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The Episcopate in Anglican History: Received in Humility Yet Exercised with Responsibility

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 Calvin Lane

Anglicans have historically understood the episcopate to encompass the unique ministry of connection-building and leadership. Bishops, therefore, are entrusted with a particular and, in the most literal sense of the word, incomparable role in synods and councils. While bishops receive this ministry in humility, partnering with and maintaining obligations to presbyters, deacons, and laypeople, they are nevertheless called to exercise leadership in a way that is unique among the other orders of ministry.

To bring such a description into relief, we will canvas three formative moments in Anglican history: Richard Hooker’s discussion of bishops in his Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, part of the initial constitution of the Anglican tradition in the late 16th century; the role of bishops during the Interregnum and Restoration, c1650-70, a season of uncertainty and challenge; and finally the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral’s emphasis on the irreducible nature of the episcopate in a global and ecumenical context.

Moment One: “Chiefty in Government”

“A bishop,” Hooker writes in Book VII of his Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, “is a minister of God to whom with permanent continuance there is given not only power of administering the Word and Sacraments … but also a further power to ordain ecclesiastical persons and a power of chiefty in government above presbyters as well as laymen, a power to be by way of jurisdiction a pastor even to pastors themselves.”

A bishop, Hooker writes, has the twin responsibility of governance and teaching; in other words, bishops hold the Church together by maintaining accountability and passing on the faith, order, life, and witness they have received. For Hooker, the episcopate is (1) permanent; it is (2) the order that ensures the continuation of other orders; (3) it includes pastoral oversight; and finally, (4) bishops continue a historic ministry, one handed down in the organic, often messy life of the Church. This is a ministry that these bishops will one day — in light of their finitude — also hand over and down until the true shepherd and bishop of our souls returns (1 Pet. 2:25).

But more should be said about their obligations and how they undertake such commitments. In Book VIII, Hooker criticizes Roman Catholics as erring in not distinguishing between those in whom the power resides and those who may exercise the power on their behalf. This idea, first found among more progressive conciliarists of the later Middle Ages, is that the whole Church, a divine society, has the apostolic mantle, and the bishops exercise jurisdiction on behalf of the body. This is profoundly important to recognize at this moment in the life of the Anglican Church of Canada.

Bishops should be able to affirm, with humility, that they are not the sum total of the apostolic witness of the Church. The Pentecostal gift of the Spirit is found in the whole body. But it is bishops who, properly called and ordained for a purpose, exercise unique leadership on behalf of the whole body. That too is an exercise in humility, a responsiveness to the gift they are called to steward for the Church.

Bishops should not be tempted by the false equation that by reducing their role in leadership in the economy of the Church’s life and witness — in this case the governance structure of the Anglican Church of Canada’s General Synod — they are somehow practicing humility. It is the other way around. To reduce the role of bishops as it currently stands in the Canadian church would be an abdication of one of the core and most beneficial characteristics of the episcopate, according to Richard Hooker.

Moment Two: Sustaining Witness in Adversity

From 1645 to 1660, the pillars of the established Church of England were pulled down and those Christians who voluntarily continued to use the prayer book and who prioritized the ministry of bishops were on their own. Anglicanism manifested no longer as a state church but as a voluntary movement of Christians. One curious angle to the story of the Interregnum, this period of intense shaping, is the phenomenon of young aspirants for ordination appearing on the private doorsteps of the ousted, formally jobless, and often aging bishops who remained in England.

During this 14-year period, scholars estimate there were about 3,000 illegal living-room ordinations. These aspirants had become convinced, often by reading patristic texts, that they needed both ordination from a bishop and continued guidance and direction of a bishop. To be clear, this was not needed to get a paying job in the churches of Oliver Cromwell’s England. Nor was there any sense in the 1650s that an episcopalian church would ever resurface. And yet the aspirants kept showing up and the bishops kept ordaining them.

For most of its history, Anglicanism has invested in the sustaining expressions and elements of Christianity. Although we have often been comparatively relaxed in some social conventions, we have been commensurately careful about the structures that, as a precious inheritance, hold the Church together. Can anyone deny that we in North America are living in a time in which little about the Church’s place in our wider culture can be assumed or taken for granted? Surely this lack of certain “givens” in the work of the church in the post-Christendom West is something both conservative and progressive Anglicans can recognize.

The leadership of bishops, then, is one of those sustaining elements. Reducing their role as pastoral guides — in this case in the decision-making bodies of the Anglican Church of Canada — jeopardizes the Anglican project’s most basic operating system. Following the Restoration in the 1660s, one finds a resurgent Anglicanism, one that was emphatically clear about the necessity of episcopal ordination and the importance of bishops as pastoral shepherds in the life of the Church.

