Understanding episcopacy

A Season Two episode of Star Trek the Original Series, “Return to Tomorrow,” sees Captain Kirk in the briefing room with the Enterprise senior officers. A risky decision is before the Captain, and he is in consultation. He says,

“I'm in command. I could order this. But I'm not because, Doctor McCoy is right in pointing out the enormous danger potential in any contact with life and intelligence as fantastically advanced as this. But I must point out that the possibilities, the potential for knowledge and advancement is equally great. Risk. Risk is our business. That's what the starship is all about.”

In the Church, too many of its members believe leadership is more or less a slam-dunk, cut and dried, black and white. The Bishop is the person in command. If something goes right, it shines well on us all. If anything goes wrong, it must be the commander’s fault. Anyone in a position of leadership will quickly acknowledge that “control” is one thing not too often experienced, at least far less often than most would assume.

We sometimes like to think of the Church as a ship, fully equipped with a captain or skipper, crew and deck hands. The image is convenient, orderly and easily conceived. If we were to position the Bishop on this church-ship, most of us would see the episcopal officer as the person at the helm, steering the ship. If the ship is going in a difficult direction, it's obviously the skipper’s fault. After all, the one steering must be deciding where we all go. Those who have done any sailing will affirm that, from the deck, the wind seems to blow hardest and the boat leans the most when the bow has been brought into the wind (a tack) and there’s significant distance being covered.

In the Church, I think Bishops are more accurately and most often in the crow’s nest or the bosun’s chair. At the top of the mast, its possible to see the clouds forming on the horizon forewarning a coming storm. From there, one can see other nautical traffic and make navigational decisions based on the big picture view. From “the top” the world of the ship looks like a different place and the one there always has the advantage of seeing the bigger picture.

And so it is with our bishops. Even knowing that the ship is headed the wrong way, often the best that can be done is to bellow the warning and hope the crew and helms-person of the moment take heed. The crow’s nest can be a helpless place, where the sun shines brightest and all the weather batters with full force. From the point of view of the church-ship’s membership, the orders may sound unproductive, even absurd. From the view on the deck, we all have what we think is the perfect direction for the ship, if we could just take the helm.

Even in the midst of a crisis, when the tiller is set and the sails are trimmed to bring smooth and productive sailing, the wind can suddenly change. Even though with adequate skill and experience most often the ship will reach the intended destination, any captain will admit, its all “in the wind.”

The Church in these days often encounters rough seas and heavy weather. When the boat heels over the crow’s nest feels it first. There is a risk in setting sail and most of the decisions during the journey are exercises in risk-taking. Most bishops who find themselves in this unique Anglican Church of ours – “episcopally lead and synodically governed” – see the huge potential that exists when the followers do so at their choosing and with full knowledge of the risk. Stepping out in faith is “our business.” That’s what the Church is all about.

There is a risk in setting sail and most of the decisions during the journey are exercises in risk-taking.

We all have a secret or not so secret vision of peace, warm soft breezes and never-ending sunshine. Christians call it heaven. The Church is headed there but there’s some sailing to do before we get there. Can we bring ourselves to depend on the advice and direction we receive from the one with the bigger picture? Can we resist grabbing at the wheel every time, from our perspective, we’re not headed in the right direction? Can we all have the faith to know that ultimately, the Maker-of-the-Wind will take us all, including the Ship itself, where we need to go?

This article is a reprise from a past issue of the New Brunswick Anglican. The Very Rev’d Geoffrey Hall is currently Dean of Fredericton.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *