Saturday, 8 September 2007

Some Challenges Regarding Episcopacy in the Church of England

1. The Church of England has always been an episcopal Church, but it has never been ‘episcopalian’ in an absolute sense. Although it has always had bishops, ultimate authority has never resided in them, either before or after the Reformation. Prior to the Reformation the Church of England accepted the higher authority of the Pope and the Roman magisterium. Subsequent to the Reformation, supreme lawful authority was seen as deriving from the monarch as the head of state under God, and final doctrinal authority was seen as residing in Scripture as the word of God.

2. Although the Church of England retained the historical threefold pattern of bishops, presbyters* and deacons, the understanding of the structural authority this embodied was deeply affected by the Reformation settlement. Prior to the Reformation, bishops were seen as being of the esse of the Church. After the Reformation, the attitude within Anglicanism was that they were of the ‘bene esse’, but both Cranmer and Hooker agreed that they could be dispensed with in a crisis either of the lack of episcopally ordained ministers or of the abuse of episcopal authority.

3. In recent years, however, there has been a drift into an inchoate ‘episcopalianism’ within the Anglican Communion generally which is now finding expression within the English context. This drift has occurred particularly in North America, where there is understandably less sympathy for the historical Anglican relationship with the English monarchy. Nevertheless, within these shores there have also been developments which sit uncomfortably with the understanding and intentions of the English Reformers.

4. This drift has brought the Anglican Communion to a crisis of authority and leadership which urgently needs to be addressed, and this cannot be done without a radical critique of the nature and exercise of episcope, or ‘overall oversight’, within the Church of England. Without such a critique, the Church of England may collapse under the weight of an inadequate ecclesiology, which, on the one hand, has no inherent means of defining or upholding a core of doctrine and, on the other, vests all real power and confidence in a few individuals without any proper understanding of their relationship to the rest of the Church.

5. As part of this review of episcope, there is a particular need for bishops to re-engage with the Church as a whole and with the wider body of presbyters. In the process, however, bishops also need to re-engage with their own presbyteral nature and function as pastors and teachers of the flock of Christ.

6. At present there is a widening gulf between the bishops and the church, exacerbated by theological statements and practices which elevate the bishop to the status of the one in whom the Church coheres. Uncritical acceptance of the authority of individual bishops regardless of the doctrines they hold or the actions they take is being held up as definitive of faithfulness to the Anglican Communion. Such an understanding, however, is inconsistent with historical Anglicanism. Thus Richard Hooker wrote:

‘Wherefore lest bishops forget themselves, as if none on earth had authority to touch their states, let them continually bear in mind, that it is rather the force of custom, whereby the Church having so long found it good to continue under the regiment of her virtuous bishops, doth still uphold, maintain, and honour them in that respect, than that any such true and heavenly law can be shewed, by the evidence whereof it may of a truth appear that the Lord himself hath appointed presbyters for ever to be under the regiment of bishops, in what sort soever they behave themselves. Let this consideration be a bridle unto them, let it teach them not to disdain the advice of their presbyters, but to use their authority with so much the greater humility and moderation, as a sword which the Church hath power to take from them.’ (Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, VII.v.8)

7. More recently, but alluding to an era long before the present, Cardinal Newman wrote of the time during the Arian controversy when:

The body of Bishops failed in their confession of the faith. They spoke variously, one against another; there was nothing ... of firm, unvarying, consistent testimony, for nearly sixty years. There were untrustworthy Councils, unfaithful Bishops; there was weakness, fear of consequences, misguidance, delusion, hallucination, endless, hopeless, extending itself into nearly every corner of the Catholic Church. The comparatively few who remained faithful were discredited and driven into exile; the rest were either deceivers or were deceived. (On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine, 77)

8. In short, the notion that the personal episcopate automatically guarantees the faithfulness of the Church and the continuity of its authentic existence, and therefore demands the unquestioning allegiance of other presbyters and the laity, is neither demonstrable historically, nor foundational to Anglicanism, nor a tenet of the Catholic Church.

9. On the contrary, the founders of Anglicanism sat light to the notion of episcopal authority. Thus Archbishop Thomas Cranmer held that before the advent of ‘christian princes’, churches heeded the advice of the Apostles, ‘not for the supremity, impery [sic], or dominion that the apostles had over them to command, as their princes or masters; but as good people, ready to obey the advice of good counsellors’ (Questions and Answers Concerning the Sacraments, etc.).

10. Again, in the Homilies the right of ministers to rule the Church as by force of law is denied:

‘Our Saviour Christ ... [forbade] his Apostles, and by them the whole clergy, all princely dominion over people and nations: and he and his holy Apostles likewise, namely, Peter and Paul, did forbid unto all ecclesiastical Ministers dominion over the church of Christ.’ (Sermon Against Wilful Rebellion)

11. Whilst we are aware that subsequent historical and theological developments may seem to have enshrined and entrenched other views of the episcopate, we would argue nevertheless that the views of Cranmer, the Homilies and Hooker can scarcely be dismissed as ‘un-Anglican’. On the contrary, they show that there is an historical and ecclesiological precedent for a radical challenge from within Anglicanism itself to traditional understandings of Anglican structures — particularly those understandings which post-date the Reformation.

