The Episcopal Church has created a revised form of the historic Catholic and Anglican understanding of the Episcopate. To understand this we need to recall what is the traditional teaching, that has been set aside.
In the past when Anglicans have explained and defended the Episcopate, they usually have claimed 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. And added to this has been the requirement that the character and life of the man chosen to be a bishop should be a wholesome example to others. The latter has assumed that if married it will be to one wife and that he will not be a divorced and remarried person.
At its General Conventions in 2003 at Minneapolis and in 2006 at Columbus, the Episcopal Church confirmed with great clarity what it had done in 1976, when its General Convention created a revised form of both the received Threefold Ministry and of the Episcopate as part of this. It has taken thirty years to see this new doctrine come to full flower. Women have been ordained deacon and priest in growing numbers since 1976 and since the 1980s there have been the election of a small number of women to be bishops. But in 2003 and again in 2006 the meaning of “wholesome example” and “Order” were revised for all to behold and understand.
In 2003 the election of Gene Robinson to be bishop in New Hampshire was confirmed and in 2006 the election of Barry Beisner to be bishop in Northern California was confirmed. Robinson is a divorced father, who is living openly in a same-sex union; and Beisner is a three times married and twice divorced man whose present spouse is herself a divorced woman. In each case, despite protests, the election was approved by large majorities.
In the context of commitment to human rights and within a culture of therapy and self-fulfillment, what is looked for is “niceness” and the old standards of what is “wholesome” are regarded as outdated and not wholly relevant in a modern western country, where the “gospel” of the church is to be that God loves all and includes all whatever their circumstances.
In 2003 the Convention elected a progressive, liberal, feminist female bishop as the next Presiding Bishop and Primate of the Episcopal Church. Katherine Jefferts Schori is not the first female bishop of this Church but she is the first to be elected to this position. She beat by a narrow margin a man who is also a progressive liberal.
For the whole of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, and for the majority of Anglican provinces, it is impossible for a woman to be a bishop and also to be in apostolic succession, and this is so, even if she personally is wholly orthodox and sets a wholly pure example to the flock. In the biblical and traditional doctrine of Order, only a man can be “Father in God” and exercise headship in the family of God. To elect a woman to be the equivalent of an Archbishop is to proclaim loudly and clearly that the received doctrine of apostolic succession and headship is being radically revised. Further, since she is wholly committed also to major revisions of received doctrine and morality, to elect her with her views is to proclaim that the Episcopal Church is wholly committed to its new Religion.
What the Episcopal Church has progressively done since the 1970s is to create a New Episcopal Religion and now we see very clearly what this implies with respect to the Ministry. Though a lot of traditional language is used, and though ceremonies of ordination have historical roots, the new Ministry of the Episcopal Church is NOT based on God’s revealed Order, but rests upon modern commitments to human rights and dignity for all persons before a Deity who is said to accept each one of us “Just as I am” and to affirm us whoever and whatever we happen to be.
Those ordained by this new Episcopate need to be aware that in the eyes of most of the Anglican Communion they are not ordained at all into the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church of Christ Jesus, but rather only into the new Ministry which teaches the New Episcopal Religion. Further, those consecrated by the new Presiding Bishop will be bishops only of the New Episcopal Religion, and thus will not be welcome in most provinces of the Anglican Family.