Six years ago, a clergyman of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) memorably said that the first number on his “speed-dial” was his wife and the second was his bishop. He went on to explain that whatever the time of day or night, he could, and did, call his bishop for advice or prayer. Last month, he confirmed that despite a change of bishop, that pattern remained.
As a British conservative evangelical Anglican, schooled for a life-time to avoid the bishop’ s unwanted attention if at all possible, and if an encounter was essential to typically find him (or her) unavailable or unhelpful, to have, or even want, a bishop on speed-dial sounded most peculiar*.
Fast forward a year from that initial conversation, and the opportunity arose to say Morning Prayer with a North American bishop, for a number of days. Each time, it was wonderful to hear him pray by name for a handful of the clergy in the diocese and their families. Hopefully, that isn’t so unusual, but what was a pleasant surprise was that he knew precisely what to pray for in respect of each person. It transpired that either he already knew their pressing needs, or, knowing he would be praying for them in the cycle soon, he’d got in touch to find out how he could best support them.
ACNA, the orthodox Anglicans in the US and Canada, now has a counterpart for this continent: the Anglican Network in Europe (ANiE), which is trying to follow the ACNA example of “relational episcopacy”. Instead of remote, organisational management, the Network bishops provide personal, prayerful support and encouragement, oversight and accountability to both ministers and congregations, as together they hold out the hope of the gospel. That is to say an episcopate whose members actually do “pastor the pastors”.
It is now commonplace to hear ANiE clergy lauding a relationship with their bishop, which they never had in the Church of England, Church in Wales or Scottish Episcopal Church. It is a partnership where they pray with their bishop in person, or online, weekly or fortnightly and where the bishop visits regularly visits to as one put it, “…ask the questions about my marriage and ministry that I don’t want to answer”.
Some have said that this is all well and lovely but, that as the number of churches and clergy in the Network grows, it will prove unsustainable. But God-willing that assessment will prove incorrect.
On Saturday morning, surrounded by friends and family, in a bilingual service, Revd Stuart Bell was consecrated by Most Revd Foley Beach, Chair of the Gafcon Primates, and other consecrators, as the fifth bishop of the developing Network. His consecration was to ensure that just such relational episcopacy can continue to be be sustained, in this case particularly for clergy in Wales.
Bell's biography might be thought to be just the stuff of which episcopacy should be made. He may not have been a Dean or an archdeacon, a university chaplain or a bishop’s adviser, but he has done something else, something much rarer in the profile of the typical British bishop. Under his leadership, St Michael’s Aberystwyth became the largest Anglican church in the Principality and the church from where over fifty people have gone on to ordained Anglican ministry. In retirement, he has helped launch another growing ministry, Fellowship 345, one of the newest members of the Anglican Convocation in Europe, which is one of the two ANiE dioceses.
The now Rt Revd Stuart Bell is a bishop who knows how to grow a church and bring forward clergy! How obvious and yet, how rare.
Those gathered to witness this historic event were a testimony to all that the Lord has done through Stuart and his wife Prue, in the past, but not one to look backwards, Bishop Stuart addressed the congregation and made this promise first in Welsh and then in English:
"Today in this service I publicly reaffirm three lifetime commitments: Firstly to Jesus Christ as my Lord and myself as his disciple. Secondly to the Scriptures as recorded in the Bible, to believe them, to trust them, to seek to live them, and to preach them faithfully. Thirdly, I re-affirm my commitment to Wales, to commend Christ to Wales and to seek to bring Wales to Christ. All three of these commitments I have and do take as life commitments until my last breath."
This is a man who many will be glad and privileged to have on speed dial. Indeed, there was a sense of his consecration being something that always should have been. May the Lord grant Stuart and Prue many more years of fruitful service and as the congregation sang after his address:
"O come the day when o’er our barren land
Reviving winds blow sent from God’s own hand,
As grace pours down on parched and arid sand
We will bear fruit for Christ by his command,
Come with one voice and gentle vigour sing
The virtues of our gentle Lamb and King."
*There have, of course, been some notable exceptions.
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