By Robin G. Jordan
Episcopacy, like the via media theory, is in some circles regarded as a sine qua none of Anglicanism. But like the via media theory the notion that bishops are essential to Anglican identity, indeed to the very existence of the church, is a nineteenth century development. Like the via media theory it is also traceable to the Oxford Movement. In this third article of the “Discovering Classical Anglicanism” series, I examine the classical Anglican take on episcopacy.
Classical Anglicanism finds no warrant for any particular form of church polity in the Scriptures—no warrant for episcopacy and no warrant for presbyterianism. Classical Anglicanism recognizes and adheres to episcopacy not by divine right but as very ancient and commendable form of church polity. It does not, however, view episcopacy as the only valid form of church polity. It also does not regard the orders and sacraments of non-episcopally ordained ministers to be invalid. This comes as a complete surprise to North American Anglicans that their response is one of utter disbelief. They have accepted the Anglo-Catholic theories of Anglican identity and of the place of bishops in the church so completely that it has never entered their minds that in these theories the Tractarians and their Anglo-Catholic successors parted from classical Anglicanism.
Classical Anglicanism recognizes the offices of deacon, presbyter, and bishop as dating from apostolic times. They are mentioned in the New Testament. In the New Testament presbyter and bishop are also of the same order. They do not belong to separate orders. The Preface of Ordinal of 1550 recognized this fact in the use of the phrase “…there have been these Orders of Ministers in Christ’s Church; Bishops, Priests, and deacons.” The Preface of 1661 Ordinal retained this phrase. Both the 1550 Ordinal and the 1661 Ordinal emphasize the role of bishop and priest as pastor and teacher. Both are charged with banishing and driving away all erroneous and strange doctrine contrary to God’s Word. This includes the unscriptural doctrine that they belong to separate orders! The Church of England kept bishops not because they were essential to church life. But rather to let the old remain “where the old may be well used” and not to “reprove the old only for their age.” Or, as Bishop of Salisbury John Jewel, put it, because bishops “are ancient and allowable.”
The Church of England’s retention of bishops is not an example of English Catholicism but of English conservatism. Those who hint that the English must have thought that bishops were important because they kept them are fooling themselves. The English were eminently practical. The English monarch historically had depended on the clergy in a large part for trained officials. By the sixteenth century bishops were not just ministers of the church, they were officers of the English Crown. Rather than dismantling the existing ecclesiastical system and “devise everything anew,” the English chose to make use of that system with its bishops, archdeaconries, cathedral chapters, convocations, consistory courts, deaneries, dioceses, and traditional methods of appointment to benefices. Like Cranmer, they were suspicious of “innovations and new-fangleness.” The retention of bishops was also consistent with the view of the English Reformers that the Scriptures did not mandate a particular form or order of ecclesiastical polity. The existing ecclesiastical system, purged of any elements that clearly were unscriptural, was not itself “repugnant to the Word of God.”
The Lambeth Quadrilateral, also known as Resolution 11, adopted by the third Lambeth Conference in 1888 has contributed to the confusion over Anglican identity and episcopacy. Resolution 11 took a resolution that the Anglo-Catholic dominated House of Bishops of the then Protestant Episcopal Church adopted in 1886 and greatly reduced it in scale, thereby aligning its wording more closely with the essay on the four points contained in the resolution that Episcopal priest William Red Huntington had written in 1870. Resolution II reads as follows:
That, in the opinion of this Conference, the following Articles supply a basis on which approach may be by God's blessing made towards Home Reunion:
(a) The Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, as "containing all things necessary to salvation," and as being the rule and ultimate standard of faith.
(b) The Apostles' Creed, as the Baptismal Symbol; and the Nicene Creed, as the sufficient statement of the Christian faith.
(c) The two Sacraments ordained by Christ Himself — Baptism and the Supper of the Lord — ministered with unfailing use of Christ's Words of Institution, and of the elements ordained by Him.
(d) 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.
The Lambeth Conference is not a legislative body, and its resolutions are not binding upon the member churches of the Anglican Communion. They may commend a particular doctrine or course of action. They may draw attention to the inconsistency between a particular practice and the teaching of Scripture. In this case the resolution expressed the opinion of a particular Lambeth Conference. It was originally proposed a basis for discussion toward reunion. Unfortunately it has often been used as a non-negotiable basis for reunion in particular in regards to the fourth point. The latter was the most controversial point of the resolution. Anglo-Catholics complained that it opened the door to challenging the Catholic tradition of apostolic succession and Catholic order itself. It has proven a stumbling block between the churches of the Anglican Communion and Protestant churches that do not have bishops.
While it is claimed that Resolution 11 supports the idea that episcopacy is essential to an Anglican identity, the resolution does not address the issue of Anglican identity. It simply proposes a basis for reunion discussions. There is a tendency to interpret Resolution 11 in the light of the resolution that Protestant Episcopal Church’s House of Bishops adopted. It has different wording and emphases. There is also a tendency to read into Resolution 11 more than it actually says or give it a meaning other than the meaning that can be read out of the text. Writers who have a particular theory of Anglican identity and episcopacy will interpret it to support that theory.
Classical Anglicanism acknowledges that episcopacy, when it is rightly administered, is a commendable form of Church government.Classical Anglicanism, however, does not agree with the statement “No Bishop, no Church.” Neither does it agree that the clergy of churches that have no bishops are not validly ordained and the sacraments of such churches are invalid, and that their members are not really Christians. Classical Anglicanism does not tie Anglican identity to the support of an institution but to adherence to a confession of faith.
Anglicans are episcopalian by choice. Being Anglican and being episcopalian are, despite a long tradition of episcopacy in the Church of England and her daughter churches, not synonymous. Being episcopalian does not make Anglicans what they are. To be “reliably Anglican,” to borrow a phrase from Anglican Church in North America Archbishop Robert Duncan, the beliefs and practices of a congregation must be grounded in the Bible and the Reformation. They must stand in continuity with the faith of the Reformed Church of England and its formularies, in particular the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion.