a consideration to lead to better considerations
When Anglicans think of the Episcopate and defend it to Congregationalists and Presbyterians, they usually claim that its importance and strength derive from the combination of the following considerations:
1. The Episcopate symbolizes and secures in an abiding form the apostolic mission and authority within the Church of Christ; historically the Episcopate became in the Early Church the organ of this mission and authority.
2. In early times the continuous successions of Bishops in tenure of the various Sees were valued because they secured the purity of apostolic teaching as against, for example, the danger of the introduction of novel and erroneous teaching by means of written or secret traditions, falsely ascribed to apostolic authors. It has remained a function of the Episcopate, even after the era of the promulgation of dogma by Ecumenical Councils, to guard the Church against erroneous teaching.
3. The Bishop in his official capacity and vocation represents the whole Church in and to his diocese, and his diocese in and to the Councils of the Church. He is therefore a living Representative of the unity and universality of the Church.
4. The Bishop in his diocese represents the Good Shepherd; the idea of pastoral care is inherent in his office. Both clergy and laity look to him as Chief Pastor, and he represents in a special degree the paternal quality of pastoral care (“father in God”).
5. In as much as the unity of the Church is in part secured by an orderly method of making new Ministers, and the Bishop is the proper organ of unity and universality, he is the appropriate agent for carrying on through ordination the authority of the apostolic mission of the Church.
It is the coalescence of all of these elements in a single person (man) that gives to the Episcopate its peculiar importance in traditional Anglican doctrine.
Regrettably, most regrettably, what we see now in the Anglican Way in the North or West is a very dysfunctional Episcopate. It certainly does not symbolize the unity and universality of the Church of God either in the provinces within the Anglican Communion of Churches or within the jurisdictions known as the Continuing Anglican Churches, or Anglican Churches of the Diaspora, or Extra-Mural Anglicans.
Within ECUSA the Episcopate as a whole College of Bishops is the cause of error, heresy and division because it has chosen over the last few decades to pursue and put in place innovations in doctrine, worship, order and discipline. (Being a college or house we have to consider the actions of the majority as the actions of all even though a tiny minority protest and object to some of the innovations.) Tragically, not a few of the Bishops believe that they have a prophetic role to use the office to propagate teaching which is contrary to the plain sense of Holy Scripture and to the doctrines within sacred Tradition, and so they are creating a cult or denomination which finds revelation in Experience and worships the God of evolution and process.
Within other Anglican jurisdictions in the USA and Canada, groups that claim to preserve orthodox and biblical truth, we have over one hundred persons claiming to be bishops, most of whom have very tiny flocks and are not in communion, or working practically with, very many others in any significant way. Each bishop here has, no doubt, a very high doctrinal view of his office and vocation and makes sacrifices to pursue it; but the sad reality is that what is meant to be the sign and symbol of unity is in day to day reality the very opposite – the Episcopate in the Continuum is the pre-eminent sign of dis-unity and dis-order! In fact, the total number of Continuers is such that if they were all together in communion and mission, they would not need more than at the most ten bishops, perhaps even less.
Therefore the situation in which we find ourselves is that whether as Anglicans we be revisionist or orthodox, progressively liberal or conservatively traditional, we have the most regrettable and embarrassing reality of the Episcopate as the sign of the very opposite which God in his providence intended it to be – see the Preface to the Ordinal in the BCP (1662). And if the Episcopate is in such a dysfunctional state how can we expect the flock of Christ to be also anything other than dysfunctional – even though by grace, and by grace alone, there are saints among us who are the leaven in the lump!
The Rev’d Dr Peter Toon www.anglicansatprayer.org