As the article, “Were Early Churches Ruled by Elders or a Single Bishop?” I posted yesterday points out, most scholars believe that the “heresy conflicts” of the early Christian period were the primary factor behind the emergence of the “single bishop model.” But how effective is this model in safeguarding the orthodoxy of the Christian Church?
The history of the Christian Church suggests that “mono-episcopacy” has limited effectiveness in safeguarding the Church’s orthodoxy. Both in the East and West the Christian Church drifted away from the teaching of the Holy Scriptures during the first eleventh centuries of its existence. The traditions of men would very quickly replace the Word of God even in apostolic times. Instead of defending what the Scriptures taught, bishops became guardians of tradition. The Christian Church continued that drift until the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, which restored the Holy Scriptures and the gospel to the Church.
Among the reasons that English Reformers rejected the Roman Catholic Church’s view of apostolic succession was the bishops of the Roman Catholic Church, while claiming a line of succession that purportedly went back to the apostle Peter, had not preserved the apostolic faith as revealed in the Holy Scriptures. As well as arguing that bishops in that particular line of bishops had through the laying of hands and anointing with oil received the authority and special grace that Christ had given to the apostles, the Roman Catholic Church asserted that whatever its bishop taught was apostolic since they were the successors to the apostles. The Pope was himself the successor to the apostle Peter whom Christ had made vice-regent of the Church.
The Roman Catholic Church took the position that it did not matter that its bishops’ teaching deviated from that of the Scriptures. It appealed to John 16:12-13, “I still have many things to tell you, but you can’t bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all the truth.” It argued that the Holy Spirit had, as Jesus had promised, revealed to its bishops as successors to the apostles what they were teaching.
Interestingly theological liberals in the Episcopal Church would appeal to the same passage of Scripture to justify and rationalize their deviations from the teaching of the Scriptures in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
While the English Reformers retained the office of bishop in the reformed Church of England and viewed one of the functions of that office as the safeguarding of orthodoxy, they also recognized the limits of the office in fulfilling that function. They did not leave to the occupants of that office to determine what constituted orthodoxy. Like the Continental Reformers, Lutheran and Reformed, they drafted a confession of faith for the reformed Church of England. They also produced two series of sermons expounding the doctrine of the reformed English Church as well as a collection of liturgies embodying its doctrine. They would eventually produce a set of canons. These documents provided a guide for those occupying the episcopal office in fulfilling their function of “driving away strange and erroneous doctrines.” Clergy in the reformed Church of England were required to read the two sermon series in their cures and to swear to conform to the doctrine set out in the confession of faith and embodied in the collection of liturgies.
The inroads that Anglo-Catholicism made in the Protestant Episcopal Church in the nineteenth century and liberalism in the twentieth century further reveal the limits of the effectiveness of this model in the safeguarding of the orthodoxy of the Church. While the Episcopal Church adopted its own version of the Articles of Religion in 1804, it did not require clerical subscription to these Articles. Rather it left to the conscience of the individual member of the clergy whether he conformed to its doctrinal principles. The history of the Episcopal Church shows that bishops are not going to “drive away strange and erroneous doctrines” that they themselves espouse. Rather they are going to propagate these doctrines.
What is happening in the Anglican Church in North America, while its proponents may describe it as a “reformation,” is actually a counter-reformation, led by its College of Bishops, and initiated as a response not to liberalism but to the English Reformation. It shows the ineffectiveness of bishops in defending the Church against false teaching when they themselves, as harsh as it may sound, are false teachers. What we are seeing in the Anglican Church in North America is not just the admixture of weeds with the wheat but the weeds overtaking the field and choking the wheat. A field of poppies and cornflowers may be pretty but it is useless to the farmer who has sown wheat.
The thinking behind the form of governance of the Anglican Church in North America and its actual operation show the influence of Anglo-Catholic ideology and Roman Catholic governing principles. The business meetings of the Provincial Assembly are convened only to give final approval to decisions made by much smaller less representative bodies so that wider support may be claimed for these decisions. The Provincial Assembly has no input into the decisions presented to it nor may it modify them or substitute a decision of its own.
The method of selecting bishops that the denomination’s canons commend to its founding entities and technically impose upon new judicatories is based upon the method used in the Roman Catholic Church with the substitution of the College of Bishops for the Roman Pontiff. The method that the College of Bishops has adopted for the selection of a new Archbishop is modeled upon the method by which a new Roman Pontiff is selected.
