Thursday, August 25, 2011

Are Bishops Really Necessary?

Or, as Fr. Jonathan asks: "Can There Be a Church Without a Bishop?"

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:

  1. The Holy Scriptures as the Word of God,
  2. The Primitive Creeds as the Rule of Faith,
  3. The two Sacraments ordained by Christ himself, and
  4. 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!"


Jacob Andrews said...

"Based on this reasoning, every social institution requires embodiment in a central figurehead."

Do the Bishops need a central figurehead?

Bryan Owen said...

Hi Jacob. The bishops share the same ultimate central figurehead with all baptized Christians, namely, Jesus Christ.

Anonymous said...

Far be it from me to suggest otherwise, however, such an argument is in practice undermined and even refuted by bishops who literally refuse to the essentials of the Christian Faith.
There is still an argument to be made for such "vehicles of grace" but it is not made here; fortunately it is made by Paul himself in Ephesians 4.

Let me pose an equally unfortunate question, if only to show a bit of my contentious nature: "Are laity really necessary?" Current membership trends in TECUSA which continue a 45 year continuous decrease imply that TECUSA bishops tend to think not.
: )

Bryan Owen said...

Hi Rob. I agree that "bishops who literally refuse to the essentials of the Christian Faith" pose a serious problem. But I wouldn't go so far as to say that such bishops undermine or even refute the arguments for why bishops ordained in apostolic succession are necessary for the Church to be the Church in her fullness.

To make an analogy: if on the basis of knowing about a marriage in which there is abuse and infidelity I draw the conclusion that marriage per se is a bad idea, then I've fallen into the fallacy of converse accident. Same thing if, on the basis of a bishop like Spong (just to name a particularly high profile example), I draw the conclusion that the episcopate per se is a bad idea. In both cases I've made a hasty generalization in which, on the basis of a exceptional case, I've generalized to a rule that fits that case alone.

Anonymous said...

At what point does a church, such as the ECUSA, cross the line into institutional apostasy despite maintaining the historic episcopate; and if a church, such as the ECUSA, does cross that line, are we as individual Christians, whether priests or laity, obliged to recognize that schism has occurred and, in loyalty to Christ, make manifest a separation that is implicit?

Bryan Owen said...


In spite of the fact that it goes against my explicit request "If you choose to comment anonymously, please provide a pen name for the sake of disambiguation," I'm posting your comment because I think it is important. You are certainly welcome to comment here, but in the future, if you choose to do so anonymously, please provide a pen name.

At what point does a church, such as the ECUSA, cross the line into institutional apostasy despite maintaining the historic episcopate?

That's an excellent question! No doubt, there are many different answers to it.

IMO, one peril to avoid in answering this question is the one I mentioned above in response to Rob: the fallacy of converse accident. Just because there are laypersons and clergy here and there who openly espouse and promote heresy does not, in and of itself, conclusively prove that the Episcopal Church has crossed the line into institutional apostasy.

Which raises the question: what would demonstrate that TEC has crossed the line into institutional apostasy despite maintaining the historic episcopate?

The Book of Common Prayer is the clearest articulation of the Episcopal Church's official teaching. I can stand in the pulpit and deny the divinity of Jesus Christ and proclaim the bankruptcy of the Nicene Creed. If I did that, it would be both deeply troubling and grounds for discipline. But the fact remains that the rest of the Prayer Book's Eucharistic liturgy would contradict and correct me because it affirms what I would be denying.

So as an Episcopalian, I would say that if the Episcopal Church adopts a Prayer Book that contradicts the faith of the Church, then we've crossed the line into institutional apostasy. If that happens, how to respond is a matter best left to the conscience of the individual lay or clergy person.

Note that I'm not including supplemental liturgies because, as supplemental, I do not believe that they carry the same normative weight as the authorized Prayer Book. I realize not everyone will agree with me, but I don't think that this kind of Prayer Book revision "by other means" constitutes the core of the doctrine, discipline and worship of the Episcopal Church to which I've vowed in my ordinations to conform. I think that core is found in the official, authorized Prayer Book. And that means that I am free to not use and/or ignore those supplemental liturgies for whatever reason without violating my ordination vow to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church.

Robert F said...

Apologies for the omission of a pen name. Thanks for your answer. I think it is a thoughtful and substantially good answer. When I consider this question of loyalty to the church as Christ's body, I'm always forced to think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Admittedly, the German Evangelical Church was not one that continued the historic episcopate, and so the considerations of those who became the Confessing Church would be different from my own or yours as Episcopalians. But I still think it is a troubling, edifying witness to the whole church throughout all ages when Bonhoeffer wrote that any who knowingly separated themselves from the Confessing Church separated themselves from salvation. He and the Confessing Church were recognizing a breach that they had not made, but which was there nonetheless.
Bryan, one more question. If the Anglican Communion as a whole were by due process to declare that the ECUSA was out of communion, what then? As an Episcopalian and a priest, what do you think you might do?

