With the Church of England if you do something once it’s a dangerous innovation, if you do it twice its a precious tradition! So when the Archbishop of York handed a beautiful mitre to the newly consecrated Bishop Karowei Dorgu at the end of the service in Southwark Cathedral on Friday was he being wildly innovative or simply responding to a tradition?
It was a bit of both to be honest. The mitre in question had been given to Bishop Wilfred Wood, a former Bishop of Croydon, now retired. When he was due to retire he passed this mitre, beautifully embroidered by the sisters of the long gone St Peter’s Convent in Woking, encrusted with precious stones, to Bishop John Sentamu. Bishop Wilfred was the first black bishop in the Church of England; Bishop, now Archbishop, Sentamu was the second. He was consecrated twenty years ago. Bishop Wilfred had told him that on his retirement he should hand the mitre to another BAME bishop – it is twenty years later that there is one. As Archbishop Sentamu was at pains to assure the congregation he wasn’t retiring but he wanted to mark the event by handing on the mitre anyway with the understanding that as soon as another BAME bishop is consecrated, Bishop Karowei will hand on the mitre.
It’s like an ecclesiastical, episcopal relay race, handing on the baton. But it was a very wonderful moment in a wonderful service that was a great celebration that the church had ordained another black bishop but also a sobering moment to consider that it was in 1985 that Wilfred Wood was made a bishop and that it is 32 years later that we have a third black bishop. We have to do better than this and not for some reason of ‘political correctness’ but because unless people see themselves reflected in the church at all levels, in all kinds of leadership positions she will never reflect the beautiful and diverse nature of many of our congregations and the reality of the kingdom of God.
So this handing on of the mitre was an innovation in that it had not be done in a service before but it has become a symbolic tradition, a powerful moment.
It took me to that great moment in the Elijah-Elisha saga in the Second Book of Kings. Elijah, that fire-brand amongst the prophets, knows his days are numbered so he sets off as God directs. Elisha, his protégé, follows him and despite numerous people and amongst them Elijah, telling him to leave him, he continues to follow. His reason? When they had crossed the Jordan, Elisha says to his Master
‘Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.’ Elijah responded, ‘You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.’ (2 Kings 2.9-10)
Then, all of a sudden, horses of fire and a chariot of fire whisk Elijah away into heaven. Elisha watches and as his Master disappears
‘He picked up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him.’ (2 Kings 2.13)
It’s a powerful moment, a symbolic moment and as he strikes the waters of the Jordan with the mantle and they divide he knows that God has filled him with that double share for which he had asked.
But the question that this story and the handing on of the mitre asks of me is whether I and, more importantly, whether we, are ready to catch the mantle and to assume the responsibility for revealing the kingdom of God.
In the synagogue in Nazareth, at the very beginning of his public ministry, Jesus takes the scroll and reads a passage from the prophet Isaiah. St Luke tells us all about it. We often describe it as Jesus proclaiming the manifesto for his ministry.
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ (Luke 4.18-19)
The spirit, like the mantle of God, has rested on him and it fits. That seamless robe that he’ll wear until it is ripped from him at the cross, is the mantle that he catches and lives out and proclaims and reveals in everything that he does and everything that he says.
A contemporary poet, Hilary Marckx, in a poem called ‘Pick up the mantle’ writes
Under that mantle we speak
for justice, for hope, for life, for Jesus,
we speak for all those who have no voice,
and we surely speak the Good News
is on the way—here!
It’s a powerful call to us to step up to the plate, to take responsibility, to stand in the shoes and wrap the mantle around us. Yet I think that in an age of individualism and isolationism in politics it can be counter cultural for some to think in this way. But the mantle isn’t just about politics, it’s about being prepared to take on all the roles of leadership that exist within society, within the church, watching, as Elisha was asked to watch and catching the moment, being there, involved, attentive and taking the part that we need to take part.
I’m on General Synod. The average Synod member is male, white, grey haired and probably retired. Young people are a rare commodity, black people are an even rarer commodity but when they speak they’re listened to because you don’t have to wait for older white people to be carried up into heaven, there’s kingdom building to be done now and in our churches are the people to do it. We need the prophets, we need the teachers, we need the priests, the witnesses, the proclaimers, the modellers of the diverse and real church who’ll clothe themselves in the mantle of Christ and make the kingdom known.
Marckx concludes their poem in this way.
The mantle is not of a glorious nature,
but it is of an eternal nature…
Go ahead, pick it up and put it on…
it will fit you well.
The mitre fitted well on the head of Bishop Karowei and I welcome this innovative tradition and glad that it began in Southwark Cathedral. May that mitre rest on many more heads and the mantle lie across many shoulders.
Jesus, as the Spirit rested on you,
may it rest on us.