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The Role of Bishops in the Governance of the Church

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 Paul Avis

Principles of Church Governance

The Lord Jesus Christ is the Head of the Church, which is his Spirit-filled Body (Col. 1:18, etc.). The governance of the Church should always reflect the fact that Christ is its true Governor and that the whole body is endued with the Holy Spirit to enable it to take corporate responsibility for its life and mission. In councils and synods at various levels, the Church gathers around the open Bible and prays for the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The shorthand term for this dimension of the Church’s life is “conciliarity” or “synodality.”

In Anglican Churches, as in other churches, this conciliar or synodical life is grounded in certain theological principles.

(a) Responsibility for the Church ultimately rests with the whole body of Christ.

(b) Within the body some are called and commissioned for particular responsibilities and tasks.

(c) Synodality works through representation, by election or appointment.

(d) Synodality is governed by a constitution or legal/political framework, in which the scope and limits of the roles and authority of individuals and groups is laid down.

(e) The conceptual framework includes the principle that any legal provision ultimately finds its validity in the consent of those to whom it applies.

(f) The governance of the Church is structured by the obligation to consult the faithful and to seek consent, through a process of open reception, for decisions that are reached. It requires a constant awareness that people can and do “vote with their feet.”

(g) In episcopally ordered churches, the episcopate has an indispensable role in the conciliar process. By virtue of their ordination, bishops — both individually and collectively — have a special (but not exclusive) responsibility for the faith and order of the Church. This aspect of their oversight centers on the three connected areas of doctrine, liturgy, and ministry.

Ordained to Oversight

To see how the episcopate fits into the overall governance of the Church, we need to begin with the ordination of a bishop, which in Anglicanism is always to a particular diocese or “portion of the people of God.” A diocesan bishop is entrusted, by ordination and license, with the exercise of oversight (episkope) in his or her diocese, especially oversight of the ministry of word, sacrament, and pastoral care. All the responsibilities of a bishop, including their responsibility for the Church’s faith and teaching, stem from the responsibility of oversight.

In the Ordination of a Bishop in the Anglican Church of Canada, the bishop-elect promises to “guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the Church,” in other words to exercise oversight of it. The Ordination Prayer that follows includes the petition that God will enable the new bishop to be a wise teacher and a steadfast guardian of the Church’s faith: “Enable him/her as a true shepherd to feed and govern your flock; make him/her wise as a teacher, and steadfast as a guardian of its faith and sacraments. Guide and direct him/her in presiding at the worship of your people.” All these tasks are expressions of oversight (episkope).

In the Episcopal Church, the Ordination of a Bishop similarly affirms that the bishop is “called to guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the Church; to celebrate and to provide for the administration of the sacraments of the New Covenant; to ordain priests and deacons and to join in ordaining bishops; and to be in all things a faithful pastor and wholesome example for the entire flock of Christ” (The Examination). The bishop-elect is then asked whether he/she will work collaboratively, sharing with fellow bishops in the governance of the Church, sustaining fellow presbyters, and guiding and strengthening the deacons and all other ministers of the Church.

The Church of England’s provision for the ordination of a bishop follows very similar lines. Canon C 18.4 describes the bishop as “the principal minister” (i.e., of word and sacrament) within the diocese and the one who celebrates “the rites of ordination and confirmation” and who oversees the churches and chapels and the church services of parishes within the diocese (except those that are legally exempt), institutes clergy to benefices, and licenses them for ministry. Clearly the bishop carries out all these tasks, including the ministry of word and sacrament, as the outworking of his or her responsibility for oversight. The responsibility “to teach and uphold sound and wholesome doctrine, and to banish and drive away all erroneous and strange opinions” and to promote unity, love, and peace in the church (C 18.1) also belongs to episcopal oversight.

Suffragan and assistant bishops share in the diocesan’s oversight by delegation, whether formal through an area scheme or informal. By virtue of their ordination, they also share the responsibility for faith and order — to teach and uphold sound doctrine and to promote love, peace, and unity in the Church, quite apart from the extent of jurisdiction that they receive.

The Church of England’s Common Worship Ordination Services begin by affirming the royal priesthood of the baptized and then adds:

To serve this royal priesthood, God has given particular ministries. Bishops are ordained to be shepherds of Christ’s flock and guardians of the faith of the apostles, proclaiming the gospel of God’s kingdom and leading his people in mission. Obedient to the call of Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit, they are to gather God’s people and celebrate with them the sacraments of the new covenant. Thus formed into a single communion of faith and love, the Church in each place and time is united with the Church in every place and time.

Thus bishops gather the Christian people of God in a particular community, provide for their spiritual needs through word and sacrament, and watch over their souls and bodies in love.

The Bishop in Synod

A bishop’s responsibility for oversight is not confined to the bishop’s own diocese, but is also exercised in the wider Church, especially in the General Synod or its equivalent, such as General Convention (TEC), and always in a corporate and collegial manner. Bishops properly have a role in formal governance, as well as in pastoral care and leadership. The phrase “the bishop in synod” aptly describes the role of the episcopate within the polity of Anglican churches. A bishop is always in the midst of his or her people and called to work actively with them. But the special responsibility that bishops have for oversight, including the guardianship of the faith and of their Church’s doctrine, entails that provision should be made in the rules of governance (Standing Orders or their equivalent) for the voice of the episcopate collectively to be heard and heeded when doctrinal changes are being considered (and this includes liturgical changes because doctrine and liturgy are inseparable).

In the procedures of the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada, this safety net is currently in place, as it is in the Church of England, where changes in doctrine or liturgy come before the General Synod in terms approved by the House of Bishops. If the House of Bishops’ proposals prove unacceptable to a majority of clergy and laity in the synod, voting by houses, the bishops must take the matter back for further reflection; they have to think again.

Although bishops have a special responsibility for doctrine, worship, and ministry by virtue of their order, they alone do not ultimately decide issues of doctrine, worship, or ministry for the Church. Only the General Synod, following the lead of the bishops, can so decide and can then speak for the Church. Governance of the Church resides ultimately in the General Synod, which includes all serving diocesan bishops. The principle at stake in the functioning of both the Anglican Church of Canada and the Church of England is that each house or constituency has a right of veto in such matters. For example, the laity may have concerns about their duties and rights within the Church, and it would be unjust for the synod as a whole to impose something on the laity that they remained unhappy about. How much more with the episcopate in view of its God-given responsibility for the oversight of doctrine, liturgy, and ministry.

The Rev. Dr. Paul Avis is Honorary Professor in the School of Divinity, University of Edinburgh, UK, and editor-in-chief of Ecclesiology. His recent publications include Jesus and the Church (2020); Reconciling Theology (2022); and Theology and the Enlightenment (2022).

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