Ask an Anglican: Can There Be a Church Without a Bishop?


Caleb writes:

As a relatively new Anglican, I am still trying to navigate how our communion positions itself in relation to other communions. Among the “big three” (Rome, Orthodoxy, and Anglicanism), we’re peculiar in that, while we maintain an historic episcopacy and real sacraments, we do not understand those elements to bestow upon us the exclusive status of THE one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church in distinction from all others. I welcome this peculiarity, however, it opens up some ambiguity when I ponder those brothers and sisters of thoroughly Protestant traditions. If we believe that the episcopacy is important and that Christ mediates and manifests His Person and Work through the sacramental doings of the Church, His Body, then there simply has to be something that the average evangelical who willfully denies both those elements is missing; I don’t believe they’re out of the Church, but I see this as too grave a difference to be inconsequential. Can one ultimately separate the question of “Is Christ our only mediator and advocate?” from “In what manner does Christ mediate and advocate?” and then say that it is only the answer to the first question (yes or no) that determines orthodox/heterodox belief while the answers to the second question are adiaphora?

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!”

That’s kind of a silly story, but it makes the crucial point. If the only reason we keep bishops around is because it seems like a pretty good system, we are not paying much attention. Clearly, having bishops in apostolic succession has not lead to churches that are free from error and hardship. So why insist on keeping them? The only reason that makes any sense is the one offered by classical Anglicanism, that episcopacy is of the esse of the Church.

Of course, this is not a popular sentiment in certain parts of the Anglican world today, and the mere utterance of it is likely to get you libeled as an Anglo-Catholic who is stuck in the nineteenth century. It’s true that Anglo-Catholics have strenuously fought for this position. It’s also true that the nineteenth and early twentieth century emphasis placed on the continuity of the episcopacy by Anglo-Catholics has led to a cheapened view of apostolic succession as something merely mechanical. No one prior to the nineteenth century would have ever come up with the strange notion that a church can be in apostolic succession even if the bishops have all become apostate and the teaching of the faith abandoned, so long as they have had magic hands laid on their heads.

Nevertheless, the classical Anglican position on episcopacy that emerges out of the Elizabethan Settlement is that of the necessary character of the office. The teaching of the Church could not be clearer on this point. “It is evident unto all men diligently reading holy Scripture and ancient Authors,” says the Book of Common Prayer, “that from the Apostles’ time there have been these Orders of Ministers in Christ’s Church; Bishops, Priests, and Deacons.” No man may assume any of these offices unless he “hath had Episcopal Consecration, or Ordination.”

Classical Anglicanism and Episcopacy

There is a great wealth of writing on this subject by Anglican Divines, and one finds this writing long before the Oxford Movement was even a glimmer in Newman’s eye. Richard Hooker writes extensively on the topic in The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, particularly in Book VII. “That so the ancient Fathers did think of episcopal regiment,” says Hooker, “that they held this order as a thing received from the blessed Apostles themselves, and authorized even from heaven…” Hooker invokes the giving of the keys to Peter in Matthew 16, the giving of the Holy Spirit to the apostles in John 21, the authority that is granted to Matthias in Acts 1 where the word episcope is applied to his apostolic office, and the command of Paul to Titus that, as bishop, he should go to Crete and ordain presbyters (Titus 1:5-9).

According to Hooker and the other Divines, by right of succession, bishops stand within local churches as representatives of the apostles and are therefore called to be pastors not just of the laity but of other pastors. They are given the exclusive power to ordain and to excommunicate. While there were many priests in each city in the ancient world, only one bishop was ordained, and that bishop’s name was the one included in that city’s lineage that was used to denote that the church there was a true church. Moreover, the work of preaching and celebrating the sacraments that is done by priests as well as bishops is grounded in episcopacy. As Hooker puts it, “The Presbyter’s authority to do these things is derived from the Bishop which doth ordain him thereunto, so that even in those things which are common unto both, yet the power of the one is as it were a certain light borrowed from the other’s lamp.”

