What Is A Bishop For.?

Andy Hawes goes back to square one 


THE Anglican Communion was dogged last century by the question `what is a bishop for?' It raised its head in the field of ecumenism with Catholic concerns about the Church of South India, and in the Sixties with the proposal to unite with the Methodist Church. On the brink of the new millennium the nature of episcopacy was newly defined to make the Porvoo Agreement possible.

At the present time it is a key area for theological reflection, not least in the proposed consecration of women as bishops. The question has represented itself again in the Covenant with the Methodists. The recent controversy over the Bishop of Reading may have focussed on the issues in sexuality but behind it lies the old chestnut, `What is appropriate to the role of a bishop?' 

The ancient origin

The question of the nature of episcopacy was one of dispute among the reformers of the sixteenth century. The Church of England continued with the threefold orders of ministry believing them not to be repugnant to the Word of God; they accepted them as integral to the New Testament and thereby divinely ordained. The Lambeth Quadrilateral, as a title document of Anglicanism in the late nineteenth century, states the threefold Catholic Orders of ministry were essential for a province of the Anglican Communion. The episcopacy is not an historical accident but an historic choice based on Scripture.

Last century considerable scholarship was devoted to the New Testament origins of episcopacy. In the 1940s Anglican scholars of the calibre of Kirk, Dix and Fatter contributed to the collection of essays The Apostolic Ministry. This was complemented by the seminal work of Michael Ramsey, The Gospel and the Catholic Church. To be surgically precise, their thesis was that episcopacy is the faithful outworking of the Gospel as delivered to the apostles, and that the safeguarding of its integrity lay with them and their nominated successors as bishops. Episcopacy was not an `add on' but a part of Christ's will for his ecclesia-his Holy Assembly of the New Israel.

Much graduate and undergraduate ink has been used on the question `Did Jesus intend to found a church?' I start with the assumption that the Anglican Fathers were right in saying `yes'; that Kirk, Ramsey, Fatter et al were right: the role of the bishop is the `Essential Ministry'; it is the conduit through which authority to preach and teach the Gospel flows and it is the source of authority for the celebration of the sacraments.

The New Testament sources most discussed are the Pastoral Epistles to Timothy, Thus and Jude; though most of Paul's writings are important. We see also the synoptic account of Jesus' relationship with the disciples and their osmosis into `apostles', and the High Priestly Prayer and final discourse from the Gospel of John. In this material there is a fluid use of the terms apostles, elders and bishops. It speaks of an evolving situation, but one in which a clear pattern emerges. 

The role of the apostle was clearly defined. As Acts tells us, when Judas was replaced by Matthias, it was essential that he had been with the twelve `from the beginning'. The apostolic witness is to the whole saving work of Christ from the call of the disciples through to the Ascension and Pentecost. The Risen Lord-as in the case of Paul and Barnabas - added to this core of twelve. These men were the guardians of the message and the source of authority for those who were called to minister to the community of faith and to be its evangelists and prophets. 

Are all apostles?

As local churches formed they worked with the local elders (already part of synagogue organization) and the New Testament period sees the working out of the question `who is the overseer or bishop among the ministry team?'

Paul asks the question of the Corinthians, `Are all apostles?' expecting the answer `No'. Only one person can stand for the essential ministry of the apostles, although that one clearly shares teaching and sacramental duties with the other elders or presbyters. It is in the generation following Paul, Timothy and Titus that this narrowing down and focussing upon one person as the locus for the essential apostolic ministry is clarified.

The letters of Clement of Rome (some fifteen to twenty years after the Pastoral Epistles) clearly assume that each Christian community has one man who speaks for the presbyters and the lay people (although sometimes the bishop may delegate someone else - including a layman - as the church representative). The slightly younger Ignatius, in his letters to the churches of Asia, speaks of the joy of `meeting the whole church in the bishop'. If the New Testament contains only the seeds of episcopacy (as the Presbyterian would argue) they are seeds of an amazingly strong, vigorous and quickly maturing plant.

Within a generation the ministry of bishops was well defined; they were a focus for unity in the present - as seen in their teaching role, and their sacramental role in ordination (which was their right and responsibility). They were also the guarantee of the righteous and gracious authority that was the `essential' life-giving ministry of the apostles. 

Shepherd watchman

Much of the apostles' guidance for their appointed overseers is founded on Old Testament patterns of leadership, particularly the typology of the shepherd and the watchman. Austin Farrer in his own innovative way pointed out that in the Greek version of Ezekiel watchman is scopos and shepherd is episkeptesthai; the title episcopus seems to pickup both themes.

The watchman must be vigilant protecting the church from danger without and within, the shepherd is to follow the pattern of the Good Shepherd, preserve the unity of the flock and ensure proper food and pastoral care.

In both these roles Christ himself is the source of guidance and authority - he is `the corner stone' around which all things are built, and the `head of the body' from which all things grow.

The bishop is sign that the life of each church belongs to Christ, it is his creation. He is the vine of which they are a branch whose fruitfulness is made possible by the apostolic ministry of the bishop.

In the bishop Ignatius sees the Church, for in him he saw Christ. The New Testament evidence is quite insistent that bishops must be men of high moral standing in the community, that their household should be beyond reproach, that they should have a clear understanding of the apostolic faith and be able to defend it. It is only with these qualities that the persona of the bishop can hold the unity of the Spirit in the bonds of peace.

Behind the accretions of centuries, and the demise of episcopacy into prelacy, lies the truth that to be a church we need bishops, and to be a bishop means to make real the apostolic ministry in the here and now. 

Andy Hawes is Rural Dean of Beltisloe in the Diocese of Lincoln.

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