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for sharing additional thoughts, Robert.

If the Anglican Communion as a whole were by due process to declare that the ECUSA was out of communion, what then? As an Episcopalian and a priest, what do you think you might do?

I certainly hope this never happens. It would be a tragedy for faithful Episcopalians, for the Anglican Communion, and for the larger Christian family.

I can't say for sure what I would do if this were to happen. But given my understanding of what it means to affirm belief in "one holy catholic and apostolic Church," I would have to reconsider my loyalties.

plsdeacon said...

During the Reformation in England, the question came up, "Are Bishops of the esse (essence) or the bene esse (the good of) of the Church.

The question was answered by process of elimination. Since bishops are not of the bene esse, they MUST be of the esse of the Church.

Phil Snyder

Christopher said...

Deacon Phil,

That certainly is not how Hooker answered this question. They are of the bene esse. Anglicanism has insisted upon the episcopate AND refused to unChurch other Churches. Keeping that balance is a part of our refusal to be so arrogant as to suggest God is not at work in other traditions. Anglo-Catholics of thoughtfulness like AM Allchin and Michael Ramsey point out the dangers of the pipeline approach to bishops and to grace, and I think Fr Owen gets close here to those dangers--it starts sounding like a pipeline and our tradition rejected that for Eucharist, and if for Eucharist, as St. Irenaeus would say, must also for understanding of grace and the episcopate. I would rather say that bishops are of the pleni esse, rather than esse or pleni esse.

Failures to contexualize St. Ignatius of Antioch on this matter do not help us in coming up with a careful and thoughtful and mature understanding of bishops or grace in relation to Christ and the Church. As another pointed out here pipeline theories on apostolic succession and grace tend to get us into problems...John Shelby Spong, for example. That is why the careful agreement we made with the ELCA is helpful to us. If forced us into the position St. Irenaeus held, where apostolicity is related to profession of faith, to teaching...and not just a magic hands approach to these matters. And no one can argue that St. Irenaeus is not catholic!

Bryan Owen said...

Hi Christopher. Thanks for sharing your perspective.

Phil can certainly answer for himself, but when I read his comment I took it as tongue in cheek. Sort of like the story that Fr. Jonathan shares in the posting from his blog that I've cited:

"Fr. Patrick Reardon, who is now Orthodox, says that in his years teaching at Episcopal seminaries, the faculty would occasionally debate the question of whether episcopacy was of the esse of the Church, meaning of the very being of the Church, or of the bene esse of the Church, meaning for the well being of the Church. The first implies that without bishops there is no Church, while the second merely that without them the Church is not as well ordered as it could be. Fr. Reardon says that what settled the question for him was watching bishops wreak havoc upon the Episcopal Church. 'Clearly bishops must be of the esse,' he says, 'because they’re certainly not of the benne esse!'"

plsdeacon said...


My tounge was firmly in my cheek as Bryan suggested. But the witness of Holy Scripture is that Bishops have always been part of the Church and that the order of presbyter (as it is currently structured) is newer even than that of Deacon.

Thus, bishops are of the esse of the Church and not an instrument of Church Order (bene esse).

Fr. J said...

Whatever else Hooker believed, he saw episcopacy as necessary, at least if Book VII of the Ecclesiastical Laws is presumed to be his work (which I do, at least in direction). What Hooker and others did was to relativize that claim when it came to other Reformational churches, saying that their adoption of non-episcopal orders was of necessity because they could not get episcopal orders. This is a fudge to be sure, since many of those churches rejected such orders outright. Nevertheless, it allowed the Church of England to continue to court affection with the churches of the Reformation while maintaining that episcopacy is a necessity. The understanding, shared later by Huntington and others, was that episcopacy was a gift that the Church of England would eventually be called on to give back to those churches that had anomalously had to leave it behind for a time.

Anonymous said...

Understood. But I'm saying that FR JONATHAN'S ARGUMENT (which is in fact not his but classicly articulated Anglo-Catholic) is undermined...etc....and, as you know, classic Evangelical refutation is articulated as I did regarding "undermining."
But then there is the helpful reference to Fr Huntington, who was in fact arguing as I suggested in my comment from Ephesians 4, that it is not bishops per se (since this whole argument can be entangled in our received concept of "a bishop" rather than simply as the term from the Greek - episcopos - describes the function of overseeing leadership) but the group dynamic matter of leadership.
Now, at that point, where "bishop" becomes re-contextualized in the NT as "appointed leader", is a bishop (overseeing appointed leader) essential to the life of the Church? Absolutely.
NOW let's talk about the grace that exudes from appointed and hopefully anointed leadership. NOW let's talk of holy obdedience and submission, trust and faithful conservation of the Gospel.

