top of page
  • David Peet

Bishops, a concise study -book review

Book review by David Peet of Martin Davie's book 'Bishop's a concise study' LS 2022.

Martin Davie brings this edited version of his larger work on Bishops[1] as the first in a series of volumes exploring various aspects of Christian Leadership for the Latimer Trust. It will prove a useful primer for clergy and laity alike.

As readers of his other works will recognise, Davie brings a helpfully structured approach to his writing. The main text is split into four sections. In the first, he addresses why the Church of England should have bishops and what they should be like; secondly, he explores the interesting notion of ‘Good enough’ and ‘not good enough’ bishops. There is then something of an interlude as the societal challenges facing bishops in Western society are described, before returning in the fourth section to how bishops should meet these challenges today. It could hardly be more timely.

The first quite factual section starts with an historical survey of the existence of bishops in the church from the apostolic age onwards, through the patristic period and on to the Reformation. The emergence of the diocesan and provincial system is also described. Drawing on more recent writing, Davie outlines the ‘job description’ of a bishop (as pastor, teacher, leader, preacher) and the essential characteristics of a bishop, as one committed to prayer, to teaching and upholding the doctrine of the Church of England and applying it to the contemporary world, for example. He also explores the exercise of episcopal jurisdiction under God and the role of suffragans over time.

In the second section, Davie picks up Avis’s idea of ‘good enough’ and ‘not good enough’ bishops. He applies the details of the first section to illustrate what ‘good enough’ looks like, albeit with some repetition. This section becomes more interesting when ‘not good enough’ bishops are considered. Three groups are described. Firstly, those who would like to be ‘good enough’ but lack some of the skills and aptitudes needed. Secondly, those who sadly abuse their position and ‘have no intention of fulfilling the obligations that the office brings with it’. Thirdly, there are those bad bishops who promote heresy, doctrinal or ethical. Whilst change might be possible for the first category, Davie brings Article XXVI in to play for the second and third. Especially in current English circumstances, this may be stretching things, especially as the routes to disciplining the errant seem unused, impossibly complex and remote from individual congregations.

Davie next takes something of a detour, exploring the context in which bishops have to operate today and the societal pressures upon them. He displays the vast breadth of his reading starting by drawing heavily, yet fairly, on Carl Trueman’s ‘The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self’. The ideas of Taylor, Rieff, MacIntyre and others are summarised and well deployed in effective analysis of current culture. Of necessity in a volume of this length, the arguments are condensed and therefore it is relatively hard work to gain a complete appreciation. The links from the academic authors to more accessible texts (such as McAlpine’s ‘Being the Bad Guys – how to live for Jesus in a world that says you shouldn’t’) work well and provide plenty of triggers for further study. The Christian analysis of such trends in terms of idolatry, issues of the validity or otherwise of self-identity and a wrong appreciation of Christian freedom, lead on to a discussion of the view of orthodox belief in today’s world: we are now the ‘bad guys’. Liberalism has promoted the error of cheap grace, the Cross has been shorn of most of its significance and any notion of judgement has been lost. Davie then describes the application of these ideas within the context of same-sex relationships and gender transition. He ably demonstrates the error of the revisionist position. Space is clearly at a premium, but it may have been useful to point to further recent trends in theological thinking.

Into this dismal scenario, Davie concludes this study with an examination of how bishops should respond. He starts by reviewing just how the early church grew under God: its clear view of scriptural authority; the prevention of heresy; an eternal perspective; its exclusivity; an evangelistic focus; known for its care for the community; and being a welcoming but challenging community where persecution was expected. Unsurprisingly, Davie’s remedy to the current situation is more of the same! But we will need fewer bad bishops and many more ‘good enough’ ones to achieve change. Some options are explored but much is speculation, and the context has changed after the November 2023 General Synod votes which is obviously not reflected in this text. Davie has some difficulty with the idea of a non-geographically constituted episcopacy, but it is hard to see any Anglican solution which will meet the diverse future needs.

Overall, this study is a useful primer which all involved in Anglican governance will appreciate. The history is useful and the lessons to be learnt still relevant, but the context is ever changing and some elements have been overtaken by events.


[1] Martin Davie, Bishops Past Present and Future, Malton, Gilead Books, 2022


David Peet has recently retired as a senior university administrator with a background in science and education. His recent doctoral research was focused on the effectiveness of organisational change. He currently belongs to an Anglican church in West Norfolk, where he is PCC Secretary and he is on the Diocesan Synod.

Views expressed in blogs published by the Latimer Trust are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Latimer Trust.



bottom of page