Thursday, September 03, 2009

An Oversight? What Bishops think about Bishops and how Evangelicals reply

[Reform] 3 Sep 2009--This paper examines current thinking on the role of the bishop by looking at the 1990 report of the Archbishop’s Group on the Episcopate, which seeks to ‘find the contemporary role of the diocesan bishop in the developing ministry pattern in the first two centuries of the church’, and shows how evangelicals can respond to the kind of arguments it puts forward. The aim is to encourage evangelicals to develop a clearer idea of what bishops should be and do, given the current tendency to focus the unity of the church in its organisational structure and the centralisation of control.

An Oversight?

It was the misfortune of the Scots, according to Flanders and Swann, that "They haven't got bishops to show them the way", but English Anglican Evangelicals have sometimes envied that lack. The difficulties some outspoken Liberal bishops and strong minded Anglo-Catholic bishops have caused Evangelicals seem to be increasing (why are our Evangelical bishops not as unpopular with their Liberal and Catholic clergy?), and what seems to be a gradual centralising of control over appointments by suspending livings and putting "walls" round dioceses is causing even greater concern. Perhaps it is time to rethink the rôle that we give those who move from pastoring a local church to, in effect, running a large and very demanding business.

Where did we come from?

The Preface to the BCP Ordinal states that "from the Apostles' time there have been these orders of Ministers within Christ's Church: Bishops, Priests and Deacons", and that confidence in the apostolic origins of the threefold ministry was followed by the Lambeth Conference of 1888 which drew up the famous Lambeth Quadrilateral: the Bible, the Apostles' and Nicene Creed, the two sacraments and "the Historic Episcopate, locally adapted in the methods of its administration to the varying needs of the nations and peoples called of God into the Unity of His Church". Similar confidence was still being expressed at the 1930 Lambeth Conference, which reported "we see no reason to doubt the statement made in the Preface to the Ordinal", but that was against the stream of scholarly opinion expressed most importantly for Anglicans by J.B.Lightfoot in his famous dissertation on "The Christian Ministry" published as an appendix to his Philippians commentary. Today that stream flows ever more strongly in Lightfoot's favour, and the 1990 report of the Archbishop's Group on the Episcopate, "Episcopal Ministry" (published by Church House Publishing, 1990, and abbreviated here to EM) said, "The evidence of modern scholarship must make the Church of England now question the Preface to the Ordinal" (EM 46). The three-fold ministry is not a New Testament pattern.

That change of direction by EM, which is surely correct, has important implications for Evangelical Anglicans: if the three-fold ministry cannot be traced to scripture but only to the post apostolic era, what authority do we give it? How authoritative is the witness of the second century church? If it is one of many permissible ways of running churches at a supra-local level, how far are we open to reforming it in the light of scripture? How are we to evaluate the contemporary claims for bishops to be "The Focus for unity for the Diocese"? How far are the Biblical ideas of episkope relevant to a modern diocese?

EM has raised those questions with particular clarity as it claims to present a modern theology of episcopacy for us. It is not possible to review EM here because its remarkable breadth of scholarship requires a major scholarly response. When someone takes that on, some important questions need an Evangelical response at length: is the Trinity the basis for our ecclesiology? How accurate is EM's reading of history? How acceptable is EM ecumenically in the view of those churches which do not have Bishops in the Anglican sense? EM, though, is a good starting point for our thinking because it deals with the issues that every Evangelical Anglican faces when dealing with a bishop: who or what am I dealing with here?


The New Testament is wonderfully free in its expressions of ministry: presbuteros (elder) and episkopos (overseer) are used with apparent interchangeability - probably depending on whether the local church were primarily converted Jews or Greeks - and with strategic flexibility. It is important to welcome EM's recognition of diversity in the New Testament era, and therefore that other (non-episcopal) denominations today can exercise episkope in the New Testament sense.

