What is a bishop?

None can grasp a structural solution who does not know what is a bishop

The Rt Revd Dr Geoffrey Rowell, Bishop of Gibraltar in Europe, sets out a clear summary of orthodox Anglican teaching

 

After the rejection of Bishop Rowell’s amendment asking for longer and more serious theological reflection in the major July debate of General Synod, it was agreed, at the suggestion of the Archbishop of Canterbury, that the next Synod would, as it proceeded towards the acceptance of women bishops, find time to pause in its business, go into seminar mode and consider some of the issues involved.

The first such theological time-out occurred in the first session of the newly elected Synod on Tuesday, 15 November. The first teaching presentation was, wonderfully incongruously, by a woman and a Methodist. Professor Frances Young emphasized the need for equality of women at all levels in the Church. Scholarly discussion had gone on, she said, for so long that no knock-down evidence was likely to emerge: this was in effect an admission that Junia and her sisters are dead, and attempts to resurrect them are likely to fail.

The Bishop of Rochester, chairman of the committee that produced the eponymous report, urged Synod to be wary of any argument for change that was based on claims that the Anglican understanding of ministry was discontinuous with the older tradition of Catholic order. Professor Thisleton outlined the distinctions between bishops and presbyters found in the Epistles and the Fathers.

The fourth and final presentation, before members then asked questions, was by the Bishop of Gibraltar. This is his expanded essay based on that talk.

In St Luke chapter 6 we read that Jesus, after a night in prayer, ‘called his disciples to him, and from among them he chose twelve and named them apostles.’ These twelve men symbolized the new Israel, remembering the twelve tribes of the old Israel. That is a reminder that the New Testament is cradled in the Old. The Church, including its ministry, can only be understood against the unfolding of God’s self-revelation in the Old Testament, which comes to fulfilment in Christ. The judgement that the prophets, who often and rightly took a stance against the corruptions of worship and priesthood (a theological judgement it should be noted that was – and is – often unconsciously coloured by Reformation polemics) did not mean that priesthood and sacrifice are done away, rather they are fulfilled in Christ and in the life of the Church, the royal priesthood, the holy nation. The frequent virtual disappearance or highly selective reading of the Old Testament in the Church, has meant that the rich theological matrix of typology, anticipation and fulfilment, which is so characteristic of the early Christian tradition, has been lost. A consequence is that we often read Scripture and tradition defectively.

The twelve whom Jesus chooses are those who are ‘apostles’, those who are sent out, as Jesus himself is the one sent by the Father. Apostolic ministry is grounded in the mission of God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In Luke’s second volume, the Acts of the Apostles, care is taken to replace the traitor Judas by Matthias, who was ‘to be one of those who bore us company all the while the Lord Jesus was going about among us, from his baptism by John until the day when he was taken up from us, one of those must now join us as a witness to the resurrection’ [Acts 1.21-22].

In St Paul’s letter to the Philippians the bishops – the episkopoi or overseers – are greeted along with the deacons [Phil. 1.1], and in the Pastoral Epistles the qualities of an episkopos are listed – a virtuous life, ‘the husband of one wife,’ ‘a good teacher’ [I Tim. 3.2&ff]. As J.B. Lightfoot noted ‘the institution of the episcopate must be placed as far back as the closing years of the first century’ [2.2.10].

For Ignatius at Antioch at the end of the first and the beginning of the second century the bishop is the focus of unity. ‘Let the bishop preside in place of God’ and it is the bishop who is the chief minister of the Eucharist. For Irenaeus in the second century, the guarding of the faith is the responsibility of the bishops whom the apostles appointed to succeed them. As the ecumenical document, Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry notes, ‘this succession was understood as serving, symbolizing and guarding the continuity of the apostolic faith and communion.’

As it has been put in a striking image, the bishops are knots in the net of the order of the Church for the purpose of safeguarding and handing on the faith (cf. St Paul with reference to the Eucharist ‘I handed on to you that which I also received’ – that ‘handing on’ is the tradition of the Church, expressed in the creeds shaped both by the confession of faith at baptism, and conciliarly in the gathering together of bishops, as at Nicaea or Constantinople).

The bishop is teacher, but the bishop stands in succession to the apostles, particularly, in the example Irenaeus gives, in Rome, but not only in Rome. It is known names which are part of the guarantee of apostolic teaching, and these names are all of men [3.2.20]. This is the tradition which Anglicans inherited and did not break at the Reformation, and indeed took particular care to preserve. It is a tradition which has to be set, as the Roman Catholic response to the Rochester report underlines, ‘within the need for a Christian anthropology clearly rooted in Scripture and tradition, while rejecting and moving on from any merely culture-bound discrimination against women in the past.’

The Rochester report notes that human sexual differentiation is ‘part of the givenness of the human situation created by God’ [5.2.11]. Catholic teaching agrees that ‘the maleness of Christ is Christologically significant’ [5.2.15], and the nuptial imagery of Bridegroom and Bride is important for understanding the sacramental representation of the priest and bishop. The Rochester report itself notes that there is a prior underlying question which has to be resolved before the ordination of women to the episcopate can properly be addressed, ‘namely the lack of a corporately accepted Christian anthropology, which provides the necessary theological understanding of the relation of men and women in the redeemed community’ [5.4.2].

