05 December 2007

Our Anglican Heritage: (24) A Worldwide Communion

Deacons, priests and bishops are a tiny minority in the church. In actual fact, they exist only to offer leadership and service to the nearly eighty million people around the world today who call themselves Anglicans. While Anglicans can trace their historic roots back to the Church of England, the Anglican Communion in this century has become a truly international body, of which the Church of England and those of English descent, have been a minority for more than a generation. Anglicans in Uganda, for example, outnumber Anglicans (Episcopalians) in the United States by nearly four to one; in Nigeria by eight to one.

Today the Anglican Communion is made up of thirty-eight national or regional indigenous church bodies (often called “provinces”) found on every continent. Some of these, like the Episcopal Church, came about originally as a result of British colonial expansion. Some, such as the church in the southern cone of South America, began with the faithful and painstaking work of nineteenth-century missionaries. Others, such as the Reformed Church of Spain and the Mar-Thoma Church of India, are independent bodies that have chosen to enter into communion with the Anglican Church. Still others, such as the Church of South India, are union churches which have retained their links with the Anglican Communion while remaining in fellowship with other denominational bodies.

For the past century or more the Anglican Church has been a leader in ecumenical dialog. In recent years, the Anglican–Roman Catholic International Consultations have received the greatest publicity. This has sometimes eclipsed the other ongoing discussions with Lutherans, Methodists, the Reformed churches and Eastern Orthodox bodies (not to mention the ill-fated Anglican-United plan of union in Canada). In recent years dialog with the Lutheran Church in the United States and Canada has led to sharing at the Lord’s table and a full mutual recognition of ministries.

04 December 2007

Our Anglican Heritage: (23) Apostolic Succession

Through the course of the Reformation, the Church of England retained this three-fold structure. At the same time, the reformers recognized that this was a matter of choice, and not an essential feature of the church. Article 19, “Of the church” clearly states what the church is in its essence without any reference to government or structure:

The visible church of Christ is a congregation of faithful [people], in which the pure word of God is preached, and the sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same.

Following the Act of Uniformity in 1662 the position of the church became much harder. Ordination at the hands of a bishop, rather than being regarded merely as the Church of England’s way of doing things, became a requirement. This position was given further legitimacy in a document which evolved over the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, known as the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral. The statement was designed to set forth conditions under which Anglicans would be prepared to enter a formal union with other church bodies. It contains the following four requirements:

(1) acceptance of the holy Scriptures as the word of God containing all things necessary to salvation;
(2) adherence to the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds as sufficient statements of the faith;
(3) recognition of the two sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s supper as instituted by Christ himself; and
(4) recognition of the historic episcopate, locally adapted to the needs of various regions and peoples, as the keystone of governmental unity.

Of the four conditions, the last is surely the most controversial, particularly after a study of the New Testament. For there can be no question that the episcopate, as this statement understands it, is a development in the church that came well after the New Testament period.

Many people would be much more comfortable if the Chicago-Lambeth quadrilateral called for episcope rather than episcopoi—that is, responsible supra-local oversight, rather than bishops per se.

The insistence on bishops and on episcopal ordination stems (in my view) from a faulty understanding of apostolic succession. Gradually (and mainly to refute the refusal on the part of the Roman Catholic Church to recognize the legitimacy of Anglican orders) it became popular to try to trace the consecration of Anglican bishops by the laying-on-of-hands right back to apostolic times and to Christ himself. This, it was thought, would legitimize the Anglican episcopate. Of course, such arguments require resorting to dubious traditions and legends, and hold little water when examined historically. It is evident that the laying-on-of-hands was observed in New Testament times, but how universal it was and what significance it was given are matters of debate.

A more constructive and defensible understanding of the episcopate comes about if we view apostolic succession as a succession of doctrine—that is, that the church and its bishops are called to be faithful to the teachings handed down by the apostles. Secondly we should see the episcopate as a way that the church as found useful to establish a co-ordination and a discipline which is more than merely local. It is a way of saying that local churches are not independent units, but that they are part of a wider body, the universal church of Christ which stretches around the world and across the centuries. In this sense, bishops serve as a link both between the parish and the wider church and between the church of the present and nearly two millennia of Christian history.

03 December 2007

Our Anglican Heritage: (22) Bishops

When we come to the office of the bishop, we can once again trace it back to the New Testament, this time to the word episcopos, which quite literally means an “overseer”. It is apparent, however, that in the New Testament episcopos and presbuteros are interchangeable terms. The biblical authors do not differentiate between them. Indeed, in the passage we read from 1 Peter, the apostle exhorts the elders (presbuteroi) to serve as overseers (episcopoi).

If there is any distinction to be made, it may be that presbuteros was the term used by Jewish congregations deriving from the synagogue and episcopos was the word that the primarily Gentile churches employed. Michael Green also helpfully points out that, while the word “presbyter” indicates an office within the church, “overseer” describes its function.

Of bishops or episcopoi Paul writes,

Here is a trustworthy saying: If anyone sets his heart on being an overseer [episcopos], he desires a noble task. Now the overseer must be above reproach, the husband of but one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him with proper respect…. He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.

It is clear from what Paul writes that the bishop must be a person of spiritual maturity and personal integrity. As with the presbyter, the episcopos has a ministry both to the congregation and to those outside. Once again, this is reflected in the Prayer Book Ordinal, where the newly consecrated bishop is exhorted,

Be to the flock of Christ a shepherd, not a wolf; feed them, devour them not. Hold up the weak, heal the sick, bind up the broken, bring again the outcasts, seek the lost. Be so merciful, that you be not too remiss; so minister discipline, that you forget not mercy: that when the chief Shepherd shall appear you may receive the never-fading crown of glory…

It is ironic, and not a little revealing, that these words, addressed to bishops, are derived from words which in the New Testament are addressed to elders.

If we cannot find biblical justification for separate offices of bishops and priests, there is good evidence that within a century or so of the New Testament period the two offices began to be distinguished from one another. Gradually, presbyters became associated with a local congregation, while bishops took on a more regional role.

There are good historical reasons for this development. By and large, new churches were formed as daughters of earlier congregations, usually centered in the larger towns or cities. Initially these churches would have had as their pastors a group of elders with a shared ministry, of whom one might have been designated as the chief pastor or bishop. Eventually the mother church would have become known as a cathedral and the bishop’s role more specialized and less localized. Among other functions, the bishop would have represented the churches at larger gatherings and consultations and conversely would have brought the resolutions of those convocations back to his local area (or diocese).

The term diocese, by the way, was simply one which the church borrowed from the secular Roman world. It referred to an administrative district within a province.