Church of England

The Reformation 500 years on: do we need 95 New Theses for the 21st century?

‘Protestants’ acquired their name because they were first and foremost, protesters. They publicly declared their dissent. In the expressing of dissent from and rejection of prevailing mores, they understood themselves to be testifying to older, deeper truths. 2017 commemorates the 500th anniversary of the publication of Martin Luther’s 95 theses – his protest against abuses that were rife in the church of his age. He hammered his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg – such doors serving as the town and church noticeboards of his time.

And so with apologies to Martin Luther (1483-1546), we offer 95 New Theses – now hammered on to today’s ‘virtual noticeboard’ – and a protest against the debilitation of the church. These are offered with gratitude to Gerald Hiestand and Todd Wilson (The Pastor as Theologian: Resurrecting an Ancient Vision, Zondervan, 2015), and Kevin Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan, (The Pastor as Public Theologian: Reclaiming a Lost Vision, Baker Academic, 2015). The new Theses published here also pick up on my earlier article in Modern Believing (Vol. 55, iss. 3, 2014: ‘Growth and Management in the Church of England: Some Comments’).

In these simple protests and proclamations, we express a humble hope for the Church of England: that the church will begin to recover some nerve, and somehow find the heart and mind to recover a simple 2,000 year old tradition. Namely, for our bishops to return to their primary vocation: being teachers and pastors of the flock, rather than missional-managers.

The Very Revd Professor Martyn Percy
Dean of Christ Church, Oxford.
2nd January 2017


  1. The most important role for our bishops is to mediate the wisdom and compassion of God: to be teachers and pastors, after the example of Christ himself, no less.
  2. The church is in danger of exchanging its birthright for a mess of secular pottage in the place where one might least expect this: the episcopacy.
  3. Bishops, together with the churches and communities they serve, are too often held captive by models of leadership (e.g., managers, therapists) drawn from contemporary culture rather than Scripture.
  4. The church needs bishops who can be theologians, and contextualize the Word of God, so congregations can be begin to reflect theologically on their lives and work today.
  5. Many bishops and ministers today do not share this vision. They see themselves as missional target-setters, motivational practitioners and middle-managers, presiding over a dysfunctional organization that needs reform. The history and tradition of the church does not recognize this vision for episcopacy, and it should refuse it.
  6. The Bishop as a preeminent pastor-theologian is a particular kind of generalist: one who specializes in viewing all of life from the perspective of what God was, is and will do in Jesus Christ.
  7. A note to mission-minded managers regarding their metrics: Not everything that counts can be counted. Not everything that can be counted, counts (Einstein). Parish churches are named (often after saints). They are not numbers (on a pie-chart set within a ‘dashboard’). Naming implies identity and a personality for each church.  Numbers reduce congregations to anonymous units.
  8. Bishops are meant to be, primarily, teachers and pastors of the flock; not managers and ecclesiastical bureaucrats. The chair or throne is the symbol of their teaching; the towel (from Maundy Thursday) and pastoral staff a symbol of their care. Good teachers and great carers are all we ask for: others can manage.
  9. Our church today has cut itself adrift from traditional models of episcopacy and replaced them with management-led officers in an organisational structure. But as two commentators from The Economist, Adrian Aldridge and John Micklethwait note (see The Company: A Short History of a Revolutionary idea, 2003, p. 11): ‘(these) managers have always fancied themselves in the officer class’.  Indeed they have, and in the church, they are now running the show.
  10. If we command through intimidation, we may create followers. But if we lead through gentle strength we will build good leaders.
  11. The office of bishop has been exchanged for a bowl of lentil stew (Gen. 25: 29-34); the birthright of the vocation has been sold for management skills, strategic plans, ‘leadership’ courses, therapeutic techniques, motivational talks, strap-lines and glib mottos.
  12. Congregations should not expect their bishops to have MBA’s. But congregations do have every right to expect at least two things from their bishops: outstanding theological teaching, as well deep, compassionate pastoral care. It is not too much to ask.