However by one comment EM raises the issue which lies at the centre of their report: "It is possible for there to be fellowship in apostolic faith with other Christians and a sharing in a variety of ways in life and mission when the sign of a single episcopal ministry is not present, although such communion cannot be expressed in its fullness in the presidency of the Eucharist." (EM 664). This means that EM is following the classic line that episcopacy is not of the esse (essential nature) of the church nor of its bene esse (good government) but of its plene esse (fullness), and that any churches which do not have an Episcopal form of government are lacking, although not in a credal sense.

This in turn means that the issues which bedeviled the Anglican/Methodist schemes in the 1960s are still alive today: surely, we as Evangelicals would want to recognise the complete validity of the ministries of Baptists, Methodists, URC or House Church pastors, and would want to reject any implication that because they are not Episcopally ordained their episkope is somehow lacking.

Oversight where?

This issue is focused for EM in "the presidency of the Eucharist"; the implication of the Report would seem to be that in any interdenominational gathering of Christians, if there is a Lord's Supper which is not led by an Anglican, Anglicans should stand aside. Similarly, if an Anglican Bishop is present he ought to preside. It sounds curiously similar to the way the Catholic church views us, and one would want to know whether an Anglican Bishop is supposed to defer to a Catholic one!

The issue of who leads a communion service may not be seen as very important to us, but in Dioceses around the country it is being seen as the bench mark of the Bishop's ministry that he does this, and Evangelical clergy are finding themselves compelled to attend Maundy Thursday services with the Bishop presiding at a communion service only for the clergy as a way of exercising his oversight. At one such service the Bishop was prayed for as "an apostle", and it was a battle for the Evangelicals to have that phrase removed the following year.

The contemporary view with which we have to deal is easily seen in the contribution of the Archbishop of Canterbury (then Bishop of Bath and Wells) to the Report. "The bishop is a focus and a sign of the unity of the local Church and of its place in the Universal Church. He is a focus of a gathered people around a common table and in continuity to a common gospel and as such he is a sign of the oneness God wills for his people" (EM Appendix III, 19, his italics). Is this a view of episcopacy with which we are happy? Again, from elsewhere in EM, the Bishop's "ministry is focused in the Eucharist where he presides in the midst of his people and ministers Word and Sacrament and, in a different way, in the local Synod where the bishop gathers with his priests and people" (EM 357).

From an Evangelical standpoint that is an unjustifiable statement and it distorts the Lord's Supper out of any recognisably Biblical shape.

We need to underline again, and do so firmly, that the unity of the church is not an organisational, denominational unity; we are united with non-episcopally ordained believers, and we are not united with episcopally ordained heretics, and Diocesan wide festivals which put the primary emphasis on our being united because we are Anglicans blur that essential point. To say, as EM does, that "amongst his people the bishop is the personal focus of their unity" (EM 203) is to make a statement with which an Evangelical would find it hard to agree.

For EM to prove its case that this is who the Bishop is, it would have to:

1.Show that the New Testament has that pattern in seed form.

2.Show that the early church practice interpreted that form correctly.

3.Show that, despite the abuses and maltreatments, the English Reformers received that pattern and passed it on intact.

4.Show that the contemporary understanding of episcopacy is of a piece with that.
EM is a scholarly work, and must have, in time, a rigorous Evangelical appraisal because our reviews and articles have not touched its impact on Dioceses around the country. However, the New Testament evidence for examining assertion 1 is familiar ground to us as Evangelicals and we can more easily appraise that part of the report.

Evangelicals would want to respond in at least three ways:

a.the uniqueness of the apostles,
b.the plurality of New Testament church leadership, and
c.the exercising of that leadership through teaching.

In the NT apostles are unique

EM wants to find the clearest parallel to the modern bishop in the work of an apostle; "The Epistles, as well as the record of the apostolic preaching, in the Acts of the Apostles, illustrate how apostolic episkope served the unity of the local church, and in holding the local churches together in a wider communion of faith and sacramental life" (EM 345). Our response to that must be that where the apostles were unique (in their teaching authority) a modern bishop is unlike them, and where a modern bishop may be like them (holding the local churches together) they were not being uniquely apostolic.

