Bishops don’t much like the word ‘enthroned’ these days. Perhaps it’s a bit too imperial or exalted for modern notions of accessibility and equatability. So now we focus on their ‘installation’ (in a chair) or the ‘inauguration’ of his (or her) ministry. It is surely preferable to be enthroned in a seat than installed like a kitchen sink, but, whichever you prefer, the Rt Rev’d Dr Steven Croft was done yesterday at Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford. And at the moment when the Dean, the Very Rev’d Professor Martyn Percy, said, ‘Behold your Bishop’ (this was before the bongos started playing), his cope was flung open to reveal two L-plates.
Now, some will think this rather crass, and others will find it trendy and ‘missional’. The Canon Professor Mark Chapman, who was present (and witnessed the bongos), explains: “The service was typically legal and in his sermon the bishop told us he was a disciple of Jesus, which, I suppose, is reassuring, and that he was likely to make mistakes, which is probably true.”, So, the L-plates indicate the ongoing discipleship of an imperfect overseer.
But since Dr Croft has been Bishop of Sheffield for eight years, he’s hardly a novice, is he?. We don’t really want learners as bishops, do we? Don’t we need experienced pastors, preachers, teachers? Doesn’t the church need spiky prophets and fearless theologians? How do experienced vicars view a bishop sporting L-plates? How does the world? Hasn’t Steven Croft been
enthroned installed at Oxford Cathedral because he is already deemed by the Crown Nominations Commission to be manifestly qualified for the task?
L-plates must be displayed by all new UK drivers at all times, until they have passed their driving test. And until that time they hold only a provisional licence and must be accompanied by another driver who is over 21 years of age and has held a full licence for the type of vehicle being driven for at least three years. Perhaps the Very Rev’d Dean is going to sit at the new Bishop’s side for a year or two, or at least until he gets his feet securely under the throne? And when the Dean is content that all tests have been passed, perhaps the Bishop can exchange his red L-plates for green P-plates (‘P’ for probationary – less experienced than most but rather more than an learner). In Northern Ireland there are also amber R-plates (‘R’ for restricted – must not exceed 45mph). It is important to note that you can get up to six penalty points if you don’t display an L-plate or if it isn’t the right size.
‘This is a true saying, If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work‘ (1Tim 3:1). And the Church of England is in dire need of an episcopacy of devotion and discernment, not least because they ordain clergy, exercise jurisdiction, and minister the Word of God. They are the church’s chiefest governors, of which the Queen is supreme, and, like all such government, their authority originates in accord with ancient tradition and in consent of society. They are tasked with protecting the flock from wolves, and guarding the church from heresy and evil.
There is no time for ignorance, error or mediocrity in the episcopacy. When the rot sets in, it spreads quickly. You see it in the bullying disdain, oligarchical arrogance and retreat to the cushy palaces of innocuousness. They preach sermons of milk in a vacuum of spiritual oblivion. The world sees the hypocrisies of power and wealth, and the ornaments of majesty and nobility. Where, they ask, is the meat of theology and the fruit of salvation? And where is the solemnity, reverence, awe and dignity?
Is the sacred inauguration of a new bishop the place for clowning stunts and horseplay? Some will say yea: ‘He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh‘ (Ps 2:4). Others will say nay: “Speak not so unskilfully and foolishly of God, or holy things, as may tempt the hearers to turn it to a matter of scorn or laughter…” Perhaps it doesn’t matter what you think: the world hears the bongos and sees the jest, and they like what they hear and see. The word is heard, and the church made visible.
Ministry is a holy work, but the communication of holiness is a political act. It doesn’t plant itself, and the fruit doesn’t grow of its own accord. Steven Croft has been called by God to be a bishop in the Church of Jesus Christ to lead disciples to greater holiness. You can carp and criticise, or you can pray for him. We all have L-plates when we’re on our knees.