  13. We need a paradigm shift if we are to rescue the church from the ‘domestication of transcendence’ that the (doubtless) well-meaning ecclesiastical managers are unwisely promoting. In their desire to bring order and organisation to the church, the managers continually make the Holy Spirit redundant: Processes replace the Paraclete; ‘corporate-speak’ usurps the Counsellor, who leads us in to all truth.
  14. We were always hungry for the truth that sets us free: we did not sign up for this to be replaced by any formulae that bring results. No matter how much the managers tell us the results are worthy and good, and can also set us free. This is untrue.
  15. When managers ban theology from their processes – for fear of being bored or out-narrated – we know we need a New Reformation.
  16. To save the soul of the church, bishops need to return to having a love of theology. Not just a nodding acquaintance with a bright few ideas.
  17. To find our new episcopal teachers and pastors, we need processes of wilful spiritual discernment that are rooted and grounded in theology, and not in the latest HR fashions drawn from contemporary management theory.
  18. A note to the church from the Buddha? “Wake up”.
  19. The dis-location of theology to the academy, and away from the church, together with the separation between biblical studies and doctrinal theology, serves neither academy nor church.
  20. A joke from the church of the future: A couple who are tourists on a weekend break are looking around at an English cathedral in the late-twenty-first century. One says, ‘Look darling, they seem to have buried two people in this grave’. ‘Why do you say that?’, comes the reply.  ‘Because the gravestone says, “here lies a Bishop and a Theologian”.  They must be different people, because the vocations and roles are quite separate.  But how strange that they shared the same name…’.  Enough said.
  21. Bishops are theologians whose vocation is to seek, speak, and show understanding of what God is doing in Christ for the sake of the world, and to lead others to do the same.
  22. Bishops have a special vocation as public theologians, because they work for, with, and on people – the gathered assembly of the faithful, and wider society – and enable them to live to God, bearing witness as a public body in the public square.
  23. Bishops must exercise special vigilance in their ministries, taking care not to make their episcopal chair in theology (sometimes referred to as a ‘throne’), or their lectern, into a ‘bully pulpit’ that might magnify their own role, instead of, or even alongside that of God’s.
  24. Bishops are not unique in building others up into Christ; all Christians share this privilege and responsibility. But bishops do have a special role – being put into the position of overseeing this building project.
  25. The bishop-theologian is an organic intellectual within the body of Christ; a person with evangelical intelligence who is “wise unto salvation”.
  26. As an ‘organic intellectual’ (so part of Christ’s body), the bishop-theologian articulates the faith, hope, and love of the believing community on the community’s behalf and for its up-building.
  27. The office of bishop (and theologian), are not recent innovations, or an executive position. The roles have their ancestry in the leadership offices of ancient Israel: prophets, priests, judges and rulers.
  28. The office of pastor was commissioned by Jesus: it continues Jesus’s ministry as the good shepherd of the new covenant community, and as someone who embodies wisdom, inspired by the Spirit. Bishops are a particular embodiment of this ministry.
  29. Without theological vision, the people perish. Managers can help implement such vision. But it is not the task of managers to set out the vision for the people, and proclaim their strategy and tactics as some kind of gospel or missional blueprint.  That is not the good news.
  30. Doctrine is vital for the life of the church. Bishops need to know it, guard it and teach it. Bishops who cannot teach faithfully and ably are failing in one of their core callings.  Today, few bishops seem to live out this vocation in their ministry.
  31. Bishops, like priests, represent God to humanity (especially regarding the requirements for holiness; directing the people to God’s gracious provision in Christ Jesus to save us from our ongoing sins, etc.); and humanity to God (offering the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, and the prayers of the people in intercessions).
  32. William H. Willimon: ‘Contemporary ministry has (become) the victim…of images of leadership that are borrowed not from scripture, but from the surrounding culture – the pastor as CEO, as psychotherapeutic guru, or as political agitator’ (The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry, 2002, p. 55). Quite so.
  33. Bishops, when they are good pastor-theologians, like prophets, exercise a ministry of truth-telling: primarily (but not exclusively) with words, communicating a “God’s-eye point of view”, especially concerning the truth that is to be found in Christ Jesus.