Many early Christian workers like Timothy, Titus, Apollos would plant, visit and strengthen churches, but they do not do so as Apostles nor necessarily as Apostolic delegates. Even Timothy and Titus who most conform to this pattern are on short term placements rather than settled in dioceses.

The attempts to see a pattern of consultation among the apostles as a form of episcopal collegiality, and the Council of Jerusalem as a form of General Synod are amusing but wrong. To say "the Churches came into a common mind on the first issue of practice which threatened to divide the church. They did so by bringing together the appointed representatives of the congregations and putting the decision to the people" (EM 44) is not a fair description of the process before, during or after the Council. If how we run our denomination is a matter of freedom within broad parameters, it is not necessary to force scripture to justify a decision reached on pragmatic grounds.

It may have been important at one stage in the Church of England's history to fight to prove that Matthew Parker (the link between pre- and post-Reformation bishops) was legitimately consecrated, but that can hardly be the case today. There is no evidence that the apostles made any attempt to replace themselves after their death. When the apostles died their authority died with them, and true apostolic succession lies with those who preach the apostles' doctrine. Those who have had hands laid on them but do not preach it do not lie in that succession, those who have not been episcopally ordained but do preach it stand fully in that succession.

In the NT leadership is plural

EM says that "in the Pastoral Epistles . . . presbyters are generally plural, the bishop singular,suggesting the probable conclusion that already among the college of presbyters exercising episkope or pastoral oversight, one is the commonly accepted president" (EM 36), but that is muddled: the only singular uses of episkopos are 1 Tim 3:2 and Tit 1:7, where it would seem to be synonymous with "elder" and understood therefore to be the same plural concept. The use of the word "president" is also misleadingly liturgical. The emergence of a single leader of the local church would not seem to be a New Testament development, and no human being is ever credited with being the head of a local or broader based church.

EM contrasts "some churches" where "leadership was in the hands of a group of elders" with"the mother church at Jerusalem (which) had a single head, in the person of James, the Lord's brother" (EM 35), but this is too easy. Most importantly it leads the reader to conclude that some churches did not share the model of plural oversight, which is an unwarranted assertion. The Jerusalem church did have a plurality of elders (Acts 11:30) of which James was a senior elder, but it far too strong to say that he was the "head". It also overlooks the fact that it is precisely this centralising of authority that Paul was so strong to criticise in Galatians; and it could well be that very claim to be the "mother church" which Paul undermines by saying that "the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother" (Gal 4:26). It seems that EM knows that its New Testament position is insecure and is trying to see a monarchical episcopate far too early.

The plurality of leadership is important, for it places a question mark against one of EM's major themes, that "in and after New Testament times . . . the bishop came to exercise the ministry of unity in relation . . . to his local community" (EM 47). Notice how the argument proceeds: first, New Testament times and post New Testament times are placed on an equal footing - but we would want to say that post-apostolic practices, although no doubt valuable, are to be placed under the corrective rule of scripture. There is a clear line to be drawn between the development which occurs in scripture under the guidance of the apostles and that which occurs later. Only the former is normative.

Notice secondly how the assumption is of single headship - but we would want to say that no one person can claim to be the focus of unity, for the headship of the church both local and universal belongs uniquely to Christ. The church does not need one single person to be a visible focus for its unity. The plurality of leadership in fact prevents any one person claiming that function. There is an important and necessary safeguard in this: what happens if the bishop of a Diocese is notorious for heresy? Is there any validity at all in a claim to be the focus for unity if that claimed focal point is heretical? Would we not be better off just ignoring the man and facing the consequences?

Notice thirdly the phrase "local community"; this is a phrase which EM uses with great elasticity, for the next phrase says "that community might, in time, come to consist of several worshipping congregations in a "diocese"" (EM 47), and in reference to today it talks of "the local church (understood as the Diocese)" (EM 300).

