It’s never too late to go back to school, as the three not-so-new suffragan bishops in our diocese can attest. Since our consecration as bishops just over a year ago, the three of us have been participating in a program run through The Episcopal Church called “Living Our Vows,” affectionately known as “Baby Bishops’ School.” There are 12 new bishops in our class – three from Canada and nine from the U.S. The purpose of the program is to equip new bishops to grow more fully into their episcopal ministries. The curriculum includes some very practical things like Sunday visitations, speaking effectively to the media, overseeing clergy reviews, and even when to put on and take off your mitre! But the program also includes opportunities for reflection on living into the vows that were made on the day we were consecrated – hence the name, “Living Our Vows.”
What are those vows that guide our living? For bishops, they are the promises we made just before hands were laid on our heads. They include: being faithful in prayer and in the study of holy Scripture; boldly proclaiming and interpreting the gospel of Christ; encouraging and supporting all baptized people in their gifts and ministries; guarding the faith, unity and discipline of the Church; ordaining priests and deacons, sharing in the government of the whole Church; and showing compassion to the poor and strangers, and defending those who have no helper (BAS, p. 636-637).
To help us live more fully into these vows, we are each assigned a coach, usually a more senior bishop, who is able to share wisdom and experience from his or her own years in episcopal ministry. I am blessed that Bishop Michael Bird, the retiring Bishop of Niagara, is my coach. I meet with him regularly, and he has been tremendously supportive in helping me navigate my first year of ministry in a purple shirt. Another essential element of “Living Our Vows” is time away. Once a year, the new bishops gather together for four days of prayer, instruction, shared learning and fellowship. We meet at a retreat centre where there are relatively few distractions.
As we approach the beginning of Lent once again, what would it be like for all of us to recommit to “living our vows” in a similar way? As Lent is a season of education and formation for both baptism and confirmation, this is an ideal time to live more fully into the vows that we made (or that were made for us) at baptism. Here they are:
- Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?
- Will you persevere in resisting evil and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
- Will you proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ?
- Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbour as yourself?
- Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
- Will you strive to safeguard the integrity of God’s creation, and respect, sustain and renew the Earth? (BAS, p. 159.)
In seeking to live into these vows, here too I would recommend a coach. For those preparing for baptism or confirmation in the Easter season, your coach may be your parish priest or a leader in the parish who oversees catechesis and Christian formation. For the rest of us who are preparing to renew our baptismal promises at Easter, it may be a spiritual director, a fellow member of the parish, or a wise and trusted friend. You may also find it helpful to get away for a few days, or even for a few hours. Within our diocese, there are places apart, such as St. John’s Convent or the Holy Cross Priory, for prayer, spiritual direction, retreat and rest.
However we choose to enter into this holy season, may Lent be for all of us a time of drawing nearer to God and “living our vows” more deeply.