Our Expectations, Our Prayers

Rev. Thomas John

After much uncertainty, waiting and prayer, finally the North Kerala Diocese of the Church of South India has a Bishop. The Rev. Baker Ninan Fenn was consecrated as the Bishop of North Kerala Diocese on Sunday, 30 June 2013. Rt. Rev. B N Fenn is someone who had experienced firsthand the ‘ecclesiastical highhandedness’ of his predecessor, Rt. Rev. Dr. K. P. Kuruvilla. Probably, Rt. Rev. Fenn is one of those who became a bishop in the recent past without money bags changing hands. It is also to be noted that he and his co-panelists went for the interview to the synod office together in a car and returned together in the same car - something unseen in the recent past. In doing so, they acted with utmost cordiality. Many who attended the consecration have also noted his simplicity and insistence on wearing the most appropriate white vestment as opposed to the attempts of other bishops to distinguish themselves by wearing coloured vestments.

What this points to is the possibility of opening a new chapter in the life of NKD and even in the life of CSI by the concerted efforts of people cutting across dioceses aspiring and working towards renewal and reformation within the life of the church. The momentum should be kept up and accelerated and it should not be allowed to slow down. It is the earnest prayer of all believers that God may enable Rt. Rev. Fenn to become a bishop in the tradition of our late bishops - Bishop Newbigin, Bishop Solomon, Bishop Jesudasan and Bishop Benjamin - emulating their examples in simplicity of life, humility, forbearance, and loving care for the sheep. He should keep before his eyes and always remember the golden verses in 1 Peter 5: 2-4: “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.”

Rt. Rev. B. N. Fenn has the onerous task of bringing order and unity within the church and mending broken relationships. Let the shoulder bag he wears remain as a signifier of his identity as ‘the servant of servants’ in Christ’s ministry to His flocks:  “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God's mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.” (I Peter 5:6)  Reverence is not something one can claim but it is something that one must earn. Moreover, respect without love is of no use except that it can satisfy one’s blotted ego which will be deflated by the slightest of annoyance. God calls ordinary people and entrusts them with extra ordinary tasks. But they are able to perform these tasks by the supporting hands of God’s people. The Book of Exodus narrates the story of how Moses defeated the Amalekites. We read: “As long as Moses held up his hands, the Israelites were winning, but whenever he lowered his hands, the Amalekites were winning. When Moses’ hands grew tired, they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held his hands up—one on one side, one on the other—so that his hands remained steady till sunset. So, Joshua overcame the Amalekite army with the sword.” Rt. Rev. Fenn needs our prayerful support; we must “hold his hands up” so that he would be able to lead the church to win the battle of fulfilling the apostolic vocation of the church.

Moses needed the help of Joshua, Aaron and Hur. Bishop Fenn also needs the help of human hands. He needs the advice of people with experience and ability and who are devoid of vested interests. It is the selection of these close aides and their advice that are going to be of utmost importance. They must be people with theological and prophetic insights. This does not mean that the Bishop should run the church with a coterie. No and not at all. The Bishop should strengthen the democratic institutions of the church and ensure their democratic functioning. He should commit himself to his role as envisaged in the constitution of the CSI: “the historic episcopate in a constitutional form.” 

The Bishop should not be vindictive to people who oppose his views, but rather respect them and listen to their views carefully and may be more carefully than those who agree with him. He should not surround himself with sycophants. They have their own vested interests and they would say only things that would please him and finally, that would take him further and further away from reality. The Bishop should work towards consensus, yet be respectful of the majority opinion. The majority also should not denigrate the minority. Truth could be on the side of a dissenting minority. The Bishop should strictly adhere to this difficult path of working with and through these democratic institutions and its decisions. The strength of episcopal leadership is not having decisions made according to his will but rather the courage of conviction with which he could share his personal concerns for the church with the larger constituency of laity and clergy. Nobody can take away his right to preach and teach. What is required in all this is lack of any personal agenda and total transparency in matters of decision making and proper procedures for implementation of various tasks. 