12. In Scripture, episcope is presented as a God-given means of holding together the life of the Church. However, no single pattern of episcope can be discerned or therefore insisted upon as requisite for the constitution of the Church according to Anglican self-understanding. The enshrining of the so-called ‘historical episcopate’ within Anglicanism dates only from the end of the nineteenth century, and rests upon a resolution of the 1888 Lambeth Conference to adopt the so-called ‘Chicago Quadrilateral’. As we are constantly reminded by bishops themselves, however, such resolutions have no doctrinal or legal force within the Anglican Communion.

13. Episcopacy in Scripture, by contrast, is essentially a function, not an office. Admittedly other understandings of episcopacy emerged later, depending more on an ontological understanding of episcope as residing in the person of the bishop. Those holding such a view generally regard bishops consecrated in the ‘historical succession’ as essential to the ‘being’ of the Church and to the legitimacy of its Sacraments. However, as has already been indicated above, such a view was not held by the key English Reformers nor is it expressed in the Thirty-Nine Articles or the Anglican Formularies.

14. Inevitably there is a tension between the functional and the ontological views, but this particular circle cannot be squared by simply upholding both.

15. In any case, regardless of the theory of epsicope to which one holds, episcope as a function is increasingly being exercised in today’s Church of England in a dispersed manner, not only by a multiplicity of ‘suffragan’ bishops along with archdeacons and deans, but even by parish clergy who have the oversight of a multiplicity of churches. Even the 1990 report Episcopal Ministry acknowledges the difficulty of reconciling its own theoretical understanding of episcope, as embodied in one particular individual per geographical diocese, with the actual practice of the Church of England. Given this dilution of the individual nature of episcope, bishops must therefore relate to the other clergy as being fellow elders and overseers.

16. This sharing of episcope is admittedly complicated by the establishment of the Church of England. This means that bishops currently function as the delegated ministers of the Crown, administering, via legal powers conferred on them by the State, a church whose doctrine is established by law. Creeping de facto disestablishment must not, however, lead to the concentration of all ecclesial power in the hands of the bishop and the bishop’s personal staff. Nor should bishops be encouraged, as increasingly seems to be the case, to regard the collegiality they have with one another as something distinct from the relationship they should share with their fellow presbyters and the rest of the Church.

17. Nevertheless, as senior overseers, bishops exercise a critical function with regard to the establishment of the doctrine and practices of the Church of England. It is consequently essential that they exercise a public teaching office. However, a bishop is called not merely to arbitrate between the multiplicity of viewpoints within the visible Church but to promote truth and refute error. This therefore requires a public declaration of what is held to be truthful or false.

18. The Church exists by and through teaching. To be evangelized is to ‘learn Christ’ (Eph 4:20). To pastor the Church is to follow the example of Christ who, when he saw that the people of Israel were like sheep without a shepherd, ‘began to teach them many things’ (Mk 6:34). The followers of Jesus were known as disciples (mathetes), meaning ‘pupils of a teacher’. Teaching is thus a pastoral tool, and Christ himself has given to the Church alongside apostles, prophets and evangelists, those who are ‘pastor-teachers’ (Eph 4:11). Even one of the earliest non-canonical books of the Church is known to us by its abbreviated title of The Didache — The Teaching.

19. The supervisors of pastoral ministry cannot, therefore, distance themselves from the teaching ministry of the Church. On the contrary, they have a responsibility not only to teach but to monitor what is taught. Following the Apostolic example, they do this as fellow elders with the shepherds who serve under the great Shepherd of the sheep (1 Pet 5:1-4). The traditional shape of the crozier emphasises the ‘shepherding’ role of the bishop. But this is not a ministry distinct from the presbyteral ministry and therefore it cannot be exercised by any other means than participation in the presbyteral ministry of pastoring in and through the teaching process.

20. The Christian teacher, however, is not merely a presenter of opinions, and the responsibility to teach Christ is not discharged simply by setting out the full range of opinions available about him. The pastor of the Church is also called to be a polemicist who not merely presents the truth but promotes and defends it.

21. Such engagement with the teaching office will inevitably involve the bishop in the conflicts within his own Church. Understandably, bishops wish to maintain good relationships with those holding divergent views in the Church. However, it is no solution for the bishop merely to talk to everyone ‘in their own language’, particularly if it is known that he actually holds differing views of his own. The bishop, in common with the rest of the presbyterate, must risk teaching what he believes to be right, even if it may alienate some, and the Church as a whole must learn to accept this. However, the bishop must accept that his own teaching must be subject to examination and, if necessary, correction. The teaching office of the bishop must not be misunderstood as a guarantee of orthodoxy.

