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Bishops in Council: Cranmer on Episcopal Decision-Making

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 Ephraim Radner

Why has Anglicanism more broadly granted to bishops a special vote within the councils of the church? The details of synodical voting in this regard have varied over time. But a designated vote for bishops, often as a separate “house” and with a power of veto over a council’s decision as a whole, has been a continuous feature of Anglicanism since the inception of the reformed Church of England. Although, more recently, the rationale for such a practice has also varied, and the practice itself is now being questioned and even threatened, it is important to understand the initial justification for such episcopal preference in the church’s decision-making. In essence, that justification comes down to scriptural wisdom.

As is well-known, Thomas Cranmer’s theology of the ordained ministry eschewed the claim of specially imbued powers injected into priest or bishop. While he believed that God gives “grace” to an ordained person for this work, it is a grace analogous to that conferred on, e.g., a magistrate for his office. God equips every Christian to fulfill her or his calling. The issue, by which divine promises are gleaned, is the vocation itself. In the case of bishops (and priests in a subordinate fashion), that calling is one of “edifying” the church according to the Word of God. The criterion of episcopal ministry is, at root, the sound teaching of Scripture.

In 1552, towards the end of his career, Cranmer wrote a letter to John Calvin urging the organization of a general Protestant council that might articulate agreed teaching on matters that were dividing Europe. Cranmer proposed that Calvin help in gathering “learned and pious men [docti et pii viri], who excel others in erudition and judgment, [who] would assemble in some convenient place, where holding a mutual consultation, and comparing their opinions, they might discuss all the heads of ecclesiastical doctrine, and agree.” This would constitute a “pious synod.” Calvin responded with far more venom than Cranmer’s assessment of the situation, but agreed that “pious and resolute men, exercised in the school of God, should meet among themselves, and publicly profess their agreement in the doctrines of religion.” These would be “learned and stable men [docti et graves].”[1]

The notion of “learnedness” was paramount in Cranmer’s view when it came to legitimate members of an ecclesial synod. So was “piousness.” Taken together, these two characteristics informed his understanding of the bishop’s ministry, and were enshrined in the liturgy of the Ordinal that became part of the Book of Common Prayer. To be a minister is to be “learned” in the sense of knowledgeable in the “Word of God,” the Scriptures; to be “pious” is to lead a life in conformity with these Scriptures. For Cranmer, the ordained ministry, with bishops as their font, is a “vocational” role, one into which a person is called by God for a set of commitments and duties, formed in a way that might permit their fulfilment, and empowered by the grace of God to this end: knowledge, work, wisdom, accountability.

The English Reformation, unlike other reforming churches on the Continent especially, made a clear decision, early on, in favor of the conciliar or synodical authority of “bishops and priests.”[2] But “learnedness,” and the piety that arises from faithfulness to what is learned, is the basis for council. Thus, in statements from the first years of England’s Reformation, Cranmer (and other church leaders with whom he was associated), suggested that it was important to understand

How no great thing is to be determined, principally matters of Christ’s religion, without long, great, and mature deliberation … [And] how evil it hath succeeded, when in provincial, yea, or yet in general councils, men have gone about to set forth any thing as in the force of God’s law, without the manifest word of God, or else without apparent reasons infallibly deduced out of the word of God.[3]

And finally, how

In all the ancient councils of the church, in matters of the faith and interpretation of scripture, no man made definitive subscription, but bishops and priests; forsomuch as the declaration of the word of God pertaineth unto them.[4]

Obviously, much hinges on the integrity of this “pertaining.” The BCP’s Ordinal makes clear what the promises are that the episcopal candidate makes: “exercising yourself in the Holy Scriptures,” teaching and exhorting on their basis, driving away false doctrine and pursuing discipline on their basis, praying and ordering one’s personal life in accord with them. And thereby is made clear the standard to which bishops are to be held. But what will guarantee that bishops in fact fulfill such a calling? The BCP service obviously appeals to God’s grace, to the people’s prayers, to the individual’s commitment. But Cranmer was hardly naïve in this respect. To be “learned and pious” is not a fate.