The new Bishop should declare a moratorium on the sale or leasing out of church property. All renewals of lease deed must be done only after establishing clearly laid out norms in consultation with financial experts and lawyers. The church properties, particularly most of the landed properties, are bequeathed to it by mission agencies for its evangelistic mission. It is a breach of trust to alienate these properties and use it for crass material interests. The church should build bungalows not by selling valuable church properties but by the good will offerings of people. If we cannot add more to the immovable assets of the church, we should at least commit ourselves to not alienate what was bequeathed to us. The two and a half acres of land sold in Thalikulam by the previous dispensation could have been used to build a facility for the old and the infirm or to build a half way home for the mentally ill or any number of service activities that truly express Christ’s ministry of compassion. The church should keep itself out of all enterprises that require underhand financial dealings. As one who has been part of the earlier dispensation, Bishop Fenn knows better than anybody else as to how this ‘black money’ lends itself for the formation of a coterie around the bishop and how that comes to have a debilitating effect on the bishopric and witness of the church. 

One of the important tasks of the bishop incumbent is to retrieve the lost dignity and status of presbyters and work towards enhancing their morale and provide them with effective pastoral leadership. In the name of ecclesiastical authority, the clergy have been reduced to servants of the bishop rather than shepherds and servants of people and congregations. The loyalty of the clergy has been shifted to the bishop instead of the people who, through their subscriptions and donations, sustain them. This has resulted in the degeneration of pastoral care. The primary task of clergy has become that of moving around the corridors of power and getting as much favours as possible by pleasing the powers that be. A lot of subservience and sycophancy has become the order of the day, rather than real hard work of pastoral care. The rights of people and congregations have been totally ignored with pastors and bishops ruling over people and congregations “harshly and brutally”. In a similar situation in the life of Israel, the word of God comes to Ezekiel (Ch. 34): “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally.”   

We hope and pray that Bishop Fenn would work toward restoring the dignity and glory of shepherding. For this, it is essential that the transfers of pastors do not become a means of handing out favours or punishments. Good work should be rewarded, but not sycophancy. Transfers should be based on the objective criteria laid down by the Executive Committee or Ministerial and Pastoral Committee involving the needs of the congregation, abilities and capabilities of pastors, and their experience. Moreover, they should be given in-service courses and sent for higher studies to theological institutions abroad and within India. The views of the clergy on matters of liturgy and life of the church must be sought. In all respects, the Bishop should be their counsellor and friend and try to learn the problems and needs of their families, and be able to extend pastoral care and counselling to them. During pastoral visits to congregations, wherever possible, he should be able to stay with the clergy and get to know the family. 

Arbitrary exercise of authority should be avoided at all costs. The Bishop is a vicar of Jesus Christ, earthly representative of Christ. All Christians have this responsibility, but more so, in the case of Bishops. Jesus Christ is the ‘Great shepherd of the flocks’ who gave his life for the sheep, and sought after the one that is lost leaving aside the ninety nine. The model that Jesus gave us is that of a servant: “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” (John 13: 14). Jesus admonished the crowd of his disciples, “The greatest among you will be your servant. For, those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. (Matt. 23: 11). This is a theme that echoes repeatedly in the gospels, but seldom practiced in the life of the church.

The Church as a whole has failed to understand the meaning of “ecclesiastical authority”. Authority has more to do with authorization, mandate than domination, brutal exercise of power. In Christian understanding, each individual is a centre of power. Without power we cannot do anything. But then, in Jesus Christ and on his cross, what we find is power in the service of love. On the cross, we do not find any insignia of worldly power, but power subjected to love; love that is extended to those who are undeserving from a worldly point of view, love that seeks after the least, the last and the lost. Christian love does not force itself on the other; respects the freedom of the other and waits for the other’s response. The parable of the loving father (otherwise known as the parable of the prodigal son), found in Luke Ch. 15, describes how God exercises authority as a father, and it is from this father that we should derive all our notions of authority. The authority given to a bishop is not to dominate and subjugate, but love and care for the flock. Imagery of the shepherd is given to us to divest the Christian leadership of all notions of power and arbitrary exercise of it. A presbyter is only an elder, a leader. As leaders, the presbyters and bishops (a presbyter with jurisdiction over a larger area) goes before the flocks and even lays down their lives for the flock.

Secondly, it is the people that authorize a presbyter or a bishop to play certain roles of leadership within the Church. We, who stand in the reformation tradition, believe in the priest-hood of all believers. The office of elders and bishops should be divested of all notions of priesthood. Jesus Christ, by giving his life as an ultimate sacrifice for the sins of humanity, has done away with priesthood and the need for sacrifices. In fact, Jesus by his ultimate sacrifice has done away with “religion”, which heavily depended on sacrifices, altar, temple and priesthood, and replaced it with a spirituality based on serving the ‘Living God’ by fulfilling his will on this earth and history. So, all presbyters are elders and not priests and when a presbyter becomes a bishop, he remains a presbyter with the authorization of leadership over a larger jurisdiction. Hence, he does not have to change his ‘colour’ when he becomes a Bishop. They exercise authority given to them by the people and for the people.

