Church of England

Is Mark Rylands the humblest bishop in the Church of England?

The Rt Rev’d Mark Rylands is presently Bishop of Shrewsbury. He is well-known to readers of this blog for being a thoughtful and intelligent advocate for UK secession from the European Union – the Church of England’s only Brexit Bishop, indeed. It has been announced that he is leaving his area bishopric in the Diocese of Lichfield and returning to parish ministry in the Diocese of Exeter. He explains:

“It will be sad to leave. And for some it may seem a surprise move. But, for me, I have sensed God’s beckoning to serve as a parish priest again. For the last 16 years, as both diocesan missioner and area bishop, much of my ministry has been to encourage, challenge and help churches and church leaders to embody and share the Good News of Jesus Christ in the local community. I have heard God calling me now to ‘go and walk the talk’.

“I am acutely aware that I have a great deal to learn in becoming a parish priest and am not unaware of the challenges I face. However, I have a heart for rural mission and ministry and am greatly looking forward to getting to know the people of Ashburton and the Moorland Team in Exeter Diocese, to seeing where God will lead us. I am slightly daunted but also know that, where God calls, he also equips.

You may ponder perfectly reasonable questions:

And then comes a laser-beam answer of wisdom and insight:

Which corroborates an observation from last July, which was seemingly prophetic:

For many clergy (perhaps too many), the attainment of a senior ministry position is evidence of godliness, holiness and spiritual ability in leadership: one becomes a dean, then perhaps a suffragan bishop, then a diocesan and then (please God) one of the big three – Londin, Ebor or Cantuar. If you’re very godly and holy and spiritually gifted in leadership, you might skip any of these usual rungs and be expedited to a top job.

Bishop Mark’s decision to return to parish ministry is manifestly the fulfilment of a vocation: his heart is in local mission; he desires nothing more than to preach the gospel, make disciples and serve them. And therein lies great humility and a profound witness:

For a bishop must be blameless, as the steward of God; not selfwilled, not soon angry, not given to wine, no striker, not given to filthy lucre;
But a lover of hospitality, a lover of good men, sober, just, holy, temperate;
Holding fast the faithful word as he hath been taught, that he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers (Titus 1:7-9).

Government of the Church is a gift of God to certain individuals who are called and qualified (1Tim 5:17; Rom 12:8; Heb 13:7, 17, 24). How much chaos and tragedy befalls the Church when it is led by those who are not called or qualified! And character is as important as charisma: when God says an Elder must… there is no room for negotiation: these things are necessary and binding because Elders lead the flock and are examples to others in discipleship and the work of mission. How can a leader lead others in obedience if there are questions about their own obedience to the Word?

This is a true saying, if a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work (1Tim 3:1).

To desire is to reach out, to long for, to covet, to stretch oneself: it is a deep inward drive or impulse to equip oneself for leadership ministry. This is a good work, an excellent task. It is not for earthly status, titular flattery or personal glory, but for work (cf Mat 23:1-12; Job 32:21f).

And there is no greater work or more urgent a task than that of preaching the gospel and making disciples.

By all accounts, Mark Rylands is a man of integrity, compassion and mercy. He is vigilant, temperate, just, holy and hospitable. He is irreproachable and an example to the flock of God. He is free from the taint of scandal and accusation; above reproof, rebuke or reprimand. By laying down his area bishopric, he shows the world that he is not self-willed, arrogant, stubborn, self-conceited or egocentric, but humble and willing to surrender to God’s will.

He is, in fact, just the sort of man God might call to be an archbishop.