The Anglican Way: The Organic Episcopate

One of the clearest differences between Anglicanism and other Protestant traditions is that we have retained the pattern of ordained ministry handed down from the early Church. The preface to the ordinal of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer states, “It is evident unto all men, diligently reading holy scripture and ancient Authors, that from the Apostles’ time there have been these orders of Ministers in Christ’s Church; Bishops, Priests, and Deacons.” The Anglican Communion retains these orders, just as the Roman Catholic Church and the various Othodox Churches have retained them, and yet we live them out in a very different way. The Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral tells us that one of the signs of the true Church is the presence of “the Historic Episcopate, locally adapted in the methods of its administration to the varying needs of the nations and people called by God into the Unity of his Church.” The way that bishops, priests, and deacons carry out their ministries can and must be adapted to deal with different realities in different places. The way that a bishop operates in twenty-first century Kenya should not be exactly the same as the way that a bishop operated in nineteenth century England.

It’s hard to parse out exactly what this means, because I’m speaking here about something that has arisen within Anglicanism organically, through the practice of our faith, rather than something which finds its roots in a doctrinal formulation. On paper, a bishop in one place ought to be seen exactly the same as a bishop in another. Our orders are meant to be interchangeable. If I left America and went to England, I might have to go through a licensing procedure to act as a priest there, but I would not be re-ordained. For bishops, this is even more crucial, since bishops are consecrated to be guardians of the faith for the whole Church, not just for an individual diocese or province. And yet, differences remain that are far more than merely linguistic or cultural variations. There is a uniqueness to being an Anglican bishop in Japan or in Canada or in Argentina that is simply not transferable from one place to the next, nor should it be. The sacramental integrity of the bishop and his job as guardian of the faith is the same everywhere, but the way that this ministry is carried out evolves from within the gathered community.

Two Different Bishops in Two Very Different Places

Allow me a brief anecdotal example. I had a conversation a couple of years ago with an American bishop who had just returned from the 2008 Lambeth Conference. It had been his first time at such an international gathering and he was truly astonished by what he learned there in conversation with other bishops. He told me about a bishop in his small group whose diocese was spread out across a series of small islands off the coast of Africa. This African bishop has a small boat which he paddles from island to island. His diocese is spread out further geographically than his American counterpart’s and it has many more parishes. Nevertheless, this African bishop makes it a point of visiting each parish at least once a month. This was astonishing and humbling to the American bishop who is only required to visit all of his parishes once every three years. But in this particular African bishop’s context, to do any less would be a great shirking of responsibility, because the bishop’s role there is to be a sort of father figure who acts in each parish as the patriarch of an extended family. Not visiting often would be akin to abandoning one’s children.

From this example, a number of inappropriate generalizations might be drawn. Some people may criticize the African system for putting so much authority in the bishop’s hands and thereby infantilizing the laity and even the priests and deacons. Others may aim their criticism at the American system for turning our bishops into bureaucrats who are so bogged down in administrative tasks that they lack the time and discipline to be effective pastors. But if we suspend judgment and assume the best about both cultures, what we find are two different models of the episcopate that simply cannot be traded. The American bishop would obviously be lost in the African’s context, not only because of the strain of sorting out his role in a vast web of interpersonal connections with his people, but because of the numerous sacrifices additionally required in his personal and family life, not to mention the physical strain of so much daily travel. On the other hand, speaking as an American priest, while I would prefer that our bishops be given the space to be more intentional pastors than they are able to be currently, I cannot say that I would want the standard to become an episcopal visit every couple of weeks. That kind of constant oversight, seen in the African’s context as a sign of familial love, would quickly be seen as micro-managing here. The work of the bishop is very different in these two places because the places themselves are very different.

Adaptability Versus Imperialism

The ordained ministry in Anglicanism has been allowed to adapt to its surroundings, for better or for worse. Obviously, in some instances, that adaptability has led to bishops and other clergy who have privileged the culture above the gospel itself, resulting in the unraveling of local churches. Yet, in places where the priority of the gospel has not been lost, the adaptability of our ministry to local needs and circumstances has helped to propel Anglicanism from a mono-cultural British Christianity into a global faith. The sixteenth century Anglican Reformers could hardly have imagined that there would one day be Christians all over the world calling themselves Anglican. It is easy, in the midst of the current season of crisis in the Anglican Communion, to forget how truly remarkable it is that Anglicanism has spread so far and wide.