  34. Bishops, when they are good pastor-theologians, can be like the good kings of ancient Israel. They personify God’s cruciform wisdom and righteousness through humble obedience to God’s Word, thereby modelling what citizenship in heaven might look like on earth.
  35. Bishops from previous eras of church history uniformly understood their vocation in theological terms; and most of the best theologians in the history of the church were also fine pastors and bishops. What’s gone wrong here? How is it we have ended up with a church that believes theology is for specialists, rather than the means of teaching the essential truths of faith?
  36. A test: ask yourself and answer, hand-on-heart and honestly, if you can name three currently serving bishops you would happily queue to hear them lecturing or teaching, standing in line outside the venue on the street where they are speaking, on a cold wet winter night, waiting for the lecture to start? OK, I might have set the bar too high; so name just one bishop you’d do this for. Just one. Still struggling? Many will.  How did we come to this?
  37. The church urgently needs to come to some self-understanding: how did we lose this vision of bishops as teachers? Where did the arrogance of this ‘Age-of-the-Manager’ come from, that tells us we can do without theology and bishops-as-theologians? (NB: The Green Report on proposed new methods for choosing senior leaders from a ‘Talent Pool’ barely mentioned God.  But a lot of words were devoted to faddish designs and management theories).  What can be done to put this right?
  38. Bishops in the early church used the ancient rules of faith to provide the parameters for understanding the theological realities that are part and parcel of the Christian life.
  39. At some points in the life of the early church, bishops were not only pastors of local churches, but also overseers of much broader regions and territories – thereby showing that theology was never meant to be a ‘formula’ for merely running the church and its mission. Rather, theology and episcopal ministry is about the shaping of the whole of society.
  40. So we need bishops who understand the theology and imperative of the Kingdom of God – a holistic vision for humanity, communities and creation.
  41. Bishops are pastor-theologians responsible for representing the unity of the church, defending the true faith, and opposing error.
  42. Bishops should be intellectuals who know how to relate Big Truths to real people in real times and in real places.
  43. In the early twentieth century, many modern pastors began to see their vocation as a kind of ‘helping profession’. In so doing, there was a loss of interest in theology, since the new preoccupation was with learning practical skills that would ensure success (i.e., results). The managers actively supported this trajectory, and do so today.
  44. The early twenty-first century is now seeing the beginnings of a remnant that seeks to recover the historic vision of the episcopacy as a pastoral and a theological office. (Finally, someone has remembered that doctrine might be quite important; and that teaching, caring and wisdom, might be some of the main reasons people have for coming to church in the first place…).
  45. We need bishops who can grapple with the intellectual challenges of the day. And care more deeply for their people than seems humanly possible. To show forth the compassion and wisdom of Christ in their lives and ministries.
  46. The bishop is the chief pastor-theologian who deals with death and dying, and the anxiety of mortality in general, by administering the reality of the good news of the gospel, and by personally embodying, in contextually sensitive ways, the joyful news of resurrection.
  47. This is halfway point of the 95 New Theses. So what of selecting bishops? The process needs a theological point of origin, rationale and shape.  The whole process needs to be theological, not rooted in executive managerialism. True, General Synod votes for a voting system. But the detail of the current process is designed and implemented by HR managers, and entirely their creature. The process involves an interview for each candidate, barely lasting an hour.  (Most parishes would not pick a Vicar like this – but we only give candidates for Diocesan Bishops around 60 minutes to be interviewed).

    The Standard-Transferable-Vote system advocated by the HR managers has been shaped and adopted in a way that is gender-biased: those who consistently vote ‘abstain’ against any female candidate for episcopacy are counted as ‘against’, making it almost impossible for any woman to secure a two-thirds majority of voters.

    Choosing bishops should be a rich and profound process of spiritual discernment, saturated in wisdom, seeking and finding the very best teacher and the very best pastor for the people and places she or he will serve, and someone who can contribute to the healthful sustaining and renewal of the national church, wider catholic Communion, and society at large.