The Rochester report notes further that [2.7.9] ‘a bishop is called to be a sign and instrument of the apostolicity and catholicity of the local church in each diocese as part of the Church of England and the whole Catholic Church worldwide.’ If there is a dispute about who is a bishop, or the authenticity of the bishop’s ministry then the bishop cannot function as ‘a sign and instrument,’ as church history and events in recent times makes abundantly clear. The House of Bishops’ 1994 paper, Apostolicity and Succession emphasises that ‘the continuity of ministerial succession witnesses to the teaching and mission of the Apostles. This continuity is integral to the continuity of the Church’s life as a whole’ [2.7.10].

In the order of the Church it is the bishop who is the chief sacramental minister, who ordains, and who is the minister of confirmation, and who is the one who when present preside at the Eucharist. As Ignatius writes to the Church of Smyrna: ‘Let no one do any of the things that have to do with the church without the bishop. Let that be considered a proper Eucharist which is held under the bishop or someone authorized by him. Wherever the bishop appears, let the people be, just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the universal church. It is not permissible to baptize or to hold a love-feast without the bishop, but whetever he approves is also pleasing to God, so that everything you do may be secure and valid’ [Smyr.8].

The bishop is therefore in the order of the Church the fount of sacramental life. If there is doubt about the bishop, then there is inevitably doubt about that sacramental life, a point made forcibly by Bishop (then Archdeacon) David Silk in the 1992 debate on the ordination of women to the priesthood, ‘Can there be anything provisional about a ministry on which depend the sacraments of the Church?’ The Roman Catholic response to the Rochester report makes it quite clear: ‘assurance of the authenticity of the sacraments is of the esse (the ‘being’ of the Church in Catholic teaching), and the guarding of such sacramental assurance is a key responsibility of those ordained and consecrated as bishops.’ Catholic Anglicans, and I believe Anglicans more widely, hold this to be true (cf.Rochester 5.5.25). Holy Orders are not just matters of institutional convenience but are the gifts of Christ. They are received and not invented nor to be altered.

The bishop, according to the ordinal, ‘has a special responsibility with his fellow bishops to maintain and further the unity of the Church.’ This maintenance of Christian unity is both within the Church in which the bishop ministers, and more widely, and in a special way, with those churches with whom the Church of England has always claimed to share the historic apostolic ministry. The bishop’s historic title of ‘Father-in-God’ reflects a tradition with ancient roots which sees the bishop as being an icon of the Father.

The Church stands within a symbolic system, which takes up what we might call ‘natural symbols’ and uses them to set forth Christian doctrine. That symbolic system, as has already been noted, is that grounded in the Old Testament. A sociological hermeneutic which dismisses the Old Testament as simply ‘patriarchal’ in a pejorative sense is far too simplistic, and must itself be subject to criticism. Dr Anthony Stevens, an evolutionary psychologist, who has brought together the insights of Jungian psychology and evolutionary disciplines such as ethology and sociobiology, draws out in his book Archetype Revisted: an updated natural history of the self (Routledge, 2002) the links between hierarchy, order and discipline and a ‘patrist’ pattern. He also warns against the consequences for society of the absent father. Bishops as Fathers-in-God are grounded in both divine revelation and archetypal symbolic patterns. As the Letter to the Hebrews notes, ‘when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well’ [Heb.7.12].

John Henry Newman as an Anglican used to speak of cumulative reasoning, both in relation to how faith in God might rightly be seen to be reasonable, and also as the way in which the truths of the faith are known and maintained. Anglicans have always held to the threefold cord of Scripture, tradition and reason, with Scripture as fundamental, so that nothing that is not clearly grounded in Scripture can be required for Anglicans to believe, as the Thirty-Nine Articles make clear. Tradition is the Church’s reflection on that Scripture, with the early centuries of the Church, the Catholic creeds and the teaching of the Fathers having a special place. In this faith and order go together.

In the sixteenth century Archbishop Whitgift wrote against the Puritan Thomas Cartwright, that the Church had been reformed according to Scripture and the ancient traditions and not transformed into something new, and a century later Archbishop Bramhall wrote that the tradition received by the Church of England, and to which it was committed, consisted partly in credenda – articles of belief – and partly of agenda – things done, which include sacramental practice and the historic practice of the Church in matters relating to ordination.

As Newman recognized in his theological exploration of the development of doctrine, because the Church exists in time and history it will continually be facing the challenges that arise from historical and cultural change. Such changes have always to be evaluated, tested and explored. Newman’s statement that ‘to live is to change and to be perfect is to have changed often’ is often cited as though it referred to a Church conforming to the latest cultural changes rather than what it is really about, the challenge of the Christian growth of each person into the likeness of Christ, and the renewal and reformation of the Church in order to enable such growth.

As Newman also commented in relation to the Church, ‘it changes always in order to remain the same.’ In making decisions about episcopacy we need to test those decisions against this Anglican inheritance, as well as against ecumenical agreements into which we have already entered. We need also to be aware of the consequences of our actions in relation to unity, the trustworthiness of the sacraments, and of the historic Anglican appeal to Scripture, tradition and reason.

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