The College of Bishops has endorsed an ordination, eucharistic, baptismal, and confirmation rites that embody unreformed Catholic teaching and practices. The College of Bishops has also endorsed a catechism that is modeled upon the Roman Catechism of 1566 (also known as the Catechism of the Council of Trent) and the Catechism of the Catholic Church of 1992. While it may not necessarily resemble these documents in form, it does to a large extent in doctrine and in intended authority and purpose.
Most recently members of the College of Bishops including the former and present Archbishop and current Provincial Dean have flocked to an event intended to strengthen the influence of Anglo-Catholicism in the Anglican Church.
The present situation in the Anglican Church in North America, like the history of the Episcopal Church, shows the drawbacks of the episcopate as a safeguard against false teaching. It points to the need for additional safeguards against such teaching.
The episcopate, while it may serve useful functions, has become an overrated institution. It is a mistake to attach too much importance to the office of bishop. As the benchmark Anglican theologian Richard Hooker observed, the episcopal office is not indispensible.
An important safeguard against false teaching is to maintain a realistic view of the episcopal office and not surround it with an aura of sacredness or attach to it superstitious associations. Bishops are not successors to the apostles by virtue of their consecration or their pedigree. While they may perform some of the functions that the apostles performed in the New Testament Church, they are only successors to the apostles in so far as they teach what the apostles themselves taught, as attested in the Holy Scriptures, a characteristic that they share with all whose teaching conforms to that of the apostles.
Bishops are not endued with supernatural powers. They cannot confer upon ordinands by imposition of hands and anointing with oil the power to confect ordinary bread and wine into Christ’s Body and Blood and to offer Christ’s sacrifice for the sins of the world on the altar or to give regenerative properties to the water in the font. They cannot impart to confirmands in the same manner an infusion of grace without which the confirmand cannot receive the Holy Spirit, manifest the gifts of the Holy Spirit, or increase in the Holy Spirit. They are mere mortals like the rest of us, which the Church by their particular skill set and gift mix, nomination, appointment or election, and performance in office recognizes as having a particular calling in the Church.
Those who occupy the episcopal office are fallible like other human beings. They are capable of erring and do err. They do not possess any special grace that keeps them from erring.
They, like their fellow human beings, have a heart—an inner self—that is deceitful and desperately wicked (Jeremiah 17:9). They are “naturally inclined toward evil.” (Article 9). This infection of their nature remains in them even after they are reborn in Christ.
Other important safeguards against false teaching related to the office of bishop include setting limits on the term of office of bishops and requiring their submission to periodic reviews of their work including their doctrine by a competent authority and tying their continuance in office to the outcome of such reviews. All clergy including bishops might be required to subscribe at the time of their installation to a declaration in which they agree to resign from office and from the jurisdiction in the event they no longer hold to the doctrines contained in the Articles of Religion within specific period of time after their resignation is demanded by a competent authority. Such safeguards keep a bishop from infecting with false teaching the clergy and congregations under his episcopal oversight by limiting his tenure in office and simplifying the process of his removal from office.
Nomination committees should make a thorough investigation of the doctrinal views of each candidate before including their names on a short list of candidates for appointment or election to the office of bishop. They should submit with each name on such a list certification of the candidate’s orthodoxy. Such committees should be composed of clergy and lay persons of impeccable orthodoxy themselves.
One critical safeguard against false teaching in an Anglican jurisdiction that is faithful to the Holy Scriptures and true to the biblical, protestant faith of the reformed Church of England is the recognition of the Anglican formularies as the authorized doctrinal and worship standards of that jurisdiction. This should be a key provision in its constitution.
In such a jurisdiction candidates for ordination and applicants for licensure should be thoroughly vetted for their knowledge and acceptance of the doctrinal principles of the Anglican formularies as well as their knowledge and acceptance of the teaching of the Holy Scriptures. All forms of worship should conform to the principles of doctrine and worship laid out in the Anglican formularies. Doctrinal commissions composed of clergy and lay persons of proven orthodoxy should be appointed to review all forms of worship and to advise provincial and diocesan synods on matters of doctrine. Final decisions related to doctrinal matters should involve other clergy and lay persons as well as bishops. They should not exclusively be the province of the episcopate. For a good part of the history of the reformed Church of England, Parliament—a predominantly lay assembly—played a crucial role in such decisions affecting the English Church, establishing and preserving the biblical, protestant, reformed, and evangelical character of the English Church. These are also important safeguards against false teaching.