A discussion and action starter from presbyter Peter Toon
There are many things which illustrate the crisis of Anglicanism and its general dysfunctionality in North America—e.g., the way that the Bible is read, the tremendous variety in liturgy, the confusion in moral theology and so on. Here I want to focus on one, the nature and function of the Episcopate.
We all know that in the best Anglican doctrine, Bishops are not Chief Executive Officers of religious corporations (dioceses), Chief Liturgical Officers of a group of congregations experimenting with various liturgies, or Senior Managers of a struggling religious business. In the description of The Ordinal each one is the “Father in God” to the clergy and people of a diocese, wherein he is the Chef Pastor, Teacher, Preacher and Celebrant, sharing his responsibilities with his presbyters. While being responsible for a particular diocese, he is also a member of the College of Bishops of a Province and is a sign with these other bishops of the unity and orthodoxy of the Church in space and through time.
Thus ideally in one geographical area there ought to be one college of bishops in communion one with another and working together in evangelization and mission, while respecting the boundaries of each one’s diocese or ecclesiastical unit.
In fact, 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.
To provide some context, we are all aware because of (a) the split between East and West, (b) the divisions created at the Reformation, and (c) within The Anglican Way the divisions caused by continuing schism from The Protestant Episcopal Church of the USA (1870s-2007), that in any given area of the USA there are now overlapping Episcopal jurisdictions which include Roman Catholic, varieties of Orthodox Churches (related to the variety of Eastern Orthodoxy with its several Patriarchates), varieties of Anglican Churches, and others who claim to have “apostolic” bishops.
To focus on the Anglican variety we have—say in the East of the country—the dioceses of The Episcopal Church created out of the original 13 colonies, the dioceses of the Reformed Episcopal Church (19th century origins), the dioceses of the groups—ACA., ACC., APCK., etc.—that were originally the Continuing Anglican Church of 1977-8, the Networks of the Anglican Mission in America each with a bishop, the Convocation of Nigeria-related churches which a bishop, various other continuing Anglican jurisdictions (e.g. Episcopal Missionary Church) with bishops, and then up to about 100 congregations each one claiming to be under a bishop from abroad (e.g., a bishop from Africa or South America).
Some people would remove The Episcopal Church from this List because they say it is apostate, but this means removing a diocese like South Carolina or Central Florida and many parishes here and there which struggle to be faithful under tough conditions.
One way to see all this Anglican overlapping—what may seem a generous and charitable way—is to claim that God is shaking up the whole thing in order to purify and to sieve and that, in the long term, there will be a coming together of the “orthodox” parts of this present complex overlapping and interweaving of episcopal territory and responsibility into a basic unity of doctrine and mission. This approach provides energy to press on and work for unity and it is view that cannot be disproved. And it tends to look to the Primates’ Meeting of 2007 (and maybe of 2008/9) and the Lambeth Conference of 2008 as the means God will probably use to bring harmony out of chaos.
However, this positive approach runs in the face of the simple fact that the history of religion in the USA is that of division and experimentation and the right of all to do their own thing when they feel led so to do—as the vast religious supermarket amply illustrates. And, further, it allows each and all groups to blame others for the mess and not take responsibility for their own part in creating it.
If God is involved, I mean really involved in a direct, providential manner, it seems more likely that God is shaking up in chastisement— real chastisement—and that, until a vast majority involved in the mess show more signs of contrition and penitence for their share in aiding and abetting the shattering of the Anglican Way over the last forty years to create the contemporary mess, that the shaking up will continue and there will be more and more new groups and affiliations so that the Anglican Way is a way that is scorned!
Let us be honest, in the USA it is so easy to be so actively involved for a religious cause and, in so doing, to see examples of good things occurring, that one does not slow down—even have time—to take a bird’s eye view of the whole, and in getting this over-arching view to be overwhelmed by the total mess! And, of course, the USA public, and thus each and all of us, are so used to competitive religions that we do not blink an eyelid when another form of Baptist or Anglican church appears on the street, or buys the plot of land in the next block, or converts a former warehouse into a church. It is the right of all to do his own thing, we assume, as long as he is not a real nuisance to others! And in America religion means plenty of variety with no moral duty to find commonalities and unity.
I suggest that we all need to slow down, stop, and take a bird’s eve view of what is happing to the Anglican Way in our State, our region and in this nation. We need to look for CENTRIPETAL FORCES rather than ride on the CENTRIGUFAL ONES which create the dysfunctionality.
A suggestion—which will not make me new friends but yet which I think is pleasing to the angels—let those groups/jurisdictions/denominations, which came from the original Continuing Anglican Church of 1977, return one to the other out of their present divisions and competition, to be One unit in worship and mission at home and overseas and thus to set a powerful example of what is possible by those who claim to be orthodox and biblical and who listen seriously to the Prayer of Jesus in John 17 and to the powerful argument for unity of St Paul in his Letter to the Ephesians. Perhaps they could begin by agreeing on a common Episcopate (which would mean of course cutting the present number of bishops in their midst by 60 per cent or more) to serve all the churches; such action would not only save a lot of traveling and expenditure but would provide a powerful example to the rest of us at this time of crisis and confusion. Once CENTRIPETAL forces of the Holy Ghost are in motion, who knows what could follow in other parts of the Anglican way, if we allow them to work!