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The Optional Bishop

By Thomas Reeves

I recently attended a clergy day in our diocese, and had a nice discussion with a new ordinand who had graduated from a well-known evangelical seminary. At one point in the discussion, I asked this young man, “So, how did you come in contact with Anglicanism?” His response was not surprising. He had met Anglican priests, become interested in the priesthood, and then contacted our bishop, who warmly engaged and welcomed him. As an outsider to Anglicanism, he expected a bishop would be austere and aloof. Instead, he found ours helpful and informative.

This young priest is now starting an internship program for the priesthood at one of our larger churches. What will he learn about the role of the bishop in his ministry and the importance of the historic episcopate?

It Is Traditional to Have Tradition

What I have discovered since entering the Anglican Church in North America in 2008 is that many of our clergy consider apostolic succession an optional tradition or a necessary evil. Most evangelical clergy I have encountered here use the word tradition in a pejorative sense.

The irony, though, is that by taking a low view of history and tradition, these pastors are relying on and contributing to another set tradition: one that marginalizes tradition. When we allow ourselves to think in this manner, we reveal an undeveloped understanding of Anglicanism at its core — or worse, a denial of the relationship between the Word, the Holy Spirit, and tradition.

In so much of American Anglicanism it is my cross-references vs. your cross-references, the book you just read vs. the book I just read, my experiences vs. yours, my favorite theologian vs. yours. This sets the stage for sectarian and polarized communal relationships that leave little room for shared critical thinking, honest discussions about truth, or an appreciation of our need for pushback from other views. In other words, instead of a healthy grounded community, an insecure and defensive groupthink evolves.

The reality is that our personal beliefs and experiences do not create lasting, authoritative truth. Because we are created and human, we all interpret the Scriptures with an informing tradition directing us as a tutor would a student. We can deny this, but it is no less true. No matter what flavor of Christianity we claim to be a part of, any developed theology, exegesis, confession, or creeds form a tradition: it has been handed down, in the commendable sense we see in the Scriptures.

The Apostle Paul says: “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3, NRSV).

Yet it is now common for many in ACNA to take some of the central content of our historic tradition while leaving the context in which it has been formed. Thus, the complexities and processes involved in developing our ecumenical New Testament canon go unnoticed, the importance of a unified (but imperfect) church in its development goes unnoticed, as does the importance of the spiritual authority of bishops in developing the biblical canon. We will give lip service to the Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds, and we are glad to have them as our historical documents; however, we seem to care little for the historic understandings and contexts in which these important and central truths were formulated, not least the critical role of the episcopate.

The Unity of American Anglicans

As a result, instead of a real unity grounded in the shared beliefs and practices that define Anglicanism, we seem to encourage an undefined Anglicanism in the spirit of the free-churches,  But we are not  unmoored from a specific heritage.

If we claim the ecumenical creeds, we must accept them all, including such things as “one baptism for the forgiveness of sins” and “one holy catholic and apostolic Church.” If we accept the 1662 Book of Common Prayer and the historical Ordinal, we must make ourselves aware of the theology behind their sacramental statements. If we subscribe to the Thirty-nine Articles, that requires some clarity about how they apply in our church. At the moment, Anglican practice reveals multiple groups doing what is right in their own eyes, with a deafening silence about the issues that divide us.

An Anglican province bent on mission but without theological and historical depth will make for a weak, divided church. This means that theological dialogue and development must be present and a part of our communal trust. Unlike the Church Fathers and early Christian communities responsible for collecting and developing our scriptural canon, our ecumenical creeds, and our theology of Church and mission, many seem to want an undefined faith. But in the end, are we building a foundation for our province that will last?

I believe Anglicanism is something. But if our church does not come to clear, articulated positions on apostolic succession and a faithful historic episcopate, the Anglican Church in North America (and Anglicanism worldwide) risks becoming just another disposable container that will not stand the test of time.

The Rev. Thomas Reeves is rector of the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul in Roanoke, Virginia, and the author of Was Jesus an Evangelical? published by eLectio Press.


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