Thinking aloud in response to a variety of suggestions and comments received concerning the vocation and place of bishop in American Anglicanism.
I am fast coming to the conclusion—which I am trying my best to avoid—that there is a near total lack of adherence to historical Anglican ecclesiology in American Episcopalianism and Anglicanism. This situation has been developing at least since 1973 and seems to have reached its zenith in 2007. It appears that ecclesiology based on The Ordinal, The Articles, the classic BCP and the writings of the standard Anglican divines (from John Jewel onwards) is being wholly disregarded in large areas of church life.
In fact, so serious has the situation become that it is very possible (God only knows in his perfect wisdom) that all those who are called “Bishop” in 2007, whatever their gifts, virtues and pedigrees, are not really genuine Bishops at all—that is, they are not Bishops, who are both successors of the Apostles in terms of personal succession in sees and most importantly not in terms of being guardians of the Faith and symbols of the unity of the Church of God. In other words, while they may be good Administrators, Preachers, Pastors and much more, they are not the presence of apostolic Ministers and Ministry.
Why do I raise this possibility?
I raise it because Anglicans have normally believed, taught and confessed since the publication of The Ordinal in 1549/1550 that Bishops are successors of the apostles (or of those who immediately succeeded the apostles) in,
(a) Order – succession through space and time and in relation to sees or bishoprics;
(b) Teaching—succession in propagating, teaching and guarding the Apostolic Faith;
(c) Unity—being the sign of unity within the diocese and for the diocese to the larger Church so that there is unity through space and time;
(d) Sacramental Ministry, especially chief Celebrant of the Eucharist where the people of God are one with Christ and each other; and
(e) Maintaining the Ordained Ministry through the power to ordain.
If we look at the Episcopate within what is known as The Episcopal Church it may be claimed that—in terms of worship, doctrine, and discipline as these have been understood through the centuries—this Episcopate has ceased to be apostolic because of its own choices and designs through adopting and propagating error, heresy and infidelity on a wide front. All recent consecrations are probably the passing on not of apostolic ministry and teaching but of modern “prophetic” and secularized ministry based on post 1960s teaching on a wide variety of fronts. (It may be that within TEC there are a few of the older Bishops who being consecrated a long time ago have managed to escape this powerful disease of infidelity.) Modern TEC Bishops are religious leaders, CEO’s and much more but one thing, generally speaking, they are not and that is apostolic Ministers.
If we next look at the Episcopate within what is known as The Continuing Churches (originating in 1977) what we find here are bishops within four major and various minor denominations, mostly of Anglo-Catholic persuasion and many making the highest claims for their exercise of the office of bishop—including what was once only the Pope’s claim to annul marriages and give the permission to re-marry. Again it may be suggested that these “Bishops” who are of varying ability and virtue are not truly Bishops of apostolic pedigree but are religious leaders in small denominations. Why? Because they knowingly and consciously—even flagrantly—break the simple rules that the Bishop is the center of unity in his own diocese and a symbol of unity to the wider church.
Let us recall that these Continuing Anglican Churches are found in competition with each other in the same geographical areas of this land and thus break fundamental rules of the Church through history, established by common consent in councils. In fact in general terms they are in schism not only from TEC but from each other. Now if it were the case that these churches were not many but one (as originally intended by them in 1977) and they were competing with TEC as an Infidel Church then that would be a different situation altogether. In reality, they are competing with each other and, as we shall see, with other Anglicans claiming the same territory. But it is their competing with each other on the same territory as they make exceedingly high claims for their office which probably places them outside true Catholicity for they are not behaving as Catholic at all.
Before we come to the latest form of the American Episcopate for Anglicans we need to notice The Reformed Episcopal Church which dates from 1873 and is still small, but has had a kind of renewal in terms of Anglican ideals in the last decade or so. This has it own Bishops who find themselves also in competition territorially with both TEC and Continuing Churches Bishops and facing their own unique problems with the arrival of the “African” mission.
Now to the third phase of Bishops. First from Rwanda and more recently from Nigeria, Kenya and Uganda there have arrived and are arriving on American shores American citizens who have been consecrated as bishop by Anglican Archbishops overseas. This is a totally new phenomenon in Anglicanism, where bishops are sent from several overseas Provinces into another Province, without the agreement or welcome of that Province, against the direct rules of the Anglican Family of Churches stated often in the Lambeth Conferences and in some cases without consultation with each other.
It is important to note that,
(a) there is a very mixed reception of this innovation within the Global Anglican Family and very few welcome it at this stage in time;
(b) there is only minimal cooperation in mission and pastoral care between the bishops who have been sent;
(c) what seem to be permanent or semi-permanent structures (networks, convocations and dioceses) are being created by some of these bishops (e.g. AMiA, CANA);
(d) that these missions and structures are in competition not only with TEC, the Continuers and REC, but also with each other for there is no stated agreement on territorial spheres by the African Provinces for the USA.
Thus it seems clear that these bishops, whatever their devotion and gifts, are by the very reality of the situation into which they have come and where they function, the very opposite of signs and symbols of unity of the Body of Christ. In fact, they have entered into what may be called a chaotic situation of American Anglicanism, and they have added without intending to do so to its chaos and dysfunctionality. One may say that this is not how apostles or their successors act even if there is a rescue operation of disaffected and disenfranchised Episcopalians to undertake!
In conclusion a radical proposal for a very problematic situation.
Probably the only way forward that will have a chance of restoring the unity of the Episcopate as apostolic in pedigree and teaching for the U.S.A. is as follows:
(a) TEC to go its own way with other churches as a Federation of modern Episcopalian Churches;
(b) all the rest from REC through Continuers and former TEC folk to Africa based groups to meet in Congress, to form a Province (based on sound Anglican comprehensiveness) where the first act is for each and every bishop to resign permanently and fully, and then, after a season of cooling off and prayerful consultation, for the minimum number of bishops to be elected in a godly way for the whole united people in order for there to be a viable province with three dioceses as a starter. Then American Anglicans get back as it were to 1785-9 and to reconstitute the American Episcopate which was originally created in those formative days of the Republic and PECUSA.
The Revd Dr Peter Toon
President of the Prayer Book Society 2007