Recently, I have noticed a concerning trend in the British Isles of calling Bishops who are under the age of 35 and, very often, under 30. This is concerning because these men are very often starting out in their careers and are occasionally in full-time education, because they have very young families who need their attention and because their spouses are burdened with far more than their share of the child-care and housework. These are all important concerns and they are probably common in some form to most Bishops; but I want to explore an additional concern that is, perhaps, unique to young Bishops. Some forms of knowledge are only gained through practical experience and youth can be a significant barrier to these forms of knowledge. Moreover, knowledge which comes through practical experience is very often vital to ministering with love and wisdom. This post is not a blanket proscription against calling those aged under 30 to be in such positions. Rather it is a suggestion that those forms of knowledge which require time and experience to obtain are properly valued. Calling young Bishops should be the exception rather than the rule because ‘Knowledge of the good for mankind lies through the observation of particulars’ .
Aristotle, in the Nicomachean Ethics, wrote: ‘Whereas young people become accomplished in geometry and mathematics, and are wise within these limits, prudent young people do not seem to be found. The reason is that prudence is concerned with particulars as well as universals, and particulars become known from experience, but a young person lacks experience, since some length of time is needed to produce it’ (Nicomachean Ethics 1142 a).
Zealous twenty-somethings are more than capable of reading widely in the LDS literature and of being familiar with the CHI. They are ‘wise within these limits’ but they are often not familiar with those particulars which ‘become known from experience’. Certainly these youthful leaders have other virtues: they are very often malleable and willing to sustain their leaders, they are both enthusiastic and vocal about their faith, and, I suspect, they very often value particular forms of growth which are also valued by their leaders. And yet, if calling a Bishop focuses solely on these attributes other values might be neglected, such as what Aristotle called phronesis.
Phronesis is not easily translated from the Greek, but it refers to notions of reasonableness, wisdom or the capacity of being able to judge. For Aristotle, and I am following Gadamer’s reading here, this word suggests the mixing of both theoretical and practical knowledge. Phronesis emerges through practical experience, but it is also more than this. Phronesis is a form of self-knowledge that is gained through experience of the world, and in particular through conversation. Phronesis follows the inevitable dialogue of living our ideas in the presence of other people.
Responding to death is one area where this practical wisdom is particularly important. Unfortunately, death, in all its variety, is something most Bishops will face during their tenure and there is very little help provided by the CHI or other LDS literature on how to grieve with and love those who suffering during these times of intimate tragedy. My response to most things in life, including death, is to go to the literature. A Bishop might read C.S. Lewis or Joan Didion. He might read Dylan Thomas or W.H. Auden. He might even read the bloggernacle; but most of it will be of little help.
I propose that when Didion describes grief as ‘distance’ that it will be very difficult to understand what she is trying to describe unless you have lost someone very close to you. I never have. I have only experience Grandparents that I did not know well and some acquaintances, even friends, that have passed away. But I have never experienced the type of grief described by Didion, or these other writers.
To be the minster of a person who is grieving is a sacred trust and a Bishop who has not, through life experience, developed a sense of phronesis regarding death is poorly equipped to fulfill the role given to him.
Certainly there will always be challenges in the lives of others that are outside of the realm of our experience and therefore all Bishops will inevitably lack experience in some areas. Yet, in my reading, it is precisely the quality of phronesis which will aid those who possess it to minister in circumstances beyond their experience. Therefore, I agree with Aristotle (and Gadamer) regarding the need for time and experience to cultivate an understanding of suffering and death. Increasing the value stake leaders place on virtues such as phronesis will move us away from consistently calling such young men to serve in these important positions.
1. John Barton, Ethics and the Old Testament, SCM Press, 15.