So then I poked fun at the question itself, by asking if laity were really necessary. Of course, from a Venn diagram perspective, The Laity circle is the one that encircles all others. No laity, no church on earth, thus laity are essential. But our minds usually think of laity as those who have not been ordained, and so in theory from that skewed perspective the answer would unfortunately be no.

At this point we are only left with the question of whether those in leadership of any church, whether called bishops or something else, should all submit to a physical connection to a succesion traceable to the apostles. From the point of Church Union, yes. From the point of the grace of Jesus Christ manifested as authentic, not necessary.

Fr. J said...

I'm saying that FR JONATHAN'S ARGUMENT (which is in fact not his but classicly articulated Anglo-Catholic) is undermined...etc....and, as you know, classic Evangelical refutation is articulated as I did regarding "undermining."

Maybe it isn't totally clear from the excerpt here, but in no way do I imply that classical Anglicanism affirms that bishops who have no faith, as you mention above, are just as good or better than a non-episcopal church that nevertheless makes a faithful witness. The Anglican Reformers and Divines certainly believed that the faith was paramount, which is precisely why they allowed for the possibility of non-episcopal churches as a temporary anomaly. One deals with a heart attack before worrying about a pair of broken legs. Nevertheless, the broken legs do eventually need to be set, and the assumption of classical Anglicanism was that eventually they would be with the help of the Church of England.

The argument that I lay out is not Anglo-Catholic, at least not in a historical sense. You'll find if you look through my article that I quote no one any later than the seventeenth century, long before the grandfathers of the founders of the Oxford Movement were born.

Robert F said...

Bryan, I have a question: when Fr. Jonathan says that churches that do not practice the historic episcopate can still have grace "by way of concession, by the mercy of Christ," what does this mean? I thought all grace was given by God's mercy and concession. Does it mean that God is bound to give grace to those churches that practice the historic episcopate? If he is bound, then it is not grace, but something he owes the church based on its practice. I have trouble seeing how this is a meaningful assertion. Can you help me? Maybe I'm not understanding what Fr. Jonathan is saying.

Bryan Owen said...

Good questions, Robert F. I think it would be best for Fr. Jonathan to answer them if he's willing to do so. I'll send him a message to see if he'll weigh in .

Fr. J said...

Hello Robert,

I appreciate your question and your desire to maintain God's sovereignty and freedom. Of course you are right that all the grace that God pours out upon us is given freely. God is never bound. He owes us nothing. It's all an unmerited gift.

Nevertheless, He has given to us sure signs and means by which we can receive that grace in the Holy Sacraments. So, for instance, we know that when a person is baptized that God gives him or her the saving grace of the cross, that the person dies with Christ in the waters of Baptism in order to one day be raised with Christ in the life to come. That is not a human work. God is not being bound by me when I baptize someone. Baptism actually is God's work, and He has assured us that His grace will be freely given through it.

Similarly, the gift of ordination ensures the presence of God's grace. This doesn't bind God either. It is rather God's work, to make a bishop (or a priest or deacon), to give the Holy Spirit to the person who has been ordained bishop in such a way that he can carry out a ministry in the Church. The bishop becomes a channel of grace, not by man's design but by God's free gift. And the presence of the bishop then can be a comfort to us, because it assures us of the grace that we have received.

In non-episcopal churches, there may still be grace present. In fact, I am very much inclined to believe that there is still grace present. But it is grace not given through the normal means that God has provided, which means that it is in some way incomplete, unless by mercy God completes it. So to take another parallel, the thief on the cross receives saving grace through his declaration of faith even though he hasn't been baptized. Nevertheless, baptism is the ordinary means by which we receive saving grace. So while God may sometimes show an extra mercy, it would be wrong for us to then oppose or discard the normal means for grace that He has given us. The thief on the cross had no opportunity to be baptized, so God had mercy. But it would be to presuppose upon God's mercy to test Him by simply rejecting baptism and assuming that God will give us what we need by some other channel.

Similarly, the Anglican Divines argued that continental Protestants received the grace of the Church that normally came through episcopacy because they were in a situation where episcopacy was unavailable. And I believe that God may still grant a kind of grace to those churches today, even in the persistent absence of episcopacy, as a special kind of mercy for those who have been mis-catechized as to believe that episcopacy is unnecessary. But if God does act with such mercy from time to time, that does not give us an excuse to abandon what He has given us as a sure means to receive His grace.

Does that help?

Robert F said...