Episcopacy as a means of Grace

Bishops are not simply a nicety but a necessity. Preaching at the consecration of Francis White in 1626, John Cosin eloquently expresses the Church’s need for episcopacy:

[Jesus], sent by His Father to be a Mediator for mankind, and to reconcile the world by His death and sacrifice upon the cross; [the Apostles and Bishops], sent by Him, to mediate and to pray for the people, to be ministers of the reconciliation, as St. Paul speaks, and in a manner, to be sacrificers too, representers at the Altar here, and appliers of the Sacrifice once made for all; without which last act, the first will do us no good.

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.

The Non-Episcopal Reformed Churches

Of course, the Divines were willing to make certain limited exceptions. The Divines knew that the Church of England owed a debt of gratitude to the continental Reformers and so they were extremely reluctant to say anything that would question the faith or salvation of their Reformed brethren. The Divines argue that Christians on the continent were in a bind at the time of the Reformation because they had no bishops available to them who proclaimed the true faith. They were forced to establish alternative governance and even alternative orders in the short term to guard the faith and make sure that it did not die out in their countries. The Divines suggest that in such extreme cases it may be necessary for churches to function with non-episcopal orders, just as in extreme cases it may be necessary for a lay person to baptize.

Nevertheless, the Divines vigorously opposed the Puritans who sought to abolish episcopacy in the Church of England. Joseph Hall, in his 1637 treatise Episcopacy by Divine Right Asserted addresses the Puritans directly, arguing that it is folly for the Puritans to compare themselves with Protestants on the continent. “For, know, their case and yours is far enough different,” says Hall. “They plead to be, by a kind of necessity, cast upon that condition which you have willingly chosen.” The Divines assume that these churches which have had to make temporary provision in the absence of bishops will be returned to episcopacy soon enough. It is the responsibility of the Church of England, as a Reformed Church that has maintained episcopacy, to guard this treasure carefully, so that when the time is right she may give this gift back to the other Reformational churches as they are ready to receive it.

This is, of course, somewhat naive. The rejection of episcopacy amongst the continental churches, particularly amongst the heirs of Zwingli and Calvin, was defended by many second generation Protestants as a return to the pure Church in which they came to believe that there was no real separation between bishops and other pastors. Nevertheless, it is this understanding of the Church of England’s role in safe-guarding episcopacy for Protestantism that animates the Anglican approach to ecumenism for centuries, culminating in the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, which 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. It would not make sense for the Anglican Communion to claim to be the whole Catholic Church unto itself since that was never the claim of the Church of England from whence the Communion comes. Rather, it is the practice of those principles of apostolic faith that are known lately as Anglicanism within a given church that makes it legitimate, whether or not that church has an Anglican history or would call what it is doing Anglican. The label is less important than the principle.

No Bishop, No Church… No Problem?

But then, is there no grace and no truth in those bodies that have rejected episcopacy? That would be a stretch. While the Quadrilateral points to the historic episcopate as one necessary mark of the Church, it is not the only one. Wherever there is legitimate Baptism and the preaching of the Word, there are true Christians who are truly part of the one Church that Christ established. It is just my personal opinion, but I would say that there is grace present even in ordinations within non-episcopal churches, though it may be of a different character than ours. The separation of Christians that has abided since the Great Schism does not mean that Christ’s Body is not truly one, even though we sinfully tear at it. We are all baptized into the same Body of Christ, and therefore we abide within the same Church, and since our Anglican corner of the Church has maintained episcopacy (along with Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox), the Church as a whole is not denied the grace that flows from episcopal ministry.

Nevertheless, 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. This should not give Anglicans any room to boast, however, since in many of these non-episcopal churches there are Christians doing far more with what they have been given than we do with the treasure that has been left to us. Still, if the Church is ever to be united in obedience to Christ again, the restoration of genuine episcopacy will have to be a first order issue. Episcopacy is not just a gift for our well being; it is of the essence of our participation in the Body of Christ.

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About Fr. Jonathan

Your average traditional crunchy Christ follower with a penchant for pop culture, politics, and puns.
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13 Responses to Ask an Anglican: Can There Be a Church Without a Bishop?