22. Meanwhile, it is arguable that the current reluctance of bishops to pronounce on controversies of doctrine or ethics, far from reducing conflict within the Church, encourages factionalism by increasing the frustration felt by those who hold strong views on any given issue. Constant calls for listening and reflection convey the impression that personal indecisiveness correlates positively with administrative responsibility within the Church — the further one goes in the hierarchy, the less one is prepared to express a commitment. This again increases the frustrations felt by members of the Church and gives the general public the impression that the Church itself does not know what it thinks.

23. Thus, whilst bishops must exercise wisdom appropriate to their responsibility, they cannot stand aloof from the day-to-day business of the presbyterate as a whole in carrying out the missionary task of the Church. Bishops must be prepared to share with other presbyters the hazards and difficulties of promulgating the faith, including participating in those contentions which inevitably arise within the Church itself. When Paul opposed Peter to his face he was certainly violating collegiality but he was also acting Apostolically.

24. Bishops must also accept more fully the responsibility which accompanies their role regarding the recruitment and authorisation of ministers. Recent years have revealed too many instances of clergy who seem to have been inadequately examined before ordination, or who continue in post without further calling to account despite expressed heterodox views.** It is in the remit of bishops to determine for future generations the boundaries of Anglican breadth. It is not a proper expression of episcope, however, to ensure that the teaching office of the Church represents all possible shades of doctrinal opinion regardless of conformity to Scripture or tradition.

25. Again, bishops must also have the courage to ask ‘awkward questions’ regarding the moral behaviour of the clergy. This is vital not only to the spiritual health of the Church generally and to specific congregations, but also to the individuals concerned, whose social and spiritual isolation can otherwise leave them vulnerable or lead them into particular temptations. An ethos of moral accountability (as distinct from an atmosphere of moralistic inquisitiveness) is to be encouraged amongst all the shepherds of Christ’s sheep.

26. Bishops must also allow proper rein to the energies and development of local congregations. Scripture sets forth a Universal church to which all Christians belong. But although this ‘coetus fidelium’ is indeed wider than is sometimes understood by the English translation of that phrase in Article XIX as ‘a congregation of faithful men’, nevertheless, as that Article declares, it is made visible where the Word of God is preached and the Sacraments are duly ministered. The bishops must therefore give proper recognition to these local congregations as the concrete expression of the body of Christ and the locus of mission.

27. The structures of a diocese must therefore be centrifugal, moving away from the centre, rather than centripetal, directed towards it. The bishop must not deny a local congregation the possibility of expanding its ministry, either by restricting its staff or by constraining its financial situation. Certainly congregations must be encouraged to recognize only faithful workers, devoted to the needs of the saints. In this, the episcope of the Church clearly functions to warn and guide. Congregations may also be reminded of their wider responsibility towards the needs of the saints. But in the anxiety to avoid ‘Congregationalism’, bishops must avoid imposing a fiscal federalism.

28. The primary task of epsicope is actively to oversee the life of the Church expressed in its local congregations. Therefore the Church can literally no longer afford structures which seem merely to centralize control and administration of the local finances of congregations without engaging closely with its actual congregational life. It is, moreover, part of the exercise of episcope for the Church to inquire into situations where local congregations may be experiencing avoidable difficulties in meeting their own financial needs or advancing the Church’s mission.

29. We conclude with the following opinions, drawn from two very different sources, reflecting the primary responsibility of bishops to lead through the exercise of their teaching ministry. First, Canon Jeffrey John, writing specifically on the subject of human sexuality, has said:

‘[T]he bishops themselves must realize that no effective process of education will begin in the Church until they see to it that ‘what is whispered in private rooms is shouted from the housetops’. This means taking their episcopal teaching office seriously [...]. The gospel does not allow a divergence between public and private moralities, and political expediency is not a Christian virtue — rather the opposite.’ (Emphasis added)

Secondly, Archbishop Peter Jensen, commenting on his own rôle, says:

‘The job of the Archbishop is to teach God’s people and to be responsible for the appointment and nurturing of other ministers of the Gospel.’

We call on our bishops, for the sake of the Church, to heed these challenges.

* ‘Presbyter’ is used throughout not to avoid the word ‘priest’ but to emphasise the distinctive function and character of this order of ministry. Hooker similarly uses ‘presbyter’ as distinct from ‘bishop’.

** We refer specifically to the results of the Mind of Anglicans survey conducted by Christian Research on behalf of ‘Cost of Conscience’, which revealed startling low levels of acceptance of orthodox credal statements amongst certain sectors of the clergy.

This was a document I put together to present from a body such as Chelmsford Anglican Mainstream on the issues arising from the current exercise of episcopacy in the Church of England (hence the occasional ‘we’). I should point out it is entirely a personal reflection, posted here for the benefit of others to read and reflect on. It shouldn't be seen as a ‘policy’ and it is not endorsed, backed, supported or encouraged by anyone else.

No comments will be posted without a full name and location, see the policy.

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