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Internet certificate or heir to the apostles?

27 March 2015

In a forthcoming book, Paul Avis explores the many faces of episcopacy, and the claim to Apostolic Succession


Fifty shades of purple: bishops from the Anglican Communion gather for a march against global poverty

Fifty shades of purple: bishops from the Anglican Communion gather for a march against global poverty

"HOW CAN I become a bishop?', someone might be wondering. Well, one way is via the internet. Send off your money and get a certificate by return stating that you are now a bishop (though of no known church). Now all you need is a flock, and a diocese!

Another route is to apply to be considered in one of the mainstream churches (but first make sure that it is a church that actually has bishops - some do not). Even in the rather traditional Church of England, you can actually apply to be a bishop, which seems rather odd to me and goes against the grain. I suspect many spiritually suitable candidates will never apply in person, though others can put their names forward. But, unless you have glowing references as to your track record, gifts and suitability, plus support from members of the Crown Nominations Commission of the General Synod, you won't get very far.

Although the process of selection in the Church of England is now much more open than in the past, it is still a far cry from the electioneering and hustings of some parts of the Anglican Communion. I think that it is quite possible to feel that you have something to offer in episcopal ministry, and desire to serve God and the Church in that way, yet still shrink from it. I reckon that the combination of willingness and diffidence is healthy. Sometimes prelates are asked, 'Did you want to be bishop/archbishop?' It is unthinkable that the answer could be, "Yes, I did." Rowan Williams once replied to that question, "Not particularly", which is a beautifully nuanced and ambiguous reply. It is known of some past Archbishops of Canterbury that, as schoolboys, they practised the signature "Cantuar:"; sometimes God winks at youthful pride and emulation.

THROUGHOUT the Anglican Communion today, bishops are chosen by a process of nomination, election and confirmation - a process that varies in its application from one member Church to another. Anglicans believe that it is right that churches should choose their own bishops, and not have them foisted upon them, as they are in some churches. But, because a bishop is a bishop in the Church of God, and not only a bishop in a particular diocese or church, the implications of any election for the well-being of the wider Church, and particularly for its unity, should always be taken into account.

It is a tremendously affirming experience for bishops to know that they are the Church's choice. But it has not always been the practice for churches to choose their own bishops. Often in history the monarch or equivalent civil ruler had the major, or sole, say in appointments. In the 20th century, the Roman Catholic Church formalised and bureaucratised the practice of bishops all around the world being appointed by the pope. And, until the 1970s, British Prime Ministers had the major responsibility for the appointment of bishops in the Church of England. They simply recommended a name to the Sovereign, after consulting the Archbishop of Canterbury and anyone else they thought fit to ask.

It was in that context that Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone gave a list of qualifications that he looked for in a future bishop. Gladstone had plenty of experience of choosing bishops, being Prime Minister of the United Kingdom four times. Gladstone was a lay pillar of the Church, a considerable theologian in his own right and more theologically learned than most bishops of his day - and that was saying something. Here are his selection criteria: Piety, Learning (Sacred)/Eloquence/Administrative power/Faithful allegiance to the Church and to the Church of England/Activity/Tact and courtesy in dealings with men, and knowledge of the world/Accomplishments and literature/An equitable spirit/Faculty of working with his brother bishops/Some legal habit of mind/Circumspection/Courage/Maturity of age and character/ Corporal vigour/Liberal sentiments on public affairs/A representative character with reference to shades of opinion fairly allowable in the Church.

Here we have, rather jumbled up, different kinds of qualities: physical ("vigour"), moral ("circumspection" or discretion; "courage"), spiritual ("piety", "faithfulness") and intellectual ("learning", culture). Probably there has never been a bishop who was fully able to meet Gladstone's exacting requirements. As bishops sometimes say to parishes looking for a new rector, "Only the Archangel Gabriel would match your expectations!"

A GOOD-ENOUGH bishop is a precious gift of God to God's Church. While it is true that some dioceses revive after the bishop has moved on - just as some parishes spring back to life after the departure of their priest, whose presence acted like a wet blanket on lay initiative - a good bishop is a source of strength, inspiration, and wisdom to his or her people. Bishops can make a qualitative difference, for good or ill, to how church people experience their faith, worship and witness from day to day. How Christian people see their bishop affects their morale - for better or worse. Bishops set the overall tone of their dioceses by their example, their words and their actions. But a poorly equipped bishop - one who lacks understanding of the office, or the skills and aptitudes to carry it out - is a serious liability. A bishop who is not up to the job can have a devastating effect on the morale and functioning of the diocese, and hold back its mission.