But we would want to say that the local church in the New Testament means the regular gathering of God's people in one place; no other grouping, no matter how valuable, can be a local church, and no ministry which is exercised outside the context of a local church, no matter how valuable, can be understood to be New Testament episkope. "Church" is not a catch-all word to be used of any and every Christian gathering, for it has a quite precise and functional New Testament meaning. This was the understanding of the Thirty Nine Articles, that "The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in the which the pure word of God is preached, and the sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ's ordinance in all those things which are requisite to the same" (Article 19, my italics). According to the Articles, then, a Diocese is what we today would call a para-church organisation. EM may well be right in saying that after the New Testament era it became common for there to be "a chief pastor, whether of the single large city church with a team of presbyters serving it or of a group of churches in a larger geographical area where the presbyters are looking after smaller local worshipping congregations" (EM 73); the point is that it was that "serving" and "looking after" the local churches which is New Testament episkope, and therefore the only episkope which matters.

Plural leadership is exercised through teaching

It is often noticed that the one gift mentioned for being an elder or overseer is "able to teach", and all the other requirements are outworking of Christian maturity. "The main task of the overseer is to safeguard the truth of the gospel" (EM 33), we would accept that, and add, of the elder too.

However EM goes further. First it is emphatic in underlining the singularity of the teaching ministry, "The main task of the overseer is to safeguard the truth of the gospel . . . The bishop is responsible both for teaching and for combatting false teaching" (EM 33), which is an unjustified exegesis of Tit 1:9 and 1 Tim 3:2. But then the stage is reached where "episcopal ministry both symbolised, and secured in an abiding form, the apostolic character of the Church's teaching and mission" (EM 86). By virtue of his office he "symbolised" (note the word) apostolic truth. Again, EM may be right historically, but we must be free to test tradition against scripture - a contemporary bishop is not the guarantee of apostolic truth, for that is a role assigned by Jesus to the Holy Spirit speaking through the scriptures.

The focus on the one man tightens again: "The bishop was successor to the Apostles by virtue of his being head of a particular church, president of a local eucharistic assembly" (EM 87). In other words, leadership is now single and exercised in presiding at the Lord's Supper - but there is no evidence that the Apostles claimed to be "heads" of the church, or that they exercised that headship in leading a communion service, or that they passed that role on to others. That may have been the way Ignatius, Irenaeus and Cyprian understood them, but it was not the way they understood themselves. The Fathers are quoted normatively in this report, to the point of clarifying Paul (EM 60, 61) on an issue where Paul would surely have rebuked them. "In Ignatius of Antioch's thought the bishop became the very image or icon of Christ and, as Christ draws believers into fellowship (koinonia) with God and with each other, so the bishop becomes the focus of unity for the local church" (EM 61). That may be the view of Ignatius but it was not the view of the apostles and must not be the view of Christians today.

There is, of course, a hidden agenda behind all this talk of unity. It is that anyone who disagrees with the Diocesan bishop is undermining unity. If EM's model of episcopacy is followed, we should expect to see less uniting around doctrine and more uniting around liturgical conformity and personal loyalty to the House of Bishops. The irony is that this is a fundamentally Anglo-Catholic conception, but it is driving the Anglo-Catholics to Rome. That very sacramental centrality of a Diocesan bishop, where the suffragans only exercise his episkope by delegation (as do the local clergy), means that an Anglo-Catholic cannot agree to a suffragan ordaining a woman because it is the Diocesan's episkope which has been exercised. The inability of the House of Bishops to grasp the Anglo-Catholic case only shows that EM's theology is a smoke screen - they are not bothered with the undergirding theology of the model they are adopting. We do not share the Anglo-Catholic theology, but the lines into the future are clear: the model has been adopted as a powerful pragmatic tool by people who do not share its theology, but the very people who believe in it theologically are being driven out by it. We shall then be left with an "authorised theology" of Episcopacy (in reality, dreamt up to justify a preferred practice) with which Evangelicals should be deeply unhappy but will be unable to change because those who don't agree to it will not be appointed to it. The only realistic plan is to act to subvert it, now.

