Thursday, September 03, 2009

Better Bishops

[Reformed] 3 Sep 2009--This is a compressed version of the longer paper and is designed to be used in church magazines or newsletters.The full version of the paper may be read here.

By Mark Burkill

The Reform Covenant, written in 1993, stated that there was a need to radically reform the present shape of episcopacy. For a reform of episcopacy to be effective there needs to be some consideration given to the key principles that should drive it. There is the danger on the one hand of thinking that we just need better, biblical people to be bishops. On the other hand some may grow so impatient with the current shape of episcopal ministry that they may wish to abolish bishops altogether. Yet the need to be clear about good Christian leadership cannot be avoided by abolishing bishops. And the ministry of godly bishops may still be undermined if there is no clear idea of what they should be doing and what lies at the heart of their ministry.

This article aims to distinguish key biblical principles for episcopacy from the elements within its current practice which simply reflect past social and traditional forms. We will then be in a position to suggest ways in which the current practice can be effectively reformed.

Biblical teaching on church leadership and order

The distinguishing of bishops from presbyters is something that took place largely after the New Testament period. If we recognise that the New Testament does not intend to give us a blueprint for church government we are free to allow bishops as a godly form of Christian leadership so long as their ministry is governed by broader New Testament principles.

In the New Testament congregational leaders are termed elders/presbyters or overseers/bishops. That these terms are basically identical is clearly seen in the way Paul at Miletus sends to Ephesus for the elders of the church (Acts 20:17) and refers to these same elders as overseers when he is addressing them (Acts 20:28). Similarly in 1 Peter 5:1-2 we find the apostle Peter addressing elders and urging them to serve as overseers.

The origin of the word presbyter or elder comes from the world of the Jewish synagogue. It is easy to see how Christian congregations, arising out of the world of Judaism, would readily use this word to refer to those who taught and led them. The word 'overseer' however appears to come more from the contemporary secular world. Perhaps as Christians began to emerge from the Gentile world it became natural to use such a word in congregations with a majority of Gentile converts. In practice the two words referred to the same ministry, which we may therefore call that of the presbyter-bishop.

The key role that the New Testament leader had was that of teaching. That this was not simply the imparting of knowledge, but involved pastoral direction based on that teaching, is amply demonstrated by the Pastoral Epistles. Indeed the word 'overseer' or 'bishop' contains this implication. Of course this teaching would carry no authority if the presbyter-bishops did not themselves set an example of godly living or would not exercise appropriate discipline where necessary in line with the word they taught. That is why Timothy is urged to 'watch his life and doctrine closely' (1 Tim 4:16), and why he is not only urged to 'preach the word in season and out of season' but also to 'correct, rebuke and encourage' (2 Tim 4:2).

The development of episcopacy in the early church

Sociologically it was natural that a collective leadership would need a president or chairman. The New Testament already recognises this sociological reality within the roles of people like Titus. This development was simply a wise and effective way of ruling and shepherding the flock of God, and it was not given any doctrinal or theological significance. As the gospel advanced within the cities and towns of the Roman Empire, there would be a group of presbyters who led the congregations. From among their number one came to have a more distinctive role and became known as 'bishop.' In the course of time the Christian community would seek to evangelise the nearby villages. For this it would be natural to use the presbyters from within the urban Christian congregation, who would eventually come to reside permanently in the villages they served. In this way the plural presbyterate was replaced as the norm by the sole presbyterate.

The organisation of the Christian churches naturally began to mirror the organisation of secular society. To begin with the sphere of authority and activity that came from a city bishop was known as a 'parish', but later on the secular word 'diocese' was used instead. Furthermore, the significance of major cities in the Empire was recognised by the creation of archbishops and even patriarchs. However in the British Isles the departure of Roman legions and the arrival of Anglo Saxons meant that both bishoprics and cities lapsed. When Christianity took root again in this country bishops and their sees were appointed in relation to Anglo Saxon kingdoms. As kingdoms like Wessex grew in size and power they were subdivided into smaller administrative units called shires, and these shires in turn came to be dioceses.

The understanding of episcopacy in the Church of England at the Reformation

The way the Anglican tradition addresses the question of order may be seen in the Preface to the Ordinal of the Church of England which states 'It is evident unto all men diligently reading holy Scripture and ancient authors that from the Apostles' time there have been these Orders of Ministers in Christ's Church; Bishops, Priests and Deacons'. This statement is not insisting that bishops are essential to the existence of the Christian community. It is simply acknowledging that 'bishop' is a scriptural word, and that a distinctive episcopal ministry arose in the time of the apostles (hence the reference to 'ancient authors'). It is also to be noted that the statement speaks of 'these Orders of Ministers' and not of 'three Orders of Ministers'. The latter is often assumed, but in fact the Church of England Reformers viewed bishops and priests as being of the same order, which is why bishops are consecrated rather than ordained.

English Reformers such as Hooker understood very clearly that it is the gospel that creates and establishes the church, rather than a particular form of church government. But the question of episcopacy and its reform in the 17th century suffered from becoming highly politicised. The Puritans’ rejection of bishops was understandable but it was a mistake to think that the key to reforming the Church lay in changing its form of government. On the other hand the developing high church insistence on the necessity of bishops contributed to the English Civil War and the disastrous fracture of the Christian community following 1662. This may explain why the relationship between bishops and the government of the nation was never tackled. The ministry of bishops was still dominated by the prelatical understanding inherited from earlier times, and no attempt was made to remove the medieval lord element from the practice of episcopal ministry.

