Perhaps the golden age of the Anglican Way in America was the period when the Church of England existed in the British colonies, when there were no Bishops present to ordain, confirm and teach, and when there was only One Prayer Book.
In 2006 the Anglican Way, with its varied streams and tributaries, has a veritable glut of Bishops in the USA. Of these, the latest is an ECUSA rector appointed to be the Bishop of those local churches in the USA which see themselves as exiles from the Anglican Church of Nigeria. There are over two hundred Bishops in The Episcopal Church and there are well over a hundred in the various Anglican groups outside this Church, but, apparently, not one from these could be found to be the Shepherd of these few congregations.
Whatever else the Episcopate has been seen as existing for, one important function has been that of being the symbol of the unity of the Church through space and time. So there have been claims of an apostolic succession in persons and doctrine through time, together with unity of the Church across space through the collegiality of bishops.
However, what we see in The Episcopal Church in 2006 is a college of Bishops which has been the promoter of a continual variety of innovations that have undermined orthodox faith and worship, biblical morality, and traditional discipline and order. Instead of being a guardian of the Faith and an opponent of heresy and immorality, the House of Bishops has been since the 1960s, and continues to be into late 2006, the promoter of apostasy (even if only by majority votes). ECUSA Bishops cannot and do not symbolize the unity of Christ’s Church but its perilous state in North America.
And, what we see in and amongst the great variety of tiny Anglican groups outside The Episcopal Church is also worrying. Here are Bishops who desire to preserve orthodoxy and who live sacrificially, but who by the very fact of their numbers and their competitive relations are not, by any stretching of the imagination, signs of the unity of the Church in space and time. In fact, the only way to justify the abundance of so many small jurisdictions with so many Bishops is on the basis of old-fashioned, full-blooded evangelical Protestant principles. That is, the true Church is invisible and it is the invisible Church which is one, holy, apostolic and universal. So at the local level it does not matter if there are competitive denominations, if there are different churches on the one street seeking members, and if there are Bishops with overlapping jurisdictions, for the visible churches are not the true Church – the true Church is invisible and has members in most of the visible churches.
It would seem that the Anglican Way in North America would be better off if (a) the House of Bishops of the ECUSA as a body resigned en masse and asked the African Primates to find twenty or thirty men to replace them, and if (b) all the Bishops in the small Continuing Anglican groups resigned en masse and asked the African Primates to find ten good men to look after all the groups and to bring them into a federation of churches as a preparation for unifying the whole.
One can do without Bishops for a long time and it would be good in the USA to be without them for a year or two at least, while the arrangements are made from Africa (or Asia, or both) to send Shepherds to the confused and dispersed flock.
The Rev'd Dr. Peter Toon MA., D.Phil (Oxford)