This emphasis on bishops is not merely an artifact of the past, but rather how Anglicans live and move and how our being as Christians in this world. It is a core and indispensable part of the Church as we have received it. This is not an issue of fussy privilege, a facile strawman prelate. Rather, the explicit leadership of bishops signals our understanding of the Church as shaped by high-touch, hard-wrought, and costly relationships: bishops have obligations to the rest of us as we trust in the authority, the episcope, invested in them in this season of our life together.

Moment Three: An Irreducible Essential

William Reed Huntington was rector of All Saints’ Church in Worcester, Massachusetts, when he wrote The Church Idea in 1870. His principal concern was ecumenical unity, taking seriously Christ’s prayer that we all be one (John 17:21). While much of his vision is rather romantic, he presented a fourfold model for what was, in his estimation, the irreducible essentials of Anglicanism.

“What are the essential, the absolutely essential features of the Anglican position? … The word brings before the eyes of some a flutter of surplices, a vision of village spires, and cathedral towers, … the picturesque costume which English life has thrown around it.” Huntington argued that these trappings might distract us from the bedrock essentials: the Holy Scriptures, the creeds, the sacraments of baptism and Holy Eucharist using the elements and words employed by Christ, and, finally, the historic episcopate.

Huntington’s ideas were so well-received that the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church, meeting in Chicago in 1886, produced an ecumenical statement built on these four essentials. Two years later, the 1888 Lambeth Conference adopted the language and presented it as a teaching for the whole Anglican Communion. Today we refer to these four points as the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, and they have been unfailingly invoked in every official Anglican Communion-level document ever since. The Quadrilateral certainly has ecumenical intent, but it is also a tool for self-analysis. It reveals what is essential to our Anglican understanding of the Church.

Consider that this list of absolute essentials does not include any edition of the Book of Common Prayer, no Reformation-era doctrine or confessional statement, nor any of the “formularies.” That is not to say that the Quadrilateral’s list stands in opposition to these, but rather that even these seemingly cherished features are not, in themselves, absolutely essential. The historic episcopate, however, is. It is an irreducible sine qua non. Less than a decade after the 1888 Lambeth Conference, when Anglican claims about ministry were challenged by Pope Leo XIII in his bull Apostolicae Curae (1896), the archbishops of Canterbury and York, Frederick Temple and William Maclagan, released a response, Saepius Officio. What must be underlined is that there was a response at all, instead of simply waving it off.

Historically, Anglicans have robustly understood the ministry of bishops — as opposed to congregational autonomy, synods of presbyters, term-bound superintendents, or a pope — as the essential, biblical, and historic way to organize our church. That certainly does not preclude recognizing congregational decision-making, the importance of calling councils with all orders of ministry, or sharing leadership with non-episcopal officers. Nevertheless, in light of the fact that bishops have this unique ministry, one they receive in humility as gift and must steward with care, were the Anglican Church of Canada to reduce the bishops’ unique role in leadership, decision-making, and pastoral guidance, the church would face structural and ecclesiological problems one can only begin to imagine.

Conclusion: Stewarding This Gift

The Thirty-Nine Articles, composed well before any of the moments described here, describe the Church as a congregation of the faithful in which “the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance.” If one carefully reflects on the language in Article 19, “sacraments duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance,” if one thinks of Christ setting apart the 12, if one thinks of the good order of the body, enshrined in Scripture and generously handed down, if one thinks of high-touch and cruciform relationships, then the unique ministry of bishops is embedded even in the earliest and most longstanding material of Anglicanism.

While Article 19 might not spell out the claims surveyed in this essay, they seem embryonic: Hooker’s “chiefty in government,” the Restoration era’s commitment to bishops as features that uniquely sustain us, and the Quadrilateral’s insistence that the historic episcopate is irreducible. In the sense of relational accountability and humility, and in light of the givenness of the Church and the gospel that the Church proclaims, the unique ministry of bishops — their role in decision-making, their position as pastoral guides, their sustaining and confident witness through seasons of uncertainty and challenge — is a gift that should be prayerfully stewarded rather than weakened.

The Rev. Calvin Lane, PhD is associate rector of St. George’s Episcopal Church, Dayton, OH and affiliate professor at Nashotah House Theological Seminary.  He is the author of two books on the reformation and currently serves on TEC’s General Board of Examining Chaplains. Lane was elected a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society in 2013. Other teaching appointments include United Theological Seminary and Wright State University. 

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