Talk Report: 2016-02-10

Bishops – Who are they and what do they do? by Bishop Peter Hancock

The Right Reverend Peter Hancock was formally installed as Bishop of Bath and Wells at Wells Cathedral on 7th June 2014. On Wednesday 10th February, Bishop Peter gave a talk in Wells Museum to a packed audience of U3A members. This was entitled Bishops – Who are they and what do they do? Bishop Peter told us that he has recently been talking to a number of local groups, examining his day to day life as a busy bishop. Today however he wished to describe his work by looking back into history.

Pope Gregory the Great lived and worked in Rome in the 6th century. His treatise on Pastoral Care reads today with a freshness, which belies its great age. Bishop Peter handed out sheets containing a series of amazingly apt directives and members of the audience were asked to read out various paragraphs. Each of these in turn reflected how a bishop - or politician, captain of industry, head teacher – should learn to cope with his or her role as a leader. “When occupied with exterior matters they should not lessen their solicitude for inner life…(or)…by being engrossed in the pressing duties that assail a leader, they will experience an interior collapse.” Working ’twenty-four-seven’ can do no good for anyone.

With services to conduct, with committees and meetings and pastoral care for the 564 churches and 180 Church schools in the Diocese, it is easy to see how valuable is the Bishop’s chapel in the Palace for his quiet reflection and prayer. Pope Gregory also warns his bishops “how easy it is to be weighed down by external duties and find it impossible to stop working …” There was an empathetic shuffle in the audience as many of us realised that fifteen centuries later century we can find ourselves “weighed down by the many heavy demands of the world, but neglecting (our) inner life….”

Recently Pope Gregory’s historic crozier was allowed out of Italy to be present at a Primate Meeting of archbishops from all over the world. Bishop Peter felt that this reminder of the Church’s long history had a unifying effect on the bishops from many countries with their very diverse backgrounds and attitudes. He had brought along a crozier to our meeting, but not a ceremonial one made of gold and silver. The curved crook of this lovely simple crozier was carved by a parishioner from a yew tree and the straight staff formed from a hazel branch which Bishop Peter had used when poking bonfires to keep them burning. Since time immemorial crooks have been used by shepherds for rescuing sheep: the curved head forms a deft lasso around the sheep’s back leg. Christians have used the metaphor of a shepherd saving his flock since very early times, but Bishop Peter has now extended the symbolism. He likes to think that he can give people a good stir up when he meets and talks to them, as he did so happily with his garden fires!

Ordained by Archbishop Rowan Williams in St Pauls Cathedral, Bishop Peter of Bath and Wells was called to serve and care for the flock of Christ. He was called to love and pray for the people in his charge, to administer discipline but with compassion, to have a special care for the poor, the outcast and those in need, and to confront injustice and work for righteousness and peace in the world. No small challenge!

Bishop Peter was thanked for such a fascinating talk. The question What do Bishops do? had been given a lively and all-embracing answer