Drawing on classical Anglicanism, Fr. Jonathan answers that question like this:
Bishops are not simply a nicety but a necessity. ... The grace which saves us comes to us by Christ alone in His sacrifice upon the cross, but the way we receive that grace is through His Word preached and His sacraments celebrated. The authority to be Ministers of Word and Sacrament is left to the apostles alone, who pass it on to the bishops alone, who share it with the presbyters in a limited fashion but always with reference back to their own apostolic ministry. In the absence of bishops, the Church ceases to be the Church.
So what about Christians who do not live under the historic episcopate? Are such Christians living without grace and apart from truth? Fr. Jonathan offers this in response:
... in churches where episcopacy has been abolished or never existed in the first place, there is an absence of an essential element of the Church, that ministry through which Christ promised to provide grace to His people. This does not mean that there is no grace in those churches, but rather that the grace that is found there is given by way of concession, by the mercy of Christ, rather than through the normal means that Our Lord has established.
... if there is grace present within a church that has denied episcopacy, it is being given through extraordinary means. This is somewhat akin to the question of whether or not a person can be saved without Baptism. Sure, God can give a person that grace, through an extraordinary mercy, but that does not mean that it is ok for us to not baptize or to simply characterize Holy Baptism as a symbolic gesture and nothing more.
Read it all.
William Reed Huntington was a 19th Century Episcopal priest whose book The Church-Idea: An Essay Towards Unity (1870) laid the groundwork for the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral (which, as Fr. Jonathan notes, " remains the standard in the Anglican Communion for assessing whether or not the marks of the Church are present in any given community of Christians"). In The Church-Idea, Huntington identifies four things as "the absolutely essential features of the Anglican position" on what is necessary for the Church to be the Church:
- The Holy Scriptures as the Word of God,
- The Primitive Creeds as the Rule of Faith,
- The two Sacraments ordained by Christ himself, and
- The Episcopate as the key-stone of Governmental Unity.
Huntington argues that the episcopate provides “an essential condition of oneness in the Church.” As a warrant for this claim, Huntington appeals to the principle of headship discernible in the orders of creation. From the constitution of families to nation-states to churches, headship provides the organizing principle. “Headship is God’s law,” Huntington argues, for “Double and triple-headed creatures are monsters that exist only in fiction, or, if born, are only born to die.” And he continues: “From its fountain in the bosom of the Holy Trinity,” the principle of headship “flows downward through all the ranges of created life.” Grounded in the Trinitarian life of God, the principle of headship provides theological justification for hierarchical social organization because this principle is inscribed in the very orders of creation. Based on this reasoning, every social institution requires embodiment in a central figurehead.
In addition to purported laws of nature, Huntington also defends the necessity of the episcopate by appealing to antiquity. Since the apostolic age, the principle of headship has taken form in the episcopate. This gives the episcopate “a strong historical presumption in its favor.” Huntington believes that this presumption is so central that “Anglicanism stands or falls” by it. He hammers this point home in strong language:
… if the Episcopate have no more claim on our regard than any other form of ecclesiastical polity, then the sooner Anglicans in America shut their church-doors and burn their prayer-books, the better; for they are only adding, upon insufficient grounds, one more to the sectarian divisions under which the land groans. But if they have in the Episcopate that which links them by an actual historical connection to the Church of the primitive times, then ought they to thank God and take courage, and do all they can by the removal of misapprehension and disabilities and needless partition walls of prejudice, to make their inheritance available for the enrichment of the whole scattered flock of Christ.
Are bishops really necessary for the Church to be the Church in her fullness? Fr. Jonathan and William Reed Huntington stand within the mainstream of the Anglican tradition in responding to that question with an unequivocal "Yes!"