When I was first consecrated and people asked me how I liked my new ministry as bishop, I used to reply that I thought it would take me at least five years to figure out the answer to that question. Now that I’ve been at it for nine years, people no longer ask me this in precisely the same way, since both they and I have become accustomed to the work together. Yet in the meantime I think I have learned something about this ministry: not what I would call “wisdom” about the office and work of a bishop, but an impression about this ministry and some idea of what I appreciate about it.
Bishops are ordained to the ministry of Christ’s Holy Catholic Church; they are called to “share in the leadership of the Church throughout the world” (BCP, 517); they “solemnly engage to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church” (BCP, 513). Yet bishops also inhabit a particular place, a diocese, where they actually are the chief pastor and carry forward that ministry. It would be a mistake to pit one set of responsibilities against another, the larger against the local, yet they have a different feel. One way of thinking about it is to imagine that it is in the diocese, the local church, that the larger church becomes sacramentally real, embodied for ministry, contextualized in the service of Christ.
There’s a kaleidoscopic nature to diocesan ministry, inherent in the different places that God’s people gather. You might say that episcope is balanced with kaleidoscope, the swiftly changing scene or pattern that characterizes a diocese. Turn the tube and the view is different, yet each contributes to the fullness of vision. Each diocese is a collection of places where the church is gathered, and the road in between. The world looks different from downtown Nashville than it does from Giles County.
As bishop I only know one diocese in this way, though as a priest I have served several others. The Diocese of Tennessee covers the middle portion of the state (one of three constitutionally recognized “Grand Divisions”), which means it is a creature of the Highland Rim and the Central Basin within. Key points in the diocese require ascending to the Cumberland Plateau in the east. The Cumberland and the Tennessee, the Harpeth, Duck, Elk, and Stones Rivers, shape the division and the diocese. Interstate 24 between Clarksville and Sewanee is our “spine,” with many congregations situated alongside it, while Interstates 40 and 65, intersecting in Nashville, form substantial appendages.
Episcopal bishops in particular are committed to the regular round of canonical visitations of churches and other institutions, one way in which oversight is exercised in the dispersed and contextualized life of a diocese. What works in Cowan, for instance, is the not the same thing that works in Sherwood, even though the average Sunday attendance may be nearly the same, and the communities may be not too far away (at least as the crow flies). There are things about place that must be learned.
Oliver O’Donovan points out in his essay, “The Loss of a Sense of Place,” that there has been “a loss of moral confidence in relation to place” (Bonds of Imperfection, 300). We are ashamed of local loyalties; and in the intellectual and political spheres the theme of place has been largely absent, emerging only in uncivil and reactive discourse. (We’re seeing some of this in the debate about immigration in our own country, of course.) O’Donovan locates this shyness about place in two longstanding commitments in philosophy and theology: the tendency in Platonism to speak of spirit or intellect as transcending spatiality because it transcends materiality, and the theological universalism of Christianity, which itself built upon a universalizing move within Judaism. God dwells everywhere and not only in Jerusalem; all are called, and not just the people of the Promised Land.
In spite of this philosophical and theological inheritance, O’Donovan presses forward with some qualifications, which he believes are generated by these commitments themselves. Of special note are some theological qualifications. Though there is a spiritualizing of place in the New Testament, there is no doubt that notions rooted in place, like city, pilgrimage, and neighbor continue to resonate. There is an abstract universalism that disconnects us from actual neighbors, and a concrete universalism that grounds us in real relationships. O’Donovan sees the parable of the Merciful Samaritan as a case in point. The main thrust of the parable is a universalizing of the notion of the neighbor, yet the encounter takes place on pilgrimage, on the road: a non-place between other places that becomes a real place, a place of meeting. The road is not a special, sacred place, but it is the place that’s given to us.
A bishop has the opportunity in diocesan ministry to begin to appreciate place in a new way. This may seem counter-intuitive, since it’s the nature of the bishop’s ministry to be present in many different places, at different times and in different ways; and of course, to be on the road between these places in the meantime. This means that Sunday morning always involves travel, rising early and going the distance wherever that might be.
In some sense, this interval might be seen as establishing the bishop as an “outsider” who might never come to know the place, but my experience leads me to believe otherwise. As a priest I think that I often took place for granted but as a bishop I never do. In my diocese, the directional affirmation “turn right at Bucksnort” is essential information for the bishop, the sort that captures the incarnational and concrete nature of this ministry, and its rootedness in place. The very effort needed to get there, the distance travelled and the direction taken, never lets you forget that you are in a particular place. That place, a stop on the road and the gathering point for God’s people, is a real place, in which God is encountered and the Church is built up.