Thirdly, there is no hierarchy in the triune God; the three persons of the Trinity are equal and co-eternal. The whole doctrine of Trinity has been developed to affirm our faith that God is unity and community and that there is equality in God. The Athanasian Creed, which was developed as a statement of the Church’s faith in the Trinitarian God, states, “For there is one Person of the Father; another of the Son; and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one; the Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal. Such as the Father is; such is the Son; and such is the Holy Ghost.” God is love and there is no domination in love. What we find on the cross is the transforming power of love and not brute exercise of power. It is our hope and prayer that Bishop Fenn would emulate that love and would bring about the much needed healing and transformation to the diocese. 

Those who have to devout their time for the spiritual growth of the church, involving themselves in preaching, teaching and prayer, should not take on the burden of administration. Presbyters are not called for that. The early church recognized that “it would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God” and hence, “in order to wait on tables”, to take care of the many important matters of administration in relation to the church’s ministry of compassion, they set apart deacons, men “full of faith and Holy Spirit” to engage in such ministries. As the early church had done, we should find lay people of such integrity and commitment to head and manage our educational institutions, hospitals and such other institutions of service. Especially financial and construction matters should be given over to expert committees who would discharge their functions judiciously. 

Moreover, we should not turn them into institutions that make profit. We should not go in for self-financing institutions; many bishops had ‘stumbled on it and fell’. It is very difficult to avoid the temptation of “quick money” and “big money”. We may follow a business model, but we should not turn our institutions into business ventures. We must eschew all situations that would lead us to deal with unaccounted money; self financing institutions thrive on money that is collected illegally and lend itself to corruption of all sorts. Naturally a coterie of brokers of money and power will be formed around the bishop and finally, they would lead the bishop into the abyss of sinfulness. After having seen and experienced this sort of deviations from Christian witness in close quarters, we believe that Bishop Fenn would not be part of such enterprises.  

Bishop Fenn has the onerous task of completing the “bishop’s palace”. He should take stock of the present stage of the construction of the building and complete the rest with people’s free will offering. He should give a call and the people would respond generously. The church should grow not by selling and leasing out church properties bequeathed to us by forefathers and missionaries to carry out its apostolic mission, but by the free will offering of its people. It is this dependence on and accountability to people that should be the hallmark of the church. Dubious means of making quick money should be avoided at all costs. More than that, whatever money that the bishop receive while visiting a parish should be accounted and must go to the “bishop’s discretionary fund”, which the bishop could use in consultation with the treasurer for meeting hospitality expenses, pastors’ welfare,  and other charities for which the bishop would like to make contributions.  

Many areas of the church’s activities like pre-marital counselling, partnerships with foreign churches, laity fellowship, women’s fellowship, youth fellowship, Chorister’s association (if we have one) etc, are badly in need of a review and must be subjected to a performance audit by a group of people with expertise and experience. This is a gradual process and yet, they are crucial areas of the church that demand the bishop’s attention.   

While there was much rejoicing over the nomination and consecration of Bishop Fenn, much of the response in the social media was very cautious. People do not want to get frustrated by expecting too much from a Bishop. People ceased to have much trust and confidence in what a presbyter like Rev. Fenn would turn out to be when he was elevated to the office of the Bishop. That is what the history teaches them. But, our prayer is that humble as he is, Bishop Fenn would be used by God for God’s glory in the service of this diocese, which has a distinct history of missionary contribution to the Kerala culture and society. The longer he stays on his knees, the greater he will be used by God. It is our prayer that he be enabled to stoop to conquer the hearts of people and be a great Bishop who would lead the diocese to greater heights of Christian witness at a crucial time in its history.

(Rev. Thomas John is a theologian, educator, and ordained minister of the Church of South India. He has served the Union Christian College, Aluva, Kerala, for over 33 years as Professor and Head of the Department of Psychology. He was the General Secretary of the Student Christian Movement of India from 1990-94, a Mission Partner in Residence in the Worldwide Ministries Division of the General Assembly Mission Council of the Presbyterian Church (USA) from 1994-95. He now serves the Presbyterian Church (USA) as the Companionship Facilitator for the ‘Joining Hands Against Hunger’ partner network in India and Sri Lanka.)


Mathew said...

A most valuable guidance book not only for the new bishop, but for all who concern the Church of South India.Adv. Mathew M Ninan

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