In this regard, it seems that Cranmer simply relies on the continuity of discernment that “elects” bishops in the first place. In his earliest discussions of the matter, he outlines how it is that the monarch in England (Henry) has ended up having such a prominent role in the choice of bishops. Despite popular claims to the contrary, Cranmer is not an Erastian in any essential fashion (i.e., believing that civil authority should ultimately control the church). Having the monarch govern the church is not some kind of divine order for all time. This is just the way it is in England. It was not always thus, it will not be so in the future, and different places and times will do things differently. So what does he think is “essential” in the appointment and grace of the Christian ministry?

There are two principles, if you will, in play for Cranmer, as he explains it. First, the appointment of bishops and other ministers comes from the “consent” or choice of the “people” of the church as a whole, the “Christian multitude” “by uniform consent.” Second, that consent is properly informed by wise Christians, imbued with the Holy Spirit — saintly leaders, demonstrably touched by God: “so replete with the Spirit of God, with such knowledge in the profession of Christ, such wisdom, such conversation and counsel, that they ought even of very conscience to give credit unto them, and to accept such as by them were presented.”[5] Who are these grace-led counsellors of the church, whose very lives and profession “inform” the conscience and consent of the actual Christian people? In the earliest Church, they were the apostles, Cranmer explains. As times and cultures changed, they were embodied by bishops, and only later by bishops and priests as distinguished (they are not so distinguished in Scripture, Cranmer insists). And — it must be said — not only by bishops but by other holy witnesses, whom God had equipped to work for the people’s “edification and benefit” (these might be theologians, or princes and counsellors).

The space for authoritative lay counsel is, for Cranmer, a primordial given. If all are “learned and pious” who come to council, then the decision falls to all in an equal measure. Moses well desired that “all of God’s people” would be “prophets” touched by the “Spirit” (Num. 11:29). But the practicalities of order precluded this, and grounds of “jealousy” are irrelevant. For nothing about this has to do with “democracy” or “parliamentary” structure. It has to do with the Holy Spirit ordering people to divine wisdom. The standards for such counsel are consistent: wisdom in the truth of Christ, which, as the Anglican tradition has always insisted, is given in the Scriptural Word. One must be “learned” in this Word, and “pious” in its enactment.

In this, bishops are singled out, not because they are born such or assume such a character through the laying on of hands, but because their choice has been governed by the careful formation and discernment of their well-formed and Spirit-filled elders and their preparation has been ordered by the demands of this office. If Anglicanism has, in its origins, a concept of the “historic episcopate” as essential, it is one properly understood in this vital, pneumatic, scriptural continuity of generational wisdom. Absent such a continuity, ecclesial counsel of any kind is likely to be deformed. If, under the best of circumstances, “no great thing is to be determined, principally matters of Christ’s religion, without long, great, and mature deliberation,” then, when unformed and scripturally untutored and careless leadership would take command, no decision of any kind ought properly to be forthcoming. Personally, I believe we are in such a time!

The author of our Book of Common Prayer, in any case, justified the special place of bishops in the councils of the church by this original ordering of the Anglican tradition on the basis of a given vocation’s “learned” skills, gifts, responsibilities, and “pious” obedience, as well as by the larger church’s dependence on the discerning wisdom of past generations. What often appears as a constraining weight upon ecclesial decision-making — the consent of the episcopacy — was viewed as either its ordering presupposition at best, or as its protective guard even amid the church’s own general mediocrity or error.

Ephraim Radner (Ph.D., Yale University) is Professor of Historical Theology at Wycliffe College at the University of Toronto, and an Anglican/Episcopal priest. He is the author, most recently, of A Time to Keep (2016), Time and the Word (2016), Church (2017), and A Profound Ignorance:  Modern Pneumatology and Its Antimodern Redemption (2019).  A former missionary in Burundi (Africa), he has been active in the affairs of the global Anglican Communion.   


[1] The Life of Calvin by Theodore Beza, trans. Francis Sibson (Philadelphia: J. Whetham, 1836), 295-98.

[2] cf. Malcolm B. Yarnell III, Royal Priesthood in the English Reformation (Oxford University Press, 2013).

[3] “Considerations Offered to the King.”

[4] “The Opinion of certain of the Bishops and Clergy of this Realm, subscribed with their hands, touching the General Council,” in Miscellaneous Writings and Letters of Thomas Cranmer (Cambridge University Press/Parker Society, 1846), 466-67.

[5] “Questions and Answers Concerning the Sacraments and the Appointment and Power of Bishops and Priests,” in Miscellaneous Writings, 116-17.

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