The Extra-Canonical Ordination of Bishops and the Episcopal Church

Article excerpt

Bishops have always been very important to the Church of England, and, if anything, even more so to its American counterpart. In England, bishops were among the leaders of the Reformation, and three (Thomas Cranmer, Hugh Latimer, and Nicholas Ridley) were martyrs to it during the reign of Mary I. Cranmer, as archbishop of Canterbury, was largely responsible for the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549, the Ordinal in 1550, and the second prayer book in 1552 - the foundational documents of Anglican Christianity. In America, the Episcopal Church, following Scottish precedent, took its name from the fact that it has bishops, adding the word "Protestant" to distinguish it from the Roman Catholic Church, which also has bishops.2 The Methodist Episcopal Church, as the principal body was called until a merger in 1939, also has bishops, but they are fewer and farther between, with largely administrative duties. By contrast, bishops of the Episcopal Church are more numerous, have smaller jurisdictions, and have closer contacts at the parish level through the confirmation of communicants and the institution of rectors. Indeed, the latter service, until its revision in 1979, contained a prayer stating that Jesus "promised to be with the Ministers of Apostolic Succession to the end of the world."3 A high point of the church's emphasis (one might say obsession) with bishops and apostolic succession came with the publication of Lucius Waterman's Tables of Episcopal Descent (to use the shorter spine title).4 Many Episcopal churches have displayed a framed chart, "The Apostolic Succession," showing the succession of its bishops from the twelve aposdes; however, this is accomplished by combining succession in office of early bishops with succession by consecration of later ones.

In an earlier article about extra-canonical ordinations to the priesthood,5 I set forth the principle that ordination is something done by the church, not by private individuals acting on the basis of powers that they own as a personal possession. This principle of polity, if accepted, applies a fortiorari to ordinations to the episcopate. In other words, if it takes a diocese to make a priest or deacon, it takes a province (in the sense that the Episcopal Church is one province) to make a bishop. The episodes which follow are seemingly unrelated; yet each, involving bishops or former bishops of the Episcopal Church, reflects the problems that extra-canonical ordinations to the episcopate pose for that church from the standpoint of its polity.6

In 1873, George David Cummins, assistant bishop of Kentucky, left the Episcopal Church and founded a new denomination, the Reformed Episcopal Church. Although he did not accept the concept of apostolic succession, he nonetheless ordained Charles Edward Cheney later that year as the new church's second bishop. This is apparently the only occasion on which a bishop, or former bishop, of the Episcopal Church presided alone at such an event. (Both tradition and church canons require that at least three bishops participate; see footnote 11.) More important than the number of bishops, however, is the fact that Cummins was not acting on behalf of any historic church, and thus there was no organic continuity. There appears to have been no subsequent participation of bishops in the historic succession, although Methodist bishops, not in the historic succession as recognized by the Episcopal Church, took part in the consecration of two Reformed Episcopal bishops in 1876.7

There has been only one occasion on which the Episcopal Church needed to pass judgment on the orders of the Reformed Episcopal Church. This was in 1922, when the Church of Jesus, a small body in Puerto Rico, asked to unite with the Episcopal Church there. Its bishop, Manuel Ferrando, was a former Roman Catholic priest who had been ordained bishop by the Reformed Episcopal Church in 1912. At the time of his reception into the Episcopal Church (1923), he "was given supplemental consecration" and became suffragan bishop of the Missionary District of Puerto Rico. …