Restructuring the Church: What about the bishops?

In the ongoing debate over restructuring the Episcopal Church, there has been considerable concern about whether reforming our structure and governance may lead to the bishops’ increasing their power. Some wonder if talk about restructuring is nothing more than a power grab. Outside observers opine that among the Episcopal Church’s problems is the episcopacy itself. Over in England, they are still fighting over whether women can be ordained bishop. And over every conversation about bishops in the Episcopal Church looms the model of the Roman Catholic episcopacy and hierarchy.

I’ve been thinking about bishops in the Episcopal Church for the last weeks, in part because I’ve spent considerable time with my own bishop. I’ve also been thinking about bishops because ultimately, any conversation about restructuring the church has to include careful thought about the role, purpose, and ultimately, theology of episcopacy. So here are some thoughts.

I’m a trained historian of Early Modern Christianity (formerly known as Reformation and Counter-Reformation History). The Reform Council of Trent focused its reform efforts on the office of bishop, reorienting the bishop’s role toward the praecipium munus, the teaching and preaching office. By requiring regular parish visitations, the establishment of diocesan seminaries and printing presses, among many other things, Trent fashioned a job description for a reform-minded bishop. In the persons of men like Carlo Borromeo of Milan, newly ordained bishops could look both to the decrees of the Council of Trent, and to reforming bishops as they developed their own reform programs. Taken together, this effort was remarkably successful in the course of the seventeenth century and constituted a sharp break with the medieval past.

When I began reading English Church History of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, I was shocked by the degree to which English bishops remained more medieval than their Roman Catholic counterparts on the continent. They continued to sit in the House of Lords; there were few, if any, expectations on their work in their dioceses. Visitations were relatively rare; clerical education remained largely in the universities, and often bishops had little control over clergy appointment to parishes. In other words, there was no clear understanding of what bishops were to be.

In fact, to a certain degree, the very fact that the episcopacy came to be a distinguishing mark of the Church of England (and subsequently of the American Episcopal Church) is something of an historical accident. As late as the 1590s, the great Elizabethan apologist for the Church of England, Richard Hooker, could argue that the episcopacy was not a necessary mark of the true church. It was only because of the opposition from more radical reformers, and finally the Civil War, with the cry of “No King, no Bishop!” that the episcopacy came to be seen as necessary.

I’ve never had a course in Episcopal polity, so I don’t know if there’s a coherent theology of Episcopacy in the Episcopal Church. It’s not clear to me that we’ve ever had a coherent theology of the episcopacy. So far as I know, we have bishops because early Americans decided we needed to have them in order to ordain priests (note that the Wesleys decided otherwise). I know the ordination rite makes certain assertions:

My brother, the people have chosen you and have affirmed their trust in you by acclaiming your election. A bishop in God’s holy Church is called to be one with the apostles in proclaiming Christ’s resurrection and interpreting the Gospel, and to testify to Christ’s sovereignty as Lord of lords and King of kings.

You are called to guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the Church; to celebrate and to provide for the administration of the sacraments of the New Covenant; to ordain priests and deacons and to join in ordaining bishops; and to be in all things a faithful pastor and wholesome example for the entire flock of Christ.

With your fellow bishops you will share in the leadership of the Church throughout the world. Your heritage is the faith of patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and martyrs, and those of every generation who have looked to God in hope. Your joy will be to follow him who came, not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.

I don’t know how bishops think about their role. I suspect that in addition to the programs for newly consecrated bishops, much of their formation as bishops takes place in the context of meetings of the House of Bishops. I suspect too, that they are shaped by their own experiences with bishops, and the particular cultures of the dioceses they serve. No doubt those who participate in Lambeth Conferences are shaped by their encounter with Anglican bishops from other provinces and nations.

But whatever their formation in their spiritual roles as bishops, they are also shaped by institutional cultures and by the American understanding of how complex institutions run, which is largely based on the corporate model. Just as I am occasionally chastised for not functioning enough like a CEO (or chastised for functioning too much like one), the same is true of bishops.

Have we left the definition of a bishop’s role too much to their own devising? Who, what, do we want our bishops to be? Too often, I suspect, many laypeople and clergy, would prefer that we not have bishops at all. We see them as power-hungry, eager to impose their will on us, on our congregations, and on our ministry, and sucking up our resources for their own use.

We are engaging in a lively and crucial debate over the structure of the church. That debate must include conversation about what the ministry of a bishop should look like in the twenty-first century. In this diocese, we make a great fuss over the work of Jackson Kemper, our great missionary bishop. I wonder what it would be like if, instead of looking to models in other Anglican churches, Roman Catholicism, or parallel denominations, we would again conceive of the episcopacy as a missionary enterprise, and bishops first and foremost as missionaries. After all, the ordination rite begins with the claim that they are the heirs of the apostles, who were sent out into all the world to preach the gospel and make disciples. To focus on that role, rather than on their succession or authority, might also go a long way toward easing people’s concerns about power grabs.

 

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