On the Lordly Bishops

By. Rev. Jason T. Ingalls

The Nicodemist posted an article the other day entitled, "The Bishops March on Westminster." It described the stand Church of England bishops took in their position as "Lord's Spiritual" in the English Parliament. At issue was a controversial bill that threatened to cap welfare benefits per household, a move that many believed and some research suggested would lead to even more poverty and homelessness, especially for children. The English bishops used their influence to add wording to the bill that exempted children from capped benefits.

The Nicodemist attacks the privileged place of the Church of England in the English government. As an American, I don't have a problem with that attack. It's interesting to me that there are Lord's Spiritual, and I more or less support the move to either remove their voices from Parliament or to make the Lord's Spiritual more representative of the faiths present in England. But, this isn't the nub of the Nicodemist's attack.

Instead, he points the finger at the way that the bishops went about protecting the poor:
Where precisely is that upside down kingdom that Jesus inaugurated to be found in the ever so predictable assumption of the tools of the powers that be? Protest the victimisation of the poor certainly but do it by modelling the incarnational ministry of solidarity with those they seek to defend – in other words, do it as one of them. Let me put it as simply as possible: if you are a Bishop of the Church continued exercise of Lordly functions as a part of bishopric role is anathema to the example of Jesus whom you are called to follow. Nothing less than repentance is called for.
Yes, it is true. Repentance is called for. In fact it is ordered in the faithful use of Morning and Evening Prayer and the weekly service of Holy Communion. While I appreciate the admonition
that the bishops should model their ministry on the example of Jesus, I rankle at the idea that Jesus somehow did not exercise "Lordly" functions in his earthly ministry.

He spoke to the scribes and Pharisees not as one of the people who they oppressed, but as one with authority.

He drove out demons by the force of his word.

He went out of his way to claim and establish his lordship of the Sabbath.

He performed miracles for the sake of showing his authority to forgive sins.

Even his overturning the tables or his entry into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey are not somehow the inauguration of a peaceable kingdom in the way we think of peace. "Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword," he said to his disciples as he rode up to Jerusalem (Matthew 10:34, NRSV). He did not enact solidarity with the poor and oppressed in his symbolic and royal actions as he approached Jerusalem. He took on the mantle of the Jewish Messiah as he understood that Messiahship from Israel's Scriptures. He was showing himself King, showing himself Lord, a kingship and a lordship exercised (not abdicated) in the form of a servant.

The question is not the abdication of lordly functions by the bishops. The question is whether or not they can exercise their lordship in the way that Christ exercised his.

In the final analysis, the question is this: would the Nicodemist rather the bishops have been silent? The way that a Church relates to the State is always perplexing, but to say that the bishops standing up for the poor isn't somehow good enough because they did so from the House of Lords is, well, ridiculous. Would he not have done the same?

Ed. Note--This is a guest post written by good friend of the blog, Rev. Jason T. Ingalls, a Episcopal priest currently ministering in Cambridge (the one in England, not the one in Massachusetts).


Casper said…

Thanks for the post and link.

It may be a few days before i properly respond but i think we broadly agree (my post was written in haste and a touch of anger). Fundamentally, I think an excercise of Christlike lordship is incompatible with the LS sitting in the HOL but, as you say, using the term abdication is problematic.
joe said…
Hi - I had a similar argument with someone about this the other day. (by the way the House of Lords is a revising chamber in the UK parliament, there is no English parliament..)

I think the critical point is that fundamentally you cannot use bad tools for good purposes. The Bishops should not be in the secular House of Lords, period. Whichever way they actually vote is largely irrelevant, in my view. And furthermore to support deeply undemocratic parliamentary procedures when they happen to swing in 'your' direction leaves the door open for exploitation by other bishops at other times. The UK parliament is not am arm of the established church - they are two different organisations (albeit with some shared history). Yes, I'd rather they had not used their unconstitutional rights even in a cause I believe in.

As to your picturing of the bishops exercising Lordy functions, this is (in my opinion) dangerous nonsense. To suggest that because you happen to have absolved yourself in a particular way or to have a particular clerical role and/or wear a specific pointy hat does not mean that you speak for Jesus. This is madness.
Jason Ingalls said…
@Casper, thanks for the kind post. I'll look forward to your response and the continued conversation! I must admit a touch of anger myself in the final paragraph - it's interesting how one can lead to another!

@Joe, I was reacting to the way "lordly" functions were attributed to the bishops in the original post as quoted. I don't have any skin in the fight about whether or not the Bishops should be in the HOL, so I can't respond to your critique of the 'undemocratic parliamentary procedures' you mentioned. My main interest was trying to discuss the exercise of power in a Christian way.
joe said…
@Jason - I don't think there is a way to discuss the Lordy functions outwith of the question of their presence in the HOL. And certainly none which have anything to do with Jesus Christ of Nazareth.
Jason Ingalls said…
Joe, does your opinion extend to Christians participating in politics generally, or only to the Bishops?
joe said…
@Jason - a strange question. The Bishops are in the HOL because of a quirk of history. I can't see that has anything to do with whether an individual should participate - given that the Bishops are not in the chamber as individuals but as Bishops in the Church of England.
Jason, thanks (as always) for the guest post! It's been a while since I posted one of your sermons...

@Joe - it seems to me that you are hung up on the question of established religion. That's fine. I'm not a fan of it (being an American). But I don't think that's something Jason is interested it. It seems to me that he is more concerned to say that where the church finds itself wielding power by whatever historical quirks, it ought to wield that power in a properly Christian way. In other words, where bishops are lords, they ought to be lordly in the way that Jesus was.
joe said…
@Travis - I don't think your comment makes any sense whatsoever - Jesus did not yield power like anyone in the British parliament. Even if he had, that doesn't mean that British Bishops in the Church of England are behaving like Jesus if they decide to use the power that they have in a noble cause.

For no other reason than that it becomes extremely difficult to say what Jesus would do on a given subject in the House of Lords outwith of the actions of the Bishops, which becomes a circular argument.

All human life is the result of historical quirk. The question that faces every human in every moment of their life is whether and how they will bear faithful witness to Jesus. Jason is suggesting that the bishops in the HoL did so in this case.

Does this mean that they have done or will do so in all cases? Does this mean that the existence of Lords Spiritual is a good thing? No. But none of that undermines the point Jason makes.
joe said…
@Travis - this is the bone of contention. Jason's position appears to be that ends justify means - which is a weak ethical position. Mine is that means matter and that bad tools cannot be used for good purposes.
Jason Ingalls said…
@Joe, I guess I'm more cynical than you are in that I think there's no such thing as good tools. All we have are bad ones (those quirks of history and human sinfulness make it that way). Since all we have are bad tools, then we're responsible to use them to the best, always acknowledging how we fall short (repentance is called for!) and yet always striving to be like Christ in the positions in which we find ourselves.

But, you're wrong that I think that since the Bishops made a good decision here that it justifies their existence in the HOL. See the second paragraph of the post for my thoughts on that. I am not making an ends justifies the means argument for the inclusion of the Bishops in the HOL. I'm only saying that if they're there, they have a Christian responsibility to be good stewards of their power, endeavoring (with fear and trembling!) to exercise authority like Christ exercised his.

Does that make sense?
Anonymous said…
* Lord Spirituals not Lord's Spiritual
In fairness, I didn't use the possessive...but that is what happens when Yanks stick their noses in things. ;-)

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