St Matthias – Thinking the Unthinkable

The manner of St Matthias' appointment to replace Judas exercised a horrified fascination on my methodical mind. How unlike the procedures of our own dear Mother Church! But should it have had this effect on me? Sortition was the common method by which public servants were selected in classical Athenian democracy. The practice probably had a religious origin and was to show that the outcome was the result of divine, not human, choice. In the realm of politics the advantages were obvious, ensuring that all members of the citizen body participated in the affairs of state. To some degree it reduced the influences of personal ambition and party spirit. Property and age qualifications might operate in certain cases. This may seem strange to our modem thinking, but they seemed to manage well enough in ancient Athens.

Normally, Athenian magistrates were appointed for an annual period. Matthias was appointed for life. He was not going to have to do anything in particular but only to be one of the Twelve, and make up the number. He needed the qualification of association with the Twelve from the time of John's Baptism to the Ascension. Joseph Barsabbas Justus also qualified but Matthias was chosen.

What may be learned from this? Theologically speaking, the idea is not as daft as it seems at first sight. The implications of 'God and Chance' have been studied by JD Bartholomew. John Polkinghorne has recently sought to reconcile the doctrine of Creation with random selection and the chaos theory. What has been lost (apart from self-esteem) if elevation to the apostolate (or episcopate) is to be seen not as an achievement but only the luck of the draw?

This would reduce the burden of the work of the Crown Appointments' Commission very substantially. They might still be needed to compile a register of persons displaying ‘episcopal material', though the criteria would need to be revised heavily in the light of St Matthias' precedent. Difficulties only arise when bishops cease being and begin doing. The rest might well be left to Camelot or possibly Sir Richard Branson. Perhaps the Liturgical Commission might devise an Ordo ad episcopum sortiendum.

Hugh Bates

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