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Bishops and Coherence

At its General Synod this year, the Anglican Church of Canada will consider a Constitutional change that would diminish the role of its House of Bishops in ordering the life and affairs of the church. In view of this proposal, and for the sake of informed, responsible decisions at the Synod, we have gathered essays from historians and theologians about the role of the historic episcopate within Anglican ecclesiology. 

By John Bauerschmidt

A scriptural threshold for doctrine, and retention of an episcopal polity, marked the nascent Anglican ecclesiology of the 16th-century Church of England. The first had immediate application to the church’s situation in a time of reform; the implications of the second remained to be teased out over time. In regard to this teasing out, it’s arguable that proposed changes in the governance of the Anglican Church in Canada are a case in point. They are a sign that the Church continues to come to grips with the implications of its episcopal ordering. At the same time, the suggested reason for these changes in polity bears on the scriptural threshold for doctrine established in the 16th century.

The common thread that connects both these building blocks of Anglican ecclesiology, then and now, is the notion of coherence. Coherence does not require uniformity, a singleness of expression, but it does require holding together. Coherence involves the correspondence of one thing with another. In the 16th century’s doctrinal conflicts, the Church of England set a course in the Articles of Religion marked by notions of scriptural coherence. Article 20, “Of the Authority of the Church,” is the locus classicus:

The Church hath power to decree Rites or Ceremonies, and authority in Controversies of Faith: and yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God’s Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another. Wherefore, although the Church be a witness and a keeper of Holy Writ, yet, as it ought not to decree any thing against the same, so besides the same ought it not to enforce any thing to be believed for necessity of Salvation.

The article acknowledges the Church’s authority in doctrinal matters, and its capacity for action in ordering what we would now call the liturgical life of the Church, yet that authority and activity must be in accordance with the Holy Scriptures. The standard is not that nothing can be established in the Church except what is expressly authorized by the Scriptures, but rather that nothing can be established that is contrary to them. In its decrees and its enforcements, the Church’s teaching and its life must cohere with the scriptural witness.

Embedded in the article, as well, is a test for what constitutes that witness. No part of the Holy Scriptures can be raised up against another, so that one part becomes “repugnant” to the other. Implied here is the coherence of the Scriptures themselves, in which no part of the whole can become a hermeneutical trump card. Article Seven, “Of the Old Testament,” says, “The Old Testament is not contrary to the New: for both in the Old and New Testament everlasting life is offered to Mankind by Christ, who is the only mediator between God and Man, being both God and Man.” The principle in the article finds its liturgical expression in the longstanding Anglican custom of reading chapters of both Testaments beside each other in Morning and Evening Prayer. Between the two Testaments, there is concordance and correspondence, a coherence undiminished by any hermeneutic of suspicion.

The retention of episcopal polity figures as a second characteristic basis from which Anglican ecclesiology developed. Whether as a conscious policy, or simply as a conservative result of the abbreviated reign of Edward VI, the Church of England’s embrace of episcopal order gradually strengthened until the crucible of the English Civil War, which solidified the commitment. Abolished by Parliament in the 1640s, the bishops came back with a vengeance, along with the king, in 1660.

The articles had little to say about bishops by way of theory, beyond marking their presence in the Church, but the retention of episcopal order functioned as an example of coherence in another vein. In the order and succession of ministry, there was to be no “before” and “after,” no radical break in an English reformation that had a number of other radical breaks. As Patrick Collinson remarks in The Religion of Protestants, reformers once given the title of “bishop” began to conceive of themselves as bishops, successors in a longer line of precedent (22).

Given the particular circumstances of the English reformation, the authority of the Crown functioned as an ordering principle, bringing coherence to the whole; but with the global growth of what eventually became the Anglican Communion, and with the diminishment of both royal authority and the church establishment in England, episcopal leadership moved to the forefront. In Church teaching, the episcopal polity of the Church came to carry more weight; in official pronouncement, it became a load-bearing mechanism in the life of the Church.

In describing the Anglican Communion, the 1930 Lambeth Conference spoke of the “national” or “particular” churches of the Communion as “bound together” by “mutual loyalty sustained through the common counsel of the bishops in conference” (Res. 49). Here we see the foreshadowing of the Lambeth Conference as an Instrument of Communion. Mutual loyalty is a function of coherence; common counsel in conference an expression of correspondence between parts. The episcopal order has a primary role in connection between the churches.

The 1948 Conference carried this further in its committee Report on the Anglican Communion, in describing the episcopacy as “the source and centre of our order.” This center holds together an authority that is “dispersed rather than … centralized,” “distributed among Scripture, Tradition, Creeds, the Ministry of the Word and Sacraments, the witness of the saints, and the consensus fidelium, which is the continuing experience of the Holy Spirit through His faithful people in the Church.” Once again, episcopal order, exercised by “divine commission and in synodical association” with clergy and laity, is part of a network of coherence between multiple elements and multiple bishops (pt. III).

In these 20th-century expressions of an Anglican ecclesiology there is the authentic echo of earlier strains. In articulating a role for a collective “episcopacy,” the report reflects a dynamic that goes back at least as far as the time of St. Cyprian, who in the third century called upon the bishops of the church collectively to bear the theological weight of the church’s unity. For Cyprian, the agreement of the church’s bishops was central to the church’s unity. The episcopate is one, and though spread throughout the world, is a harmonious multitude (Epistle 55). “The authority of the bishops forms a unity, of which each holds his part in its totality. And the Church forms a unity, however far she spreads and multiplies by the progeny of her fecundity” (The Unity of the Catholic Church, 5, trans. Bevenot).

A concern for coherence marks the origin of the Anglican tradition, and continues to be played out in the expression of Anglican ecclesiology. This is a conserving strain, a concern for the correspondence of parts. Reorderings of the Church’s polity, with potentially revolutionary implications, fit uneasily into that tradition. To the extent that coherence is undercut, the Church will be poorly served.

The Rt. Rev. John Bauerschmidt is Bishop of Tennessee.


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