Nevertheless despite the failure of such practical attempts to conform episcopacy to biblical principles we still find in the Reformation period that there is a clear understanding amongst many leaders of the Church of England of the way in which episcopacy should be operated.

The 19th century search for Anglican identity

If the Reformers of the Church of England were so clear about the principles of episcopal ministry, one might wonder why these principles have been lost sight of to a large extent today. I believe the answer lies in the way that the 19th century refashioned Anglican identity so as to stress secondary features of church life (such as episcopacy) rather than staying with the doctrinal position that had been the basis of that identity hitherto. As Anglican ministry expanded overseas and free churches grew in number and influence, Anglicans rubbed shoulders with Christians from other backgrounds. That experience highlighted the question of what justified the particular traditions of Anglican church life, including bishops. Furthermore, the Oxford Movement served to stress the importance of bishops and other features of church government to a degree that had not occurred before.

The net result of this desire to define Anglican identity was that whereas in 1800 the Church of England was very much the Established Church, by 1900 it was much more of a denomination. And one of the defining features of this denomination was the practice of episcopal ministry.

How episcopal ministry should be reformed today

A vision for the reform of the ministry of bishops in the present time can be articulated if we are willing to bear in mind basic biblical principles about episcopal ministry alongside the way its ancient practice was consonant with the New Testament, and we do not make the mistake of making secondary features essentials. We must remember that bishops are of the same order as priests/presbyters, and therefore should essentially be engaged in pastoring through preaching and teaching. Episcopal ministry (as distinct from that of presbyters) emerged from a desire to conform the organisation of the Christian community to that of the society it was seeking to reach with the gospel. Therefore its practice today should reflect the sociological characteristics of present day communities and networks. The bishop today should have a ministry that is not essentially different from that of the vicar/rector, but the sphere in which he exercises this ministry will differ.

The local church leader relates primarily to the local congregation, but the bishop's distinctive ministry comes from his additional connectional role. The following general points can be made:

•It is possible for a committee or other group to take on the responsibility for this connectional role, but it can be argued sociologically that an individual (who is properly accountable within a plural leadership and to godly synods) is best for this.

•A bishop will be responsible for pastoring local church ministers. He can provide support and encouragement to those facing difficulties, as well as being the primary means of exercising loving scriptural discipline when this is necessary.

•A bishop will be well placed to help in cases of pastoral breakdown between a minister and his congregation, if his own ministry is respected for its godly example. He can provide essential backing to a minister who is struggling with opposition to his gospel work. or provide ways through an impasse created by a minister's folly or lack of experience.

•A bishop can have a supervisory role in the selection, training and ordination of new ministers. He cannot possibly take on all this work himself but his pastoral wisdom and experience will be key when it comes to making final decisions.

•A bishop can have a role as a spokesman of the Word of God for the Christian community in relation to the wider world, having natural opportunities to speak truth into the public square.

These points help us see what we should be looking for in bishops today and the sort of priorities they should be encouraged to have. More specific points can be made which relate to the reform of the episcopate and its practice today:

•It is best to have the bishop exercising a proportion of his ministry from a base within a local congregation. In this way the basic preaching/teaching role of a bishop cannot be avoided.

•Synodical and chapter meetings of godly clergy and lay people exist to serve as a check on sinfulness and folly in bishops. Although synods (and bishops) must not be allowed to contradict biblical teaching, they can provide godly wisdom when the Christian community and its leaders are faced with major issues. Bishops must not be allowed to be tyrants and there must be effective means of holding them accountable to Scripture.

•The spheres of bishops' ministries should be adapted to the natural networks of society wherever these are to be found – counties, towns, London boroughs. Non-geographical networks and communities should not be ignored (it is right that we have a bishop to the armed forces for example). This probably means that the number of bishops should be greatly multiplied. If administration and organisation are not seen as key to their ministry then this need not be alarming.

•The role of bishops in relation to local and national government needs to be reexamined. Prelatical elements need to be dispensed with, while effective channels of communication to various levels of government must be encouraged.

•The system of appointing bishops needs to be reformed so as to produce candidates who will meet the biblical criteria for episcopal ministry. However no particular form of appointment, whether by election or consultation, can guarantee this.
In seeking reform of the episcopacy today therefore two principles need to be borne in mind:

(a) Bishops are to minister in their own sphere in conformity to New Testament principles of pastoring through the preaching and teaching of the Word of God. Their spheres of ministry should be designed to conform to natural social networks.

(b) Bishops are not to be viewed as essential to the existence of the Christian community, whereas biblical teaching is. Bishops can only maintain the unity of the Christian community if they are willing to set a godly example and teach and exercise discipline in accordance with the Word of God. When they do that they will soon find that they are accorded real respect from ministers and congregations.

If there is not the will for current church leadership to reform the practice of episcopacy along the lines of these two principles, it may be that congregations will have to develop it from the ground up.

Mark Burkill December 2008

Recommended Reading:

Roger Beckwith – Elders in Every City (Paternoster 2003)

Wallace Benn – Usher on Bishops: A Reforming Ecclesiology (St Antholin lecture 2002 – available via The Latimer Trust)

David Holloway – The Reform of the Episcopate and Alternative Oversight (Reform 1998)

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