Lusa Nsenga-Ngo Bishop of Willesden Church of England Bishops
Church of England

Why are schoolchildren selecting Church of England bishops?

Caroline Boddington is barely out the door, and bishops are now being appointed by…  schoolchildren called Temisan, Keziah, Honey and Sophia.

With the retirement of the Rt Rev’d Pete Broadbent as Bishop of Willesden, somebody (Caroline Boddington?) decided that children should have a say in who replaces him. The teenagers from Twyford CofE High School in Acton assessed CVs,  judged sermons, interviewed and discerned the spiritual leadership of all those who applied. And they unanimously decided that the best person to replace Pete Broadbent would be Lusa Nsenga-Ngoy: “..the current BAME mission and ministry enabler in the diocese of Leicester, was their favourite”, we are told.

Honey Ryder, Deputy Head Girl and A-level Religious Studies student, said: “It was an honour to be a part of the selection process for the Bishop of Willesden. All of the candidates spoke excellently and gave really insightful, thought-provoking presentations.”

The Rt Rev’d and Rt Hon Dame Sarah Mullally, Bishop of London, said: “It is a joy to join with Lusa and his family today as this announcement is made. I know we will all learn and benefit from Lusa’s leadership and wisdom as we welcome him into our Diocese. It is fitting that we have heard the news today at one of our own church schools, Twyford Church of England High School, where some of the students helped in the selection process for the new Bishop. It is for them, and for every Londoner, that we spread the Good News, as part of our 2030 Vision.”

The Rev’d Canon Lusa Nsenga-Ngoy, the next Bishop of Willesden, said: “It is a real privilege to be called to join the work that God is doing in Willesden. I am eager to experience the wealth of diversity in heritage and culture that make up the communities of West London. I look forward to strengthen existing bonds across churches and the wider community, as we tackle together some of the big issues facing us all. As the next Bishop of Willesden, my hope is to share the love of Jesus with confidence, compassion, and imagination. It has been a pleasure to meet the school children responsible, in-part, for my appointment. I hope that I can deliver on their faith in me. I will, of course, carry with me precious memories of life and ministry in the diocese of Leicester, especially the gifts of curiosity, attentiveness, and generosity.”

It perhaps comes as no surprise that a selection panel apparently made up solely of minority ethnic students chose a minority ethnic ‘Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Mission and Ministry Enabler’ from the Diocese of Leicester. People tend to like a church made in their own image. Were there any white boys on this selection panel? Were there any boys at all? If not, why not? If so, why aren’t they in the official photograph?

Lusa Nsenga-Ngoy has a passion for racial justice: his Twitter feed exudes black solidarity, the need for anti-racism reforms, decolonisation, and reflections on Ecclesial white supremacism. He is married to Mirjam, who is the Discipleship Officer at Leicester Cathedral. Her Twitter feed is a truly refreshing stream of healing contemplation, warmth and radiance, interspersed with Black Lives Matter and anti-Brexit RTs.

One wonders if the student selection panel did any social-media research on the candidates before interviewing them. Did they specifically ask applicants what they thought about BLM? Did their teachers advise them during Black History Month to do this? Did they enquire about racism missionary priorities? Did they appoint the candidate they agreed with most, or the one who challenged them most? We know the answer, of course: appointment panels tend not to select those who make them feel uncomfortable. Should discerning the next generation of bishops be based on what a group of teenagers think and like?

“I hope that I can deliver on their faith in me,” says the Suffragan Bishop-elect.

Should a bishop be crafting his or her ‘delivery’ on the expectations of children? Of course, it is a missiological imperative that the next generation should be nurtured in faith and discipled, and that requires a bishop being all things to all age groups, but to place his future ministry in the hopes and dreams of their callow naiveties and inexperience is not the way to discern church leadership.

No doubt Temisan, Keziah, Honey and Sophia are thoughtful, intelligent and inspiring, and they are all quite possibly a pleasure to teach (which in itself raises issues of their selection). But they are not employers, and have no knowledge of the complexities of theology or fraught episcopal demands. Why entrust the appointment of bishops to those who cannot drive, vote, buy fireworks or even legally watch ‘Sex Education’ on Netflix?

And which teachers selected the selectors? Did they exhort the children to weigh applicants in accordance with the scriptural requirements for the office, as set out in St Paul’s first letter to Timothy? Did they choose someone who is above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and not a lover of money? Does he manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and does he do so in a manner worthy of full respect?

Did they ask the Rev’d Canon Lusa Nsenga-Ngoy why he aspires to be a bishop? Did they ask how he deals with problems with his own children? Did they ask him what others think of him? Did they ask him to describe himself in three words? Did they ask him what others would say his chiefest weaknesses to be?

Or did they ask him the questions which their teachers advised, focusing on equality, diversity and inclusion?

For those who think this is a good idea and the way forward for the State Church in making episcopal appointments, consider that it only really works when the children get what they want, and Lusa Nsenga-Ngoy has manifestly already delivered on that. But what would have happened if a student selection panel made up of white working-class boys from Hillsborough had unanimously chosen Philip North as “their favourite” to become Bishop of Sheffield. Would Jayden, Tom, Declan and Ryan not have felt somewhat alienated and sidelined to have had their wisdom and discernment (not to mention their time and trouble) treated with such contempt? Would they then have felt inclined to stick with a church that doesn’t listen to their concerns, or heed their spiritual hopes and dreams?

Should the Church of England really be asking children to choose the shepherds of Christ’s flock and guardians of the faith of the apostles?