When Anglicans think of the Episcopate and defend it to Congregationalists and Presbyterians, and explain it to their own people, 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. And it is such an Episcopate that has been the ideal—and often the norm—in the Anglican Communion of Churches until the ecclesial troubles of the twentieth century on into the twenty-first brought disorder into the Office.
Within The Episcopal Church the College of Bishops (by its majority vote) has since the 1960s rejected the historical vocation and role of the Episcopate and is the cause of error, heresy and division because it has chosen to pursue and put in place innovations in doctrine, worship, order and discipline. Tragically, not a few of the Bishops believe that they have a modern “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. So they are in reality creating a denomination which finds divine revelation in contemporary Experience and worships the God of evolution and process. So in TEC the Episcopate is the sign of innovation which causes confusion and disorder. (See further my Episcopal Innovations 1960-2004 from http://www.anglicanmarketplace.com)
Within other Anglican jurisdictions in the USA and Canada, groups that claim to preserve orthodox and biblical truth, there are eighty or more men in the office of bishop. Since they are not in one Church with territorial dioceses, they are in a varying range of parallel and cross-over dioceses and networks, seemingly competing with each other. Some but not all are loosely aligned in Common Cause. No doubt each bishop has 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 varied Extra-Mural Anglicanism of North America is right now the sign of dis-unity and dis-order! (Within Extra-Mural one includes the descendants of the seceders of 1873 and 1977, as well as the seceders of the last few years. Regrettably there is very little connection between the seceders of 1977 and those of the late 1990s and 2004-7.).
Therefore the situation in which we find ourselves is that whether as Anglicans we be revisionist or orthodox, progressively liberal or conservatively traditional, we live with 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 as a body is in such a dysfunctional state how can we expect the flock of Christ to be also anything other than dysfunctional—like shepherd so the sheep.
The Lord Jesus Christ, the Bishop of bishops, surely expects better of us all then this!.
Sept 17 2007
The Revd Dr Peter Toon