Bishops: Guardians of the Body of Christ

The Episcopal Church’s House of Bishops meets in Quito, Ecuador, Sept. 15-20. In this essay from the Aug. 28 issue of The Living Church, Ralph McMichael reflects on the ministry of bishops.

By Ralph McMichael

The ministry of bishops, and how this ministry is exercised, is the fulcrum point of the Anglican Communion. Bishops are not the essence of the Christian faith and life, but bishops’ self-understanding directs or misdirects how this essence is perceived and lived. If we shared the proper understanding and practice of bishops in the life of the Church, then the life of the Anglican Communion would not become, as it is now becoming, a fragmented and confused ecclesial reality. We would still argue, but we would do so within communion and for the sake of communion. It is more important to be in communion than to be right, but it has to be the right kind of communion. In the life of St. Joseph, the resurrection, and the Eucharist we find icons of bishops’ essential ministry as guardians of the Body of Christ.

St. Joseph provides an example of behavior that could seem very strange to us. Here is a man who is given the responsibility of taking care of what someone else has done. Not only is he to accept what has happened; he is charged with the duty to provide for a life he did not create. Joseph sacrifices the satisfaction that comes with starting a work and seeing it through to the end; he has no claims on the generative genealogy of the person for whom he is now a parent. While Joseph has his own genealogy — he is a son of David — this history places him at the juncture between history and the Holy Spirit, between what the world has seen and what God is doing. Joseph stands in a long line of those persons through whom God acts without confusing the divine act for a human one. Poor Joseph commits himself to the maturing of a life for which he can take no credit.

Joseph is called to live with, and live for, the person who emerges from Mary, the one who is born into the world without being born because of the world. He will have no natural commonality with this person; there will be no sharing of biology. Joseph will look in vain for characteristics, for features, that resemble him. He will face the brute fact that the child will not be like him in any way: no father-child projections for him. Instead, Joseph is faced with the inverted reality that he is not permitted to look for ways for the child to be like him. He is to grow to be like the child. The mystery of his future is the dawning kenosis of dependency; the one who is dependent on him will become the one on whom Joseph depends. Joseph is given the responsibility for providing a home for the one who will provide the mansion with many rooms, and one of these rooms is for him. Joseph’s future is to dwell in the place this child will prepare for him.

Mary’s yes to God is not a no to tradition. Even though she is the recipient of God’s free and unexpected act, she does not abandon the life expected by and for her. Mary marries Joseph; she honors her obligation. She takes her place within the tradition represented by Joseph; her son will still be a son of David. Mary bears the life bestowed on her by the Holy Spirit, while remaining within the life she knows. The annunciation to Mary does not turn her into an individual independent of tradition and of binding relationships. Her steadfastness of faith, her abiding within the course of life set before her with Joseph, becomes the context, and provides the circumstances, for the identity and vocation of Jesus to emerge. Mary’s yes to God will be repeated to others, to Joseph, and ultimately to Jesus. What this pregnancy means, who this child will become, and what effect he will have on her, on Joseph, and on the world, will be revealed in time, and it will take time. Mary says yes to God and yes to Joseph; the life of the body of Christ is constituted by both her yes to the Holy Spirit and her yes to tradition. The womb of expectation becomes the place from which the unexpected is born. This child is located within a person, a marriage, a family, a culture, and a society, and he will become where God desires to locate the whole world. The story of Jesus begins with Mary, and with Joseph, and we are written into this story by the free and unexpected acts of God, as we abide within the expected places of divine action. Jesus is born into our lives when we join Mary in her yes to the Holy Spirit and in her yes to Joseph.

Mary is the Church, Joseph is the bishop, and Jesus is Jesus.

1. Mary is the Church, the Body of Christ realized at the celebration of the Eucharist. The descent of the Holy Spirit in the Eucharist transforms bread, wine, and people into the body and blood of Christ. The Church exists to be pregnant with Jesus, to be the body from which Jesus appears into the world, into this life, as its salvation. The only life that should come from the Church is the life of Jesus for the life of the world. As the story of Mary is really the story of Jesus, the story of the Church is the drama of Jesus living among us.

