Thursday, March 03, 2016

The Mission-Shaped Diocese

By Robin G. Jordan

"Diocese" is the name most often used for a judicatory in the Anglican Church. The word is derived from a late Latin word for an administrative district of the Roman Empire over which a governor had jurisdiction. The governor was appointed by the Roman Emperor and served at his pleasure.

With the emergence of the office of bishop in post-apostolic times and the expansion of the role of the bishop to the provision of pastoral care for more than one church, it would be borrowed to describe the churches and their localities to which a bishop provided pastoral care.

In medieval times it would be used to describe the fief, or feudal estate, over which the medieval prelate, by then a feudal lord, held sway. It was during the same period in the history of the Christian Church that the preoccupation with geographic boundaries that is found in some quarters of the Anglican Church in the present day reached full flower.

Despite appeals to the Patristic writers, it is the medieval prelate that has shaped the thinking of Anglo-Catholics and others in the Anglican Church as it relates to the role of the bishop and in turn the role of the diocese. While claiming to be successors to the apostles, bishops influenced by this thinking have adopted a role for themselves, which bears little resemblance to the ministry of the apostles in the New Testament Church.  

The apostles’ ministry in New Testament Church was marked by three main characteristics.

1. They were appointed by Christ as his personal representatives to bear witness to him. This part of their ministry is unique to them.

2. They upheld and maintained the orthodox Christian faith against false teaching.

3. They preached the gospel, discipled converts, planted churches, and recruited, equipped, and sent other servants of the gospel to do likewise.

Only those whose own ministry is marked by the last two characteristics may be regarded as genuine successors to the apostles. This includes both clergy and laity. Apostolic ministry is not reserved to one segment of the Church. It belongs to the whole Church.

In the New Testament we find only reference to two types of ecclesiastical organizations—the local church and loose regional associations of such churches. The New Testament does not prescribe a particular organization or form of government for the Church. At the same time it does not prohibit the organization of a national or particular Church into dioceses and the election or appointment of bishops to serve as the lead pastors of these judicatories.

What may be concluded from a study of the history of the Christian Church is that the character of the diocese and the ministry of the bishop have changed over two thousand years. We are not bound to adopt a particular pattern for a diocese or a bishop. What have not changed are the last two characteristics of apostolic ministry. They are delineated in the New Testament as is the first characteristic.

A mission-shaped diocese is a network of clergy and congregations, which has as its focus ministering to its time as the apostles ministered to theirs. It has no geographic boundaries. The apostles observed no such boundaries but went wherever the Holy Spirit led them. The preservation and propagation of the historic Christian faith as revealed in the Holy Scriptures and taught in the Anglican Formularies and the fulfillment of the Great Commission are the main reasons for its existence. What other functions that it may perform are incidental to these two purposes.

The affinity that the clergy and congregations of a mission-shaped diocese share with each other and with the clergy and congregations of other mission-shaped dioceses is a common commitment to the same purposes. Their commitment is not rhetorical. It is actual. It is evidenced in the fulfillment of these two purposes.

Also see
The Role of the Bishop in the Mission-Shaped Diocese

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