    If Human Resources and the ecclesiastical managers are allowed to shape the procedures, however, the process will invariably culminate in a quite different result.  Effectively, a bland, safe compromise, with no scope for bravery.  So, those specifically charged with or elected to choose bishops in the Church of England should actively resist the “iron cage” of corporate managerialism imposed on procedures, and instead seek to fashion a process that is primarily one of spiritual discernment, mindful of the primary roles of a bishop (i.e., teacher, pastor, reconciler and focus of catholic unity), and mindful of the criteria set out by Paul in his letter to Timothy (I Tim. 3: 1-8).

  48. Stated simply, the calling of the bishop is to help congregations and communities become what they are called to be. It is not to impose a blueprint from ‘mission control’ or to issue command-and-control directives from diocesan central office. Bishops are there for enabling and empowering churches to become what they are called to be in every locality, and to help inspire the Word Made Flesh to become a reality in every place.
  49. The People of God is that public place where Christ is remembered, celebrated and revealed. Bishops exist to help oversee this vocation. They lead their people in prayer to that very end.
  50. Bishops are to embody an “evangelical mood” in a “catholic spirit”, thereby making that indicative declaration – faithfully announcing “He is risen! He is Lord!” – such that when it is to be attuned to the world, also proclaims that the world can be made new in Jesus Christ.
  51. The distinctive task of the bishop is to say, on the basis of the Scriptures, what was, is, and will be “in Christ”.
  52. Theology is the knowledge of how to live in the presence of God. Bishops are called to help us awaken us to such knowledge. Being a good theologian is not an optional extra for the office of a bishop; it is a prerequisite.
  53. The bishops of the church are suffering from theological anaemia. Everyone knows that ordinary anaemia is caused by deficiencies in the diet, leading to weak blood, specifically caused by the lack of iron. Supplements can combat the condition.  The analogy hardly needs spelling out further.
  54. There are no bad foods; only bad diets. If the church doesn’t feed off the nourishment of theology, the deficiencies will manifest themselves in the overall well-being of our communities of faith. This is why bishops are called to be wise theological teachers; and caring, compassionate pastors.  Theology is supposed to be in the blood of the church, not an optional supplement.
  55. The office of bishop is charged with providing the essential food for the body of Christ that nourishes its soul, limbs and inner life. This might feature on the (highly debatable) HR-Manager’s ‘desirable’ list; but for the church, it is a non-negotiable ‘essential’.
  56. Bishops set forth in speech what is in Christ, and are ultimately engaged in a ministry of reality: that is, in administering the truth of what is – the truth about God, humanity, and the relationship between them.
  57. Bishops are meant to be public intellectuals who filter and framework of the biblical story of God’s work of redemption – one that culminates in the startling resurrection and ascension of Jesus.
  58. Bishops devote themselves to the privilege of studying, interpreting, and ministering an understanding of God’s Word to others; for Scripture alone is the divinely authorized account of what God is doing in Christ to reconcile humanity and renew creation.
  59. Bishops endeavour to help increase the biblical literacy of their congregations and churches, particularly by giving attention to biblical theology and the challenge of understanding the unity of the biblical story – of Christ’s very presence in the diversity of biblical books, persons, and events.
  60. Bishops, as our chief pastor-theologians, should also endeavour to increase social, political and cultural literacy in each of their congregations, knowing that is ultimately a means of spiritual formation that shapes our values, beliefs and behaviours.
  61. So, bishops should help their churches to read the ‘signs of the times’, so that the gospel may be sounded faithfully and afresh in each new generation.
  62. Shaped by the past, the office of bishop today still has a special vocation to help the church shape our future world. Such is the Kingdom of God.
  63. The bishop is a Student of the Church. It is their rightful business to become “exegetes of the congregations” given over to their care.
  64. Equally, churches are students of bishops: those called to episcopal ministry need to listen attentively to what the churches might be saying to them about their local situations, and how bishops might respond to the urgencies, opportunities and tasks of the local mission and ministry.
  65. Managers mostly make safe choices; they are inherently risk-aversive. So interesting, creative, ‘wild card’ bishops are not easily imaginable as long as the ecclesiastical managers continue to rule the church.
  66. The bishop works with theologians – across traditions – so as to help uncover ‘the hidden purposes of God’ and ‘deep mysteries’ of the gospel of salvation.
