffragan, and he has now retired) is not especially encouraging. Keulemans has perhaps put his finger on one of the reasons why, if the Church really means this constituency to flourish within its bounds in the future, it has a long way to go (beyond mere tokenism) to restore credibility and confidence on this score.

The book traces some of the more interesting changes in the episcopate over the twentieth century, such as social class, education, and age. By 2005, of those who replied to the author’s survey, only a small minority had attended comprehensive schools, but the number of Oxbridge graduates on the bench had dropped significantly. None had been elevated directly from a parish. A large majority (71%) had been appointed in the 45-54 year old age bracket, a dramatic rise in that demographic since 1905. Keulemans also examines recent developments in the Crown Nominations Commission, its relationship to the Prime Minister, the new consecration liturgies of Common Worship, flying bishops, and the increase in the number of suffragans.

The survey of bishops is quite fascinating, and a must-read to understand how the current bunch see themselves and their role (“focus of unity” being top of the pile of answers of course, with little sense of irony). Bishops seem very keen on attending national events and secular public events, but Keulemans startlingly reveals that the laity he surveyed were much less keen on the idea of bishops spending time on these things, especially the secular, civic occasions (their top priority was that bishops should teach and defend the faith). He also finds that more laity consider the parish as the basic building block of the church than bishops, who of course favour the diocese as the true church (and perhaps, as Vatican II puts it, value local congregations only as “lesser groupings of the faithful” which should revolve more around them in their cathedrals).

So a valuable volume in more ways than one, with a wealth of insights into the perception of and true nature of episcopacy today. However, although one may disagree with some of Keuleman’s history or theological conclusions about bishops and their essential nature, his recommendation at the end deserves a wide hearing and a thorough discussion. We must abandon the large dioceses of the old Saxon kingdoms, he suggests, and transform deaneries into small dioceses. That is, let us not have fewer bishops, but even more, but with a more circumscribed remit and local focus (with many bishops remaining local parish ministers, on the same stipend but with additional admin support). This is Archbishop Ussher’s Reduced Episcopacy idea from the seventeenth century, essentially, and should now be seriously re-considered as a matter of pastoral urgency and administrative good sense.

A provocative and timely idea from a man who knows what he is talking about on the subject of bishops, but who must also realise that it is very difficult to persuade people with power and prestige to water it down or give it up, however compelling the reasons might be.

This review first appeared in Churchman 128/3 (2014).

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