Fr. Jonathan,
Thank you for replying. I do understand your distinction between the normal and extraordinary means that God may use in bestowing his grace upon individuals and also church bodies. I have to confess to feeling that the distinction between normal and extraordinary seems a little incongruous when applied to the God to whom the Bible witnesses, the God who, if I may put it this way, uses extraordinary means routinely. In both the Old and New Testaments, the Lord chooses the most unlikely times to do the most unlikely things with the most unlikely people (including Rahab, Melchizedek, the Jews, Moses, David, Balaam's ass, the Red Sea, Saul/Paul, a cross, the Gentiles, etc., etc.) with what seems to be complete disregard for the normal means. And even today, he seems to be doing the most extraordinary things among huge groups of people in Asia(especially China), Africa and South America who have come to passionately believe in him without benefit of the historic episcopate, elaborate liturgy or extensive hierarchical church structures. From what I can discern, the Lord continues to do his work in much of the world without reference to any normal means, in his sovereignly iconoclastic way, without explanation or dependence on any specific church polity. When I read the Bible, and then look at the places where the Kingdom of God is on the move in the world, that is what I see.

Robert F said...

Fr. Jonathan,
I might add that I'm a practicing Episcopalian who does believe that the historic episcopate is a unique channel of God's grace necessary for the fullness of the church. But I also believe that the Lord's grace is a mighty flood that regularly overflows any and all channels in ways that cannot be accounted for.

Fr. J said...

The thing to remember is that the sacraments are normative because God made them so. They are God’s channels of grace, not ours. In fact, it would not be inappropriate to say that they are God come to us. Baptism and the Eucharist are Jesus. They are the saving grace of the God-man made manifest for us, and we are commanded to receive them by Holy Scripture if we are to receive Him.

It is true that in Scripture God often does the unexpected, speaking through Balaam’s ass or making the chief persecutor of Christians into the chief herald of the Gospel in the person of Saint Paul. But in each of these situations, God is defying what human beings would consider normative, not what He Himself has made normative. When Christ comes to set us free through the Gospel, He doesn’t set aside the law and the prophets but rather fulfills them. He can and will turn human precepts on their head, showing the wise to be fools and the fools to be wise. God does what we do not expect, but He never does that which would undermine or contradict His Truth.

This teaching about the episcopacy is in some ways a hard teaching because it casts doubt on what has happened in the lives of many faithful followers of Jesus, though the vast majority of Christians today and throughout history have believed in the necessity of episcopacy. But as you point out, there are certainly many people coming to faith around the globe who are without episcopacy and perhaps even without the sacraments of the Gospel and nevertheless seem to be experiencing genuine changes of heart as they come to faith in Christ. However, that fact in and of itself does not prove that God is active in those communities. It certainly seems like He is, and we can and should hope and pray that He is, all the while patiently encouraging those who are coming to faith to receive the fullness of God’s Word by receiving that which they are lacking. But the subjective sense that these folks have of an experience of God’s grace, as powerful and wonderful as it is, does not equal an objective assurance of God’s grace being present. Otherwise, we would have to concede that Islam and Mormonism are both God’s doing since both of those movements are growing exponentially around the globe as well. In fact, we'd have to conclude that God sometimes saves without Christ since many people feel a sense of God's presence without turning to Jesus and trusting Him alone as Lord. Once experience is allowed an equal seat at the table next to God's Word, there is no end to the ways in which God's Word can be reinterpreted and ultimately dissolved...

Fr. J said...

...So the question of where and how God operates can never be decided primarily by an appeal to experience. It has to be decided by the objective criteria of what God has left to us in His Word. And as the earliest Christians received and understood that Word, so must we today, that we need episcopacy to receive God’s grace.
Now, as I’ve said, I’m not willing to say that God never gives His grace by some other means. There are examples of Him doing so in Scripture, such as the thief on the cross. And if we follow the example of our Anglican forefathers, we may hope that God will give that grace of fullness to our non-episcopal brethren by some other means on account of them not having access to genuine episcopacy or otherwise being unaware that they need it. But we cannot know for sure what God will do in such situations because He hasn’t told us, His Word being silent on the matter. I can hope and pray that my brothers and sisters who have come to faith in Christ who are without the sacraments will be given sacramental grace, but I can’t know that they will, where as when I receive the Holy Eucharist I can know for sure that Christ is there. And, in fact, in the case of those who have explicitly rejected the sacraments and rejected episcopacy, they are in a particularly perilous situation because they have rejected God’s Word on these matters. They are in the same boat as Israel was in the time of the prophets when she stepped away from God’s commands time and time again. They should repent.

That God is merciful is certain. That we can rely on His mercy is equally certain, which is a great blessing, since without it we would be lost. But those facts do not grant us license to test the limits of that mercy.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for offering clarifying thoughts on all of this, Fr. J. And please accept my apologies for taking so long to post your last comment. I've been having computer and phone issues this week, and it's also been a very busy time in the parish!