  1. BC says:

    A suitably appropriate post for St Bartholomew’s Day, the anniversary of the Act of Uniformity! Your summary of how classical Anglicanism affirmed a catholic understanding of episcopacy while exercising charity towards non-episcopal reformed churches is a reminder of Anglicanism’s vocation – to live out catholic faith in a Reformation context. In Ireland and England, this finds contemporary expression in Anglicanism’s relationship with Methodism. The Anglican-Methodist dialogue recognises non-episcopal ministries as a means of grace, but is oriented towards Methodism re-receiving the episcopate as a gift which secures and enhances communion.

  2. Robert says:

    I had the impression that grace is given to all churches by Christ’s mercy, including those in the Apostolic succession.

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      Absolutely true. It is all mercy, for all of us. The only difference is that 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.

  3. Bryan Owen says:

    I’m really enjoying your postings in the “Ask an Anglican” series, Fr. Jonathan. Have you considered putting them all together for book publication (same thing with the marriage series)?

    I appreciate your balanced perspective when it comes to Christians who do not live under the historic episcopate, as well as your insistence that bishops ordained in apostolic succession are necessary for the fullness of the Church.

    William Reed Huntington (whose contributions to the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral are well known) argued in his book The Church-Idea that Anglicanism “stands or falls” by the historic episcopate. He drove the 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.”

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      Great quote from Huntington! I thought about quoting from him and from John Henry Hobart, but the article was getting to be so long as is that I figured I’d best stick with the seventeenth century. Still, nice to know we’ve had some great saints in the American Church!

      I have actually thought about doing a book, both on marriage and on classical Anglicanism in general. The problem is that I don’t really know what one has to do to get such a thing published. Any ideas how one goes about doing that?

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  5. Matthew Nelson says:

    I have read several theologians characterize Hooker’s position regarding the episcopacy as that of “plena esse” — necessary for the fullness of the Church. This position is appealing because it avoids both the reductionism of the “esse” position and the indifferentism of the “bene esse” position. Indeed, recognizing episcopal structure as the normal organizational plan of the Church, yet refusing to un-Chruch non-episcopal denominations seem to be the “via media.”

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      I think that’s about right in regards to Hooker, that he sees episcopacy as necessary for the Church as a whole but does not deny the possibility of occasional abnormal situations requiring a given national church (and Hooker assumes national churches) to have to be without episcopacy for a time. So not having the episcopacy doesn’t necessarily unchurch a given Christian body in the way that doing something like rejecting the Trinity or the scriptures would do. Nevertheless, Hooker is clear that the Church as a whole needs the episcopacy, and so any variation from this model must be temporary and it is incumbent upon churches that continue to uphold the historic episcopacy to give it back to their sister churches at the earliest possible time. Hooker’s model holds two very important implications. The first is that there is some sense in which the churches that have absented themselves from episcopacy are incomplete and dependent on churches that have maintained it. The second is that all churches, even those who have lost a true episcopacy, have a responsibility to seek and maintain the historic ministry. Hooker did not imagine that there would be churches where episcopacy would be eschewed in the long term. Under Hooker’s definition there is then some question as to whether a body of Christians that not only does not currently have bishops but actively argues against them on theological grounds can really claim to be a church at all since it not only lacks but also rejects a basic biblical structure.

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  7. jane wolfe says:

    on another question, can you have a dean of an anglican/episcopal cathedral that is not an ordained person? I know you can have a Rector that is not ordained, but was wondering about a dean.

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      Rules differ somewhat from one Anglican province to another, but I’m unaware of any place where you can be either a cathedral dean or a rector without being ordained. The only non-ordained position like that I can think of is Canon to the Ordinary, which can be held by a lay person or an ordained person.

      • jane wolfe says:

        thank you. i was just thinking that the words “dean” and “rector” had a secular dimension that was not designated clergy, therefore maybe an accomplished and appropriate lay person could hold either or one of these jobs without a lot of cannonical and/or resolution rigamarole.

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