Praise be! read the front page headline on the Evening Standard as Bishop Sarah Mullally was announced as the 103rd Bishop of London on the 18th of December. Amid all the gloom about Brexit and a faltering economy, amid all the great international tensions whipped up by the tweeting Trump, this was welcome news and something to cheer.
The move from allowing that women can be bishops in the Church of England to a woman bishop occupying the third most senior post in the Church of England has been reasonably swift, at least by Church of England standards. This, too, is something to be welcomed and cheered.
However skilled Bishop Sarah is (and I have first-hand experience of her many gifts and skills), this appointment does have the whiff of the ‘poisoned chalice’ about it. As in politics at Westminster, so the church in London has deep divides; and the opposing parties keep gigging their trenches deeper with the spades of ‘mutual flourishing’ and the ‘Five Principles’. Even churchy Twitter was divided as Bishop Sarah’s appointment was announced – the usual mixture of delight and horror. There is some gender equality here, though, as I suspect the reaction would have pretty much the same for a male bishop, especially if he ordained women. No one, whatever their gender, is going to be able to pull off the trick of keeping everyone in churchy London happy: it just cannot be done, and that’s probably not the best place to start a new ministry.
Sometimes, the impossible things we ask of our bishops makes me shudder at the inhumanity of it. And it’s not just bishops, though we do load all sorts of ridiculous things on them: ‘father (or mother?) in God’, ‘focus of unity’, ‘shepherd’, ‘servant’ – when in fact they are almost always none of these. Usually they are decent men and women with a strong vocation who are called into (or work at getting) positions that expose them as fallible and normal, not miracle workers, not even often very brave. Women and men who struggle with the same stuff that the rest of us do, but who are expected to have the answers, expected to be better than the rest of us, to behave as if the normal things that drive normal people don’t affect them, whether it’s ambition, anger, sex, money or love; we put them on very wobbly pedestals and then are shocked and saddened when they fall off.
The incarnation of God in our midst, which we Christians celebrate in a few days’ time, is a celebration of the human inhabited by the divine. More than that, it is a celebration of the divine made manifest in the human – not obliterating the human, but transforming it, known through it. All those things that make us human and give depth and meaning to our human experience become the vehicle of divine love, however exalted or humble. And yet elements in the church throughout history, and even today, spend disproportionate amounts of time and mental effort trying to deny that the human and the divine have very much to do with each other. What has sex got to do with God? Well, if we take the incarnation of our God seriously, then it has as much to do with God as prayer. What have my inadequacies got to do with God? Well, if we take the incarnation of our God seriously, then they have as much to do with God as wisdom and understanding. The Christian Gospel, made visible even in the mythologised Christmas stories we are about to tell, is about love incarnate. These are theological realities that even bishops need to understand.
Bishops are not superstars; they are no more inhabited by the divine than you or me; not many are even leaders whom I would follow (there are exceptions). Some are open to the working of God’s Spirit in the world; others seem fearful of every shadow, not least the shadows cast by their own selves, by their own humanity – and I’ve seen plenty of those.
I wish Bishop Sarah all the best in her ministry in London. Like every other human being, she will need all the help, prayer, and support we can give her. All the dressing up clothes in the world (and they have some wonderful dressing up clothes at St Paul’s), and even sitting on a throne in a magnificent cathedral, will not make Bishop Sarah less human, or less prone to be like the rest of us, and, crucially, no less able to live the love of God incarnate in the world than you or me.
General Secretary, Modern Church