The Episcopal Church is struggling to redefine its order and mission in the face of rapidly declining membership amid a radically changing civil society. The role of bishops has always been central to our church — hence our church’s name — but this role is now itself a part of the struggle for the Episcopal Church’s faithful mission. What are bishops for? To what are they accountable? How should they engage in the oversight (episcope) of the Church and what role should they have in her councils and decision-making? General Convention is only one place, if a key one, where these questions arise. Without addressing particular issues before Convention that involve our bishops — their constitutional responsibilities, doctrinal authority, discipline, and role in the Communion — let me suggest, in the form of several theses, some foundational elements that ought to inform our church’s understanding of her bishops.
1. The full description of the episcopal office is given in the Holy Scriptures’ description of Jesus Christ. This is because this full description of Jesus Christ is the figure that the episcopal office represents (1 Pet. 2:25).
2. The office of the bishop is properly understood only within the contours of the whole Scriptures, for it is all the Scriptures that coherently describe Christ Jesus. No scriptural description of the episcopal office can be offered that is “repugnant” to other Scriptures (Articles of Religion, XX), any more than this can be done with respect to Christ. This means that the Old Testament, as well as the New Testament, is rightly brought to bear in understanding the episcopal office (cf. Luke 24:44).
3. The office of the bishop is universal, not local, in its foundation, effects, and criteria of evaluation (Eph. 2:19; Rev. 21:14; BCP, p. 517), because formed by and tied to the full figure of Christ who died for the sins of the whole world, and whose Church is universal (Eph. 1:22-23; Col. 1:15-20).
4. There are normative standards of Scriptural coherence for understanding the office of the bishop, including John 10:1-18, 21:15-19; Mark 10:35-45; Acts 1:21-22, 2:26-35, 2:43-47; 2 Cor. 11:1-30; Eph. 4:11-16; 1 Tim. 3:1-7; 2 Tim. 3:10-4:2; Titus 1:7-9; Heb. 13:7, 17; and 1 Peter 5:1-6. These texts and their meaning are rightly related to the people of Israel (Rev. 21:12-14) and her prophets, including Moses and the Law.
5. These standards can be ordered under two headings: the pastoral and the apostolic. One describes the ministerial purpose of the bishop’s role, the other the practical tasks of the bishop’s work in fulfilling that role. In fact, though, because each represents the person of Christ, they are completely integrated.
6. The pastoral role of the bishop can be divided into the two aspects of Christ’s divine shepherding: ultimate care and salvation of souls (Ezek. 34; Heb. 13:17; 1 Cor. 4:1-2; 1 Tim. 4:16) and self-giving and subjection within the Body of Christ (cf. 1 Pet. 5:1-5).
7. The apostolic role can be divided into two aspects of Christ’s mission in the Holy Spirit: teaching (Matt. 28:20) and the pneumatic power of holy living (James 5:16; Mark 9:29; 16:20; 1 Cor. 2:1-5).
8. All other aspects of the episcopal ministry, whether particular gifts or duties, are provisional supports to these roles and tasks; the ordering of the Church likewise. Anything that obstructs, weakens, or subverts these in the life of the Church is to be judged inadequate and changed. Anything that permits, strengthens, and furthers these elements is to be judged faithful and encouraged (1 Cor. 3:10-15; 1 John 4:1).
9. The ecclesiastical ordering of episcopal ministry is always “with others”: other bishops, and the Church as a whole (Acts 2:43-47, 15:6). The notion of a bishop “acting alone” is a Christian oxymoron.
10. The ecclesial order of synodality (“walking together”) — meeting in the council of mutual subjection and companionship in Christ — has best expressed such a support, especially in that it also includes other ministries of the Church. The scriptural witness, the history of the Church’s life, and the direction of ecumenical agreement have affirmed this.
11. Synodality describes the way Christ Jesus himself orders the Church through his own person (Luke 24:13-27; Acts 1:21-22), which includes practical actions: seeking, gathering, protecting, building up, remaining in fellowship, and giving away the self through standing beside.
12. It is necessary to measure the current practice of the Episcopal Church through several criteria:
Theses like these are indicative, not exhaustive: the Scriptures linked to them are not so much proof-texts as signs of the rich breadth of episcopal life bound up with God’s Word; the theological categories are prods to evangelical seriousness, not intellectual abstractions. But it is important to have such indicative criteria for the episcopal ministry as a baseline for consultation and decision-making about the Episcopal Church’s current and future mission.
It seems clear to me, for instance, that some of the destructive conflicts and confusions of our common life in the past few years has derived in large measure from a failure to order our episcopal ministries in light of such a baseline. Matters touching upon our relationship among dioceses, property disputes, teaching, our place in the Communion, ecumenical responsibilities, the way decisions themselves are made or ignored — all of these flashpoints of dispute and conflict can at least be significantly clarified by a more robust commitment to the shape of our episcopal order as a church of Christ. General Convention cannot hope to lead the church forward faithfully in these difficult times without encouraging and allowing our bishops to reclaim their vocation. And our bishops themselves will not fulfill these vocations without leading the Convention on the basis of their calling.
The Rev. Ephraim Radner is professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College, Toronto. Baylor University Press will publish his latest book, A Brutal Unity: The Spiritual Politics of the Christian Church, in October.