The common story behind Anglicanism’s meteoric spread around the globe is that it was accomplished almost entirely through British imperialism. As the British conquered various places around the world, they brought their churches with them. Eventually, missionary societies sprung up which sent out workers throughout the vast British Empire to bring British religion and no small amount of British culture to the native peoples of each colony. This story has been told in detail in a number of places, so I won’t belabor the point here. But what I would like to suggest is that while imperialism may have been the tool through which Anglicanism initially spread, Anglicanism’s ongoing success and endurance had little to do with it. Rather, the adaptability of Anglicanism is a much more potent factor in Anglicanism’s viability. And that adaptability stands directly contrary to imperialism. While the influence of imperialism upon missionary activity was to try to pair Christianity as closely as possible with being European, white, and thus civilized, the Anglicanism that blossomed over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries into what we have today is instead indigenous, independent, and ethnically diverse. So the adaptability that we see in the episcopate cannot be the product of imperialism. It has to be something that springs forth from Anglicanism itself.

Reformation Roots

I would argue that the seeds of Anglican adaptability can be found even in the earliest days of the Anglican Reformation. The political reality that made the Reformation possible was the pope’s refusal to annul the marriage of King Henry VIII to Catherine of Aragon, an annulment that had been ruled valid by the bishops of the local church. However, the theological issue at play was the right of the local church to be in charge of its own affairs, in so much as the local church does not seek to change the content of the faith once delivered to the saints. Whether or not the local bishops made the right call in allowing for Henry’s annulment, allowing such an annulment to take place certainly does not rise to the level of a serious departure from the faith in which outside bishops would be compelled to act. As the original version of Article XXXVII states, “The Bishop of Rome hath no jurisdiction in this Realm of England.” Thus, the Anglican Reformers opted for a view of the Church in which each people, secure within their own borders and having their own ecclesiastical hierarchy, may govern their own church as they see fit. In England, this led to a particularly strong ecclesiastical role for the monarchy, which we will explore a little bit in a later post in this series. But once Anglicanism spread outside of England, the reference back to the crown was severed and other national churches emerged. It is in the DNA of Anglicanism that particular, national churches will have their own structures, their own governance, and their own approach to sharing the gospel with their own people.

The Fruit of National Churches

The impulse in Anglicanism towards particular, national churches has meant that the culture of those churches has largely filtered from the bottom up, despite the efforts of imperialism to impose structures from the outside. While a certain Englishness can be seen throughout the Communion in things like the wearing of purple by bishops and the use of Cranmerian language in worship, the granting of autonomy in each province has made the movement towards more and more indigenous expression inescapable. Churches have made their own translations of the Book of Common Prayer that have become less literal and more inclusive of colloquialism as the years have gone by. New monastic orders have sprung up, such as the Melanesian Brotherhood, which have adapted traditional religious vows to use in new contexts. Local rituals and traditions have found their way into Anglican liturgy. And, of course, there have been varied approaches taken to the way in which clergy serve the people of their parishes and dioceses.

From the outside, all of this might look a bit messy. Yet it speaks to Anglicanism’s strength that the tradition is not just an export of western culture but a true and lively expression of the gospel that can speak to different communities in different ways while maintaining the unity of the faith. What Anglicanism struggles with today is finding a way to balance the needs of the local culture with the universal nature of the faith we proclaim. Finding the way through that, however, will require us not to simply make up new structures (though such structures may become necessary), but to reach back into our own history and find the seeds already laid by our forefathers in faith that are primed to grow into the fruit of conciliarity if we allow them to do so. We can be conciliar, just as the early Church was, without losing our characteristic adaptability. We can be the Body of Christ through rich, deep sacramental bonds that are rooted in the biblical witness and the shared norms of our tradition rather than through some sort of institutional alchemy. The key is not to look at something like holy orders as simply a mechanism for church governance, but to see it for what it is, an organic expression of both the universality and the particularity of the gospel.

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