Nolo Episcopari

Pilgrim 2 001

     “I know,” said the bishop, “that the king is not to live long.  For never before this time have I seen a humble king.  Whereby I perceive that he must speedily be taken out of this life …”

      – The Venerable Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation,                     Book III, Chapter XIV 

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It’s arguable that never at any time in the past have there been so many people wanting to become President of the United States.  As of this writing, the number of candidates on either side of the political ledger rivals the all-star college football lineup on one of those old Bob Hope Christmas specials.

One has to wonder – seriously – about people who have that much ego, ambition, and drive.  Think about it:  a field of maybe twenty or thirty contenders who haven’t the slightest hesitation about standing up and saying, “Yes!  I’d like to be the most powerful person in the world!”  What’s wrong with this picture?  Is it possible to trust anyone who thirsts for that much control over the lives of others?

We hear a lot about “leadership” nowadays – both in the secular realm and the sacred.  “Leadership conferences” are huge in the church right now.  Unfortunately, most of them major in principles that have more to do with success in the corporate world than progress along the Pilgrim path.  For the devotees of the contemporary “leadership” cult, it’s all about initiative, aggression, financial savvy, self-confidence, and a dogged “can do” attitude.  But it’s hard to see how any of this lines up with the “leadership style” of the Man who said “The first shall be last,” and who ended His days on earth as a beaten and crucified criminal.

This is a key area of conflict between kingdom and kosmosKosmic or worldly leaders don’t put much stock in meekness and humility.  After all, in a race to lay claim to the highest office in the land, the humble don’t stand much of a chance.  If they can even get past the gate, they’ll probably end up being trampled by the go-getters in the crowd.

Aidan, bishop of Lindisfarne in seventh-century England, understood this.  That’s why he actually broke down and wept when he saw the Christ-like meekness of Oswin, king of the province of Deira in Northumbria.  As the chronicler Bede tells the story, Aidan had never before seen such a thing as a humble king.  He didn’t know such an animal could exist.  It seemed obvious to him that this particular king wasn’t long for this world.  And so it turned out:  within a very short time Oswin was betrayed and murdered by his rival, Oswy, king of the Bernicians.

True Pilgrims have always taken a tack precisely opposite to that embraced by the current crop of political candidates.  In their intense desire to imitate their Master and to become “leaders” only in the sense of following His example, they have clung to humility and shunned the struggle to climb to the top of the pile.  As a matter of fact, there was a time when ecclesiastical tradition required church leaders to resist appointment to high office.  Nominees to the episcopate were supposed to decline the honor with the words nolo episcopari:  “I do not wish to become a bishop.”  Only the man capable of repeating this formula and really meaning it was considered fit for the task of shepherding the faithful.

Originally this seems to have been something more than just a polite formality.  When the apostle Peter, sensing the nearness of his own death, chose Clement to succeed him as overseer of the church in Rome, Clement tried to beg off:  “I knelt to him, and entreated him, declining the honor and the authority of the chair.”*  St. Anselm (eleventh century), seems to have been of a similar frame of mind:  according to some accounts, he had to be held down, his fingers pried open, and the episcopal staff forced into his hand when he was made Archbishop of Canterbury.  Chad (Ceadda), Bishop of York (seventh century), was unperturbed when critics challenged the legitimacy of his appointment:  “If you decide that I have not rightly received the episcopal character,” he said, “I willingly lay down the office.”**

In the secular realm, too, it has long been recognized that the person best suited to exercise authority is the one who wants it least.  That’s why the early Romans worshipped the memory of Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus (born about 519 BC), the legendary statesman who was twice called upon to assume the (temporary) office of dictator and twice returned the his farm when the state of emergency had passed.***  Cincinnatus was clearly a very different sort of person than Julius Caesar, that shrewd politician who preferred to hold on to absolute power once it was in his grasp.  Thomas Jefferson might have been thinking of Caesar when he wrote, “Whenever a man has cast a longing eye on [public office], a rottenness begins in his conduct.”****

Nolo episcopari!  Or, as one clever commentator translates it, “Not me, Jack!”*****  That’s the Pilgrim’s attitude toward “leadership” in the kosmic sense of the term.  It’s also the cry of the heart of every true leader – the kind of heart that perceives its own frailty and knows its true condition.  For distrust of self is the first step toward dependence upon Another.


(Adapted from Finding God in the Hobbit, “Reluctant Leader”)


* Clement, Epistle of Clement to James, Chapter 3, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 8.

** New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. St. Ceadda, (October 6, 2005).

*** Livy, The Early History of Rome, Book 4.  Under the constitution of the Roman Republic, consuls had the power to appoint a dictator during times of national crisis.  The dictator was granted absolute power for a period of six months.

**** Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Tench Coxe, 1799.  Cited in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, 268.

***** David Mills,  “Take Me!”  Touchstone:  A Journal of Mere Christianity, August 9, 2003.




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