Mary has no historical distinguishing characteristics other than being the one who bore Jesus, who gave birth to Jesus. Similarly, the historical course of the Church is to bear Jesus to the world, to be the clear and compelling place where Jesus appears. The essential agency of the Church is the Holy Spirit realizing the life of Jesus in our midst. This Marian vocation is lost amid all of the other qualities for which the Church is known. The Church has a non-Marian history as well, and it is always in danger of seeking its own identity and agency, claiming for itself a way of being and doing that is not pregnant with Jesus. This is why the Church requires guardians, those who will “guard the faith and unity” of its fecund life. Mary had Joseph, and the Church has bishops.

2. Like Joseph in the birth and maturation of Jesus, bishops guard a life they did not create. Bishops do not instigate new life; they care for the life the Holy Spirit realizes within the flesh of the Church. Bishops are guardians of the Church’s ministry to bear Jesus in the world, to be the body of Christ. This means, of course, that bishops do not pursue courses of action that center on themselves, that raise their profile in the world beyond, or away from, the Church. Who bishops are within their inner selves, whether in conscience, temperament, or opinion, is not the episcopal point, and can never become their episcopal profile. Bishops are guardians of Jesus and the Church that bears him to the world.

Like Joseph, bishops provide the traditional home in which the life born of the Church and the Holy Spirit matures, and from which this life appears. The authority of bishops resides within their representative ministry as persons of tradition; they have the authority of guardianship. They invoke the Holy Spirit into the life of the Church, and into the lives of the baptized, as those who stand in the place where tradition has located them. Straying from this place vacates their authority. Bishops abide as Joseph to the Church’s Mary for the sake of Jesus.

This is why, from the beginning, apostolic ministry was for the purpose of witnessing to the resurrection. Bishops witness to the resurrection, the appearance of Jesus from another unexpected place, from the tomb. The Holy Spirit conceives Jesus anew from the grip of the grave; Jesus is the firstborn of the new creation. The episcopal ministry of Joseph begins at the empty tomb. Unlike the soldiers guarding the status quo, bishops guard the possibility of the appearance of the risen Jesus, of the breaking in of the life realized only by the Holy Spirit. The virginal conception and the resurrection of Jesus share a common clarity: They are both the unmistakable act of God. Bishops are the traditional guardians of the creative acts of God.

3. Who Mary and Joseph are for us is who they are to Jesus. Hence, the Church and its bishops cannot allow themselves to construct identities, vocations, and missions apart from their contingent relationships to Jesus. In order to avoid this enduring temptation toward self-expression, the Church and its bishops are to seek the face of Jesus above all else. It is only within the illuminative presence of this face that the Church and its bishops know what they are supposed to look like. For this to be the case, our perception of Jesus does not take place within the various tombs where we might wish to place him. Any place we prepare for him must yield to the place he has prepared for us. In the sentence structure of the Church, Jesus is not an object to our subject. Jesus is the subject, and we are the object. Our subjectivity resides with him. We do not determine who Jesus is; we confess his identity, his vocation, and his mission, and in so doing, we discover our own.

The future of God awaits us. Like Joseph before them, bishops are guardians of God’s future for us. Tradition has placed them where God in the power of the Holy Spirit acts for the life of the world. The place to locate a bishop, and the place of episcopal accountability, is at the celebration of the Holy Eucharist. The traditional place of the bishop is to stand where the Holy Spirit renews and realizes the body of Christ as the Church and for the life of the world. Bishops are to guard the place where Jesus arrives, to present him to the people, and then to get out of the way. The future of the Church belongs to God and not to the world. It is the ministry of bishops to keep it this way.

Blessed Joseph, pray for us.

The Rev. Dr. Ralph McMichael is executive director of the Center for the Eucharist.


Online Archives