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.