  67. Bishops, as preeminent pastor-theologians, speak in the imperative as well as the indicative, exhorting their congregations not only to say but also to conform to the new eschatological reality that is available to us in Christ, and through the Holy Spirit.
  68. Seminaries exist to foster biblical and theological literacy for the sake of understanding and living out what it is to follow Christ today, and how to ‘be’ the church. So bishops have a special responsibility: to guard our seminaries as treasures and resources for the whole church.
  69. Seminaries exist not to reinforce, but rather to transcend the typical compartmentalization of “biblical,” “systematic,” and “practical” theology for the sake of interdisciplinary pastoral-theological wisdom. Just as seminaries do this, so do we expect bishops, as our chief pastor-theologians, to be modelling this in their teaching ministries.
  70. The practices of the bishop as pastor-theologian are rooted in their own union with Christ, and involve communicating what it is to be in Christ.
  71. The Great Pastoral Commission is Christ’s charge to bishops and pastors to be public theologians who work with people on God’s behalf; workers who feed Christ’s sheep and build God’s house.
  72. Jesus is the master builder who will build his church on the rock of confessors and confessions. Bishops, as chief pastor-theologians play a special (i.e., set-apart) role in serving as authorized representatives of Jesus, charged with preserving the integrity of the church’s confessions.
  73. The bishop, as a chief pastor-theologian, is a builder of God’s house, and a labourer on God’s site; a mason who works with living stones, joining them together with the cornerstone (Jesus Christ) in order to form a dwelling place on earth for God: a temple made of redeemed people, for all God’s people.
  74. The church does not need leaders with MBA’s. It needs leaders who understand that as overseers and stewards of the ‘household of God’, their role is more like that of a parent with adult children. Bishops are “fathers and mothers in God” for precisely this reason.  They are presiding as the head of an institution (much like the head of a family); the office of bishop is not like being a CEO or leader of an organisation.
  75. The church exists to glorify God and to follow Jesus Christ, not to pursue its own agenda on numerical growth. Faithfulness to the Gospel must always be put before the search for success. These truths are obscured by the Church of England’s valuing of managerial skills and growth targets over prophetic vision and gentle pastoral care.
  76. The current process for selecting diocesan bishops highlights this failing – and is geared up to the evisceration of truly creative theological leadership. We need more emphasis on wisdom and depth, and less on growth and management. We will need an entirely New Reformation if we are to correct our course.
  77. Evelyn Underhill, writing to Archbishop Lang on the eve of the 1930 Lambeth Conference, reminded him that the world was not especially hungry for what the church was immediately preoccupied with. Underhill put it sharply in her letter: ‘may it please your Grace […] I desire to humbly suggest that the interesting thing about religion is God; and the people are hungry for God’. Bishops need to be able to feed us, not manage us.
  78. The recent emphasis on numerical church growth in the Church of England – borne largely out of fear, and not faith – has led to the unbalanced ascendancy of mission-minded middle managers. It is hard to imagine a Michael Ramsey, William Temple or Edward King receiving preferment in the current climate. The managers would say they don’t tick the right boxes.
  79. If all leaders must now make obeisance before the altar of numerical church growth, we will erode our character and mute our mission. The veneration of growth squeezes out the space for broader gifts in leadership that can nourish the church and engage the world.
  80. As with all things Anglican, it is a question of balance. No one can or should say that an emphasis on numerical church growth is wrong. But a continued over-emphasis on numbers simply skews the identity and ethos of the body, and our composition. The issue is one of proportion and stability, and the weight and measure of our polity as faithful Anglicans.
  81. This is a more subtle problem than it might at first appear. It was said of the late Cardinal Basil Hume that ‘he had the gift of being able to talk to the English about God without making them wish they were somewhere else’.
  82. The value of this gift should not be underestimated. And for our national mission, this is precisely why we need a leadership that incorporates space for the holy and devout; the gentle pastor; the poet and the prophet; the teacher and theologian; and possibly a radical or two for good measure. The church may not always draw near to such leaders. But the nation often does – especially those who don’t normally go to church.
