Bad Bishops: A Key to Anglican Ecclesiology

By Radhner, Ephraim | Anglican Theological Review, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

Bad Bishops: A Key to Anglican Ecclesiology


Radhner, Ephraim, Anglican Theological Review


Lambeth has focused our attention on many things. One of them is on bishops themselves, whose images we have seen reproduced in magazines, whose words we have seen quoted in newspapers, and whose arguments, statements, resolutions and objections we have seen injected into the ongoing debate of our own Church's public life. In the process of this revived public exposure, theologically heightened by the discussion with the Lutherans over the episcopacy, the character of bishops, broadly understood, has come in for renewed examination and more often renewed disdain. Why allow our church's public life to be led by the nose at the hands of incompetent and often wayward leaders invested with impossibly fulfilled potencies?

In particular, the struggle within the American Church over the doctrine and discipline touching upon sexuality has focused special attention on the integrity and meaning of "episcopal oversight" and authority which, in a certain respect, has contributed to the already fallen status of bishops in the public's eye. A recent diocesan clergy conference in this country, for instance, found it necessary openly to express its desire to refrain from malicious talk, particularly as it referred to its bishop. This commitment, of course, flies in the face of a long tradition of contemptuous speech aimed at bishops, who make up a large section of any index on folkloric ridicule. Clergy especially are familiar with gently complaining stories like that of the Anglican and the Presbyterian arguing over whether the episcopacy is established in the Bible. The Anglican finally says, "I can prove from the very words of Scripture that Saint Paul himself was under the authority of a bishop." "How so?" wonders the astonished Presbyterian. "Observe 2 Corinthians 12:7," the Anglican replies, "where Saint Paul writes, `to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh.' If that's not a proof that Paul had a bishop, I don't know what is!"

It is worth noting, however, that even in superficial tales like this, there is a positive character seen in the bishop's burdensome person, one that is informed by its link with a Scriptural insight about grace, and about God's providentially gracious use of bishops in their painful mode. And this positive character, vestigial to the weary disdain felt towards the episcopacy is perhaps a clue to something more profound governing our Anglican ecclesiology. In what follows, in any case, I will attempt to use the figure of the "bad bishop" as a key to understanding-at least partially--the "essence" of the episcopacy within our Church. The purpose of this attempt is not to give credence to the assumption that there are not plenty of "good" bishops around. Without a doubt, there are. Furthermore, the character of the "good bishop" is also critical, and primarily so, to the "essence" of the episcopacy. And we should labor for good bishops, without ever becoming comfortable with the bad. But bad bishops can, nonetheless, help us get clearer about all this.

That we should talk about "essence" at all, with respect to bishops in our Church, is inevitable. Our Quadrilateral, for instance, lists the "historic episcopate, locally adapted" as an "inherent part of the sacred deposit" of the "Christian Faith and Order committed by Christ and the Apostles to the Church unto the end of the world," and "essential" to the restored unity of the Church. This is part of our basic claim concerning bishops. And the late nineteenth-century Quadrilateral's affirmation of this essence has, in fact, given rise to what is-- however little appreciated-a revolution in ecumenical discussion. The 1982 so-called Lima Statement of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches, on Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry, was extraordinarily significant in this regard, although its affirmations have had little practical impact on common Christian self understanding. Among the agreed-upon assertions was the fact that, "among the gifts [of the Spirit for the Church] is the ministry of the episcope"--that is, "oversight"--"which is necessary [emphasis added] for expressing and guarding the unity of the body; every church has need of this ministry of unity, in some particular form, in order that it can be the Church of God, the single Body of Christ, a sign of the whole's unity in the Kingdom" (Ministry, c. …

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