What are bishops for? Certainly not for holding theological opinions. In modern Britain, you need to manage a leading football team before your theological views are taken seriously. Glenn Hoddle was forced from his job as England manager after he did not say them things about reincarnation. Craig Brown, manager of Scotland, nearly had to resign when he was taped singing drunken Protestant songs to the answering machine of one his mistresses. But at least people pretend that the religious opinions of football managers matter. If a bishop announces that he no longer believes in, say, the resurrection of Jesus, he is lucky to make page four of The Daily Telegraph.
But if they are not for that, then what are they for? And to those who answer that it doesn't really matter, yes, it does. The Church of England has spent much of its five-day General Synod (which concludes in York today) agonising over the bishop problem, which manifests itself in such questions as: how should they be appointed? Should their traditional representation in the House of Lords be curtailed? And do they cost too much?
This last question is the most obviously pressing. The financially hard-pressed church currently spends around £16m on bishops every year, and the cost is rising. The report of the Mellows Committee, which was published (by an astonishing coincidence) on the morning of the general election result, showed that the cost of the Church of England's 103 bishops rose in 1999 by 10 per cent, which is almost as fast as the Sunday attendance was falling. As its publishers intended, the report made few headlines when it appeared. But no one involved in church affairs can have read it without alarm. For if no one knows what the job of a modern bishop actually is, how can the expenditure of all those millions be justified?
For those who missed it, the Mellows report is lucid, thoughtful, scrupulous – and remarkably pessimistic. The most illuminating sections come when the bishops themselves are asked what they believe their job should be and – by implication – what they think it will be. You have to unpack what is said from the surrounding jargon; but it is quite clear that they see themselves as men overwhelmed by the task of managing decline. They don't know what to do, and they don't know how to do it. In the modern world, you signal your inadequacies by asking for training.
Here are some of the things that bishops told the committee they needed training in: conflict management; stress management; media presentation; prioritising and learning how to say "no"; leadership, especially team leadership; management of change. The picture is quite clear, especially when you add and translate into English the first two items on the list – "Mission strategy and practice" (what do we do?) and "theology and applied theology" (why should we bother?)
A little more jargon-unpacking explains why they feel so inadequate. "The demands of leading the diocese will increase," says the report (our jobs are going to become even worse). "There will be change in the pattern and complexity of ministry" (we will have fewer priests). "Changes in numbers of worshippers and occasions of worship" (fewer people will go to church on Sunday. We hope some will come at other times of the week instead). "Changes in the balance of stipendiary and non-stipendiary clergy" (we won't be able to pay the priests we're left with). "Through all of this, the bishop will need to lead the diocese, to provide stability for it and be the focus of unity" (and we're supposed to make everyone feel good about this shambles. Oh, God).
These harried and inadequate managers, hurrying between committee meetings, are rattling around in the shells of real privilege. The 1662 Book of Common Prayer has a clear job description for a bishop, in the vows that he takes at his ordination. He is to teach and to maintain sound doctrine, to "maintain and set forward, as much as shall lie in you, quietness, love, and peace among all men; and... correct and punish... such as be unquiet, disobedient, and criminous, without your diocese." This is old-fashioned, but it is worth quoting because it explains why the bishops came by their palaces, their chauffeurs, and their expense accounts, which are all causing so much trouble today. The bishop was responsible, not just for clergy discipline, but for the general moral tone of his diocese. He needed the power to correct and punish people. He sat in the House of Lords when it was the ruling body of the country. The Bishops of Durham had, until 1832, their own private armies for keeping out the Scots, though, no doubt, handy for other purposes, too. In short, bishops had palaces for the same reason that millionaires do now: they were among the richest and most powerful people in the country; and everyone thought this was a perfectly just and proper state of affairs.
The castles of the older and grander episcopal sees are really wonderful. My heart lifts when I walk into the courtyard of Lambeth Palace, the only one remaining of the Archbishop of Canterbury's palaces. I know, because his press officer tells us, that the archbishop's fridge contains nothing much but skimmed milk and yoghurt; but this was a palace built for men who would decant their yoghurt into gold cups at breakfast. It enlarges the splendour of life.
Bishopthorpe, where the Archbishop of York lives, is less imposing, but just as delightful to look at. There are plenty of ways to justify such luxury. You might argue that the Church of England is such an important institution that it must offer rewards to attract the most able people to join it. That was the 19th-century explanation, but it has fallen out of fashion. There are a couple of bishops who might be running ICI if they were not running a diocese: the Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, who has a pleasant house next to St Paul's, comes to mind. But it's not a widespread temptation for the bench.
Modern bishops are chosen by a process almost guaranteed to eliminate originality and self-confidence, since the diocese, the archbishops and the prime minister can all obstruct or block the appointment of candidates they dislike, and each will have entirely distinct reasons for finding a candidate unsuitable.
The justification for privilege opposite to the traditional understanding was put by the late Philip Goodrich, a lovely man who lived as Bishop of Worcester in a few rooms of Hartlebury Castle. The rest were occupied by the local council. He thought that bishops occupying these houses showed the world how little success might matter. They were to be an example of humility; and to be the "least worst" occupants of the buildings.
But this is not an entirely convincing explanation. There is still a feeling that a bishop should maintain the lifestyle of the upper middle classes. The Church Commissioners believe that a diocesan bishop – one of the 43 who actually have cathedrals of their own – needs, among other things, a study, an office for two secretaries, another office for his chaplain, a chapel; a dining room to seat 12, five bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a drawing room that will host meetings for up to 30 people. It's obvious that fitting all these facilities into one building rather restricts the kind of buildings that a bishop can live in. The obvious step would be to house bishops away from their workplaces, and run the diocese from hired office space, as if it were a normal business.
The Church of England would undoubtedly get rid of some of its grand palaces, if it could. The problem is finding a buyer. Though they have been valued at £60m, it is rather difficult to see who is in the market for 15th-century palaces. They might make hotels or conference centres. But even then, it would take a gifted hotelier to make a profit out of such rambling buildings, expensive to heat and to keep in good repair.
It is in the nature of shrinking organisations that more and more money is sucked into the centre, to manage the process of panic and contraction. The fewer resources there are, the more important seems the job of sharing them out. But, of course, no one knows how to do this well. The chauffeurs constantly rushing them around and the mobile phones – one bishop spent more than £10,000 on his mobile in 1999 – are, I think, marks of panic rather than self-satisfaction.
In the end, these problems will solve themselves. The committee recommended both that bishops publish a detailed breakdown of their accounts, and that a greater share be paid by their own churchgoers, and less by the central authority. In the end, the question of what a bishop should be worth will be answered by her own parishioners. It's entirely possible that they might even want to pay some of them more than at present. But I doubt the chauffeurs will survive.
When the bishops themselves were asked what they most needed, they replied that what they wanted was the time to think, pray and read. Those are the skills that they feel a bishop should really be paid for; and, in its way, that would be the most privileged existence of all.