Today, the part of the Church of God that I call home, the Church of England gets its first female bishop. I've enjoyed reading Tweets of people setting off for York Minster, some to wear church robes during this historic ceremony, some wearing waterproof mascara, some wearing both. It is a wonderful day for Libby Lane, for the people of Stockport who, I am sure, are getting an excellent person as their Bishop, and for all, Christian or otherwise, who will be heartened, inspired and influenced both by this day and by Libby Lane as she lives out her episcopal calling.
During today's historic service, the hands of the Archbishop of York, and those of other bishops, will be laid on Libby Lane as a powerful sign of the handing-on of the sharing of episcopal ministry that goes right back to Jesus himself. Recent events, though, have made the laying-on of hands a less straightforwardly joyful celebration than it ought to be.
So, I got thinking...what if I were an Archbishop? (I won't be; I'd have to live to be at least 185 to reach that level of seniority!) What arrangements might I make for the laying-of hands for my bishops?
So here's what I might be inclined to do, were I an Archbishop. I'm not going to talk you through the whole service, because that would take too long. Firstly, though, it's important to say that I'd have a child serve as my deacon throughout the ceremony. I'd ask someone old enough to be a communicant, to take the diaconal role seriously and to do it in a dignified manner. I wouldn't mind if it were a boy or girl. This would be important to me as an enactment of the church's commitment to the younger generations. (At this point I should say that if I were an Archbishop, my arrangements for the ceremony would be anything but a whim; rituals encode reality, so I'd think carefully about the reality that I would want to affirm and confirm through the rituals over which I presided.)
For the laying-on of hands, firstly, I would receive a blessing from a curate in my diocese. Then I might have all of the bishops under my care receive a blessing from me, as a sign of their episcopal ministry. (This would be important because as well as conferring identity, rituals confirm identity, so it seems to make sense to include a ritual action in the ceremony that confirms the episcopal identity of bishops before making a new one.) Then, in a characteristically Anglican and ordered manner, I'd send the bishops to various places around the cathedral, out to the edges and into the midst of the people. I'd get a really nice bishop to go to the very back, open the cathedral doors and invite in those outside, maybe those who didn't get a ticket or who are just interested in what's going on inside. (This would be important because bishops are often thought of as shepherds, to round up the flock at times as well as caring for them.)
Then I'd invite everyone, and I mean everyone, to come forward to form a chain of hands to lay on the new bishop. Yes, I'd lay my hands on the candidate's head, and my young deacon would be right at my side, hands on the candidate too, and the hands would stretch out and out and out and in my most wonderful daydream, would fill the cathedral. There would be the clerical hands of priests and deacons, the long-suffering hands of those who care for loved ones and have done for long years, the small hands of children, the beautifully-manicured hands of county ladies, the frail and paper-thin hands of the elderly, the dirty-fingernailed and hardened hands of the homeless. There would be, in amongst all these hands, episcopal hands, asylum seeking hands, Muslim hands, Jewish hands, all sorts of religious hands, maybe even atheist hands, gay hands, straight hands, faithful hands, doubting hands, fundamentalist hands, Green Party supporting hands, UKIP hands, county councillors' hands, musicians' hands, factory workers' hands, headteachers' hands, lollypop ladies' hands, recognised hands and unknown hands.
Each hand would have a story to tell, a perspective to bring, a need to express, a hope for the world. These hands would not need to be theologically learned (although I'd hope that what with all those clerics around. some might be), ritually pure or in unimpaired communion. They would be the hands of the people whom this candidate would them go on to serve as their bishop. These hands would be the hands of the diocese, representing as truthfully as possible the demographics of the people who call that little part of England home, all saying together that this new bishop is their bishop, whom they welcome and accept. (This would be important because in Anglicanism, priests are to care for all who live in their patch, not just those who go to church. The same is true of bishops.)
Then, and this is where my extravagance of daydream meets the limitations of my practical know-how, I'd somehow get everyone whose hands have stretched forward as part of this ritual chain of laying-on of hands, to have the image of their hands photographed, and I'd get my creative colleagues to compile the photographs into a montage to go in the bishop's study or chapel, as a reminder to her or him of the people whose hands conferred on him or her the identity of a bishop. My hand, as Archbishop, would be somewhere in there, and the hands of all the other bishops, too. It would be important that they were, because hands too would have been laid on me and on the other bishops, and hands laid on the people who laid hands on me, and so on. . But how easy would it be to tell, looking at a montage made up solely of human hands, which are which? And would it matter, anyway?
Wouldn't that be wonderful?