The link between then and now

Just as EM draws a deliberately fuzzy line between the apostolic and post-apostolic churches,so it draws a deliberately fuzzy line between the post apostolic churches and us. "Mission, teaching, administering baptism and confirmation, presiding at the eucharist, exercising discipline, were the main - and interdependent tasks of the shepherding ministry of the local community. In all these ways the local community was gathered and held together and welded into a single body through the ministry of unity of the bishop" (EM 68). Those are issues where the New Testament is either clearly different (mission - if they mean evangelism - was the role of every Christian, discipline is the responsibility of the church, teaching is a team responsibility, and the ministry of unity is the ministry of the Holy Spirit) or utterly unconcerned (administering baptism, confirmation - if they had it - and presiding at the Lord's supper). The agenda of EM is clear: to find the contemporary role of the diocesan bishop in the developing ministry pattern in the first two centuries of the church. They may convince some that it is in church history, they will not convince any that it is in the New Testament.

Most alarming of all these developments, in my view, is the bishop as the "head and president of the Eucharistic Community" (paragraph heading to 95). Not only does EM say that this was an early church (and by implication a New Testament) understanding; it tells us that this is our traditional Anglican model. "No change of principle or practice was made in England in the sixteenth century in the pastoral understanding of the bishop's role as in principle still the eucharistic head of the local diocesan community" (EM 195) - is that honestly recognisable as the theology of the English Reformers? Hooker says, "a bishop is a minister of God, unto whom with permanent continuance there is given not only power of administering the word and sacraments, which power other presbyters have; but also a further power to ordain... (and to be a) pastor even to pastors themselves..." (P. Avis, The Church in the Theology of the Reformers, p.119). In other words it is because he is ordained presbyter that he may lead a communion service. There is a nod in EM to the Prayer Book: "The link between the local Eucharist and the bishop has been largely lost in Anglicanism. The 1662 Prayer Book does not mention the Diocesan Bishop by name in the prayer for the Church Militant, and until recently Confirmations - an occasion when parishes did see their bishop - were not held in a eucharistic context" (EM 95, fn3), but there is no explanation of the gulf between the theology of the Prayer Book and what EM claims was standard theology.

EM again "The belief that the bishop is in principle eucharistic president of the local diocesan community has not in itself been the subject of serious controversy in the Church of England. It has been taken as part of the bedrock understanding of the bishop's role from the sixteenth century, as it was before" (EM 196). I question that word "bedrock" - in fact, I think the silence of the BCP is deeply eloquent for us - and say that this understanding of the episcopacy is a novelty for us. It is true that this theology has "not in itself been the subject of serious controversy in the Church of England", but that is because it has not been put forward officially before. If it is now being adopted then it is about time it became a subject of serious controversy, and we should pick up the challenge.

I have no wish to do away with Episcopal government, nor do I wish to cease to be an Anglican. I have no personal animosity against any bishop I have met, all of whom have struck me as eminently hard working men doing an impossible job under intolerable pressure. However, I want to ask whether it is a job we want done in this way. More than that, do we want to lumber one another with a theology of episcopacy which is transparently not a New Testament one, and then find it used as a rod for our own backs when we are accused of not being truly Anglican? Do we want to see episkope illegitimately defined away from its prime locus in the local church?

At the moment we are in a period of rough water where the concept of what a bishop is, how he exercises episkope over a diocese, and whether alternative episkope undermines it are available for discussion. We have an opportunity to ensure that episcopacy is not defined in territorial or sacramental terms. To put it more clearly, with the prospect of many Anglo-Catholics leaving for Rome, we may have the opportunity to remove the Anglo-Catholic accretions and generate an authentically Evangelical theology of Episcopacy. To do that will require thought, prayer and action - and the last, at least, will land us in trouble.

Discussion questions on this paper

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