  83. For the first time since the Reformation, we now have no bishops who have held a university post in theology. This is no small scandal. The nation may not notice this problem, but it will certainly sense the lack of intellectual leadership. So for the sake of national mission, and our credibility as a public church, we may want to intentionally develop a broader range of leaders than the very singular objective of numerical church growth and organisational management currently budgets for.
  84. By replacing older vocational processes for discerning diocesan bishops with a newer set of managerial procedures, there is a sense of subduing the work of the Spirit – of managing the transcendence of God.
  85. The new breed of ecclesiastical executive managers probably never intended this. But in their relentless pursuit of control, compliance and consistency, the result of managerial hegemony is nearly always the same: predictability. The casualties are obvious: theological prescience and perceptiveness, both effectively eviscerated from the episcopacy. We need these back where they belong – in the episcopacy.
  86. Some may ask, at this point, why doesn’t the current leadership of the church do something about all of this? The answer is simple: our current leadership is, largely, management-led – and a product of these processes.
  87. It becomes hard to avoid a form of ecclesial narcolepsy if we have unintentionally muted theologians who have the necessary vision and urgency to cause the church to awaken. The revolutionary patience that someone like Ched Myers speaks of (see Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus, 1970), or the loyal dissent advocated by Gerald Arbuckle (see Refounding the Church: Dissent for Leadership, 1993), can lose their place and value within a managerially shaped ecclesial body.
  88. The possibility of radical theology – from the Latin, radix, meaning ‘root’ (and that gets to the heart of a matter) – is quickly subsumed in cultures and agendas of conformity, management and productivity. Indeed, as we read the parable of the sower (Mt. 13: 1-9), we are now finding that the forces of management and growth, weed-like, ‘choke’ the rarer border plants that contribute differently and richly to our fields of ecclesial life and vitality.
  89. Leadership, it is often said, is doing the right thing; and management is all about doing things right. The church needs both, of course. But it is arguably not unfair to say that the church of the post-war years has moved from being over-led and under-managed, to being over-managed and theologically under-led.
  90. Bishops are agents of renewal and reconciliation through their counsel, personal visitations, teaching and preaching. Pastoral care and teaching lie at the core of the role.
  91. These days, many can find the average bishop’s sermons a rather glib, anodyne and underwhelming business. Yet the sermon is a crucial instrument in bishop’s “arsenal” of the ‘grace, mercy and peace’ that any bishop proclaims to each and every congregation, parish and household of faith that they visit. The sermon is the space and place for truth to be spoken, thereby fostering biblical literacy, biblical-theological competence, and a holistic appreciation of the presence of the Holy Spirit in the midst of the body that meets in the name of Christ.  Sermons are vehicles for teaching, and symbolise the role of the bishop as a primary theologian in parishes and dioceses.
  92. Sermons are also a means of fostering a congregation’s ability to interpret culture; recognize, engage and critique the powers of our age, and understand the way particular texts and trends either contribute to or hinder the realization of God’s mission. The sermon is one of the ways the bishop can awaken people to the redemptive reality of what God is doing in Christ in the world, despite what culture, politics and society might try to tell us.
  93. Bishops must explicitly reclaim the role of Catechist – as set out in the Pastoral Epistles – teaching doctrine for the sake of enabling people to better understand and conform to the reality of following Christ today. Bishops administer sound doctrine to the body of Christ for the sake of its health, flourishing, and growing up into maturity in Christ.
  94. Bishops function as public apologists, in the public square, when they defend the foolishness of the cross and the truth of the gospel, and so facilitate and enable lived corporate demonstrations of faith’s endurance – and of the love, forgiveness and communion that is to be found in Christ.
  95. To conclude, the primary calling for our bishops is to mediate the wisdom and compassion of God: to be truly good teachers and pastors, after the example of Christ himself, no less. Being a bishop is not an ecclesiastical ‘job’. It is, rather, an ‘occupation’.  Bishops are to be occupied with God (for which they need theology and spirituality); and then to be occupied with what they think might preoccupy God’s heart and mind – the cares and concerns Christ has for our broken world and its needy people (and so engage in pastoral care).  Thus occupied, a bishop might then be said to be doing the ‘job’ the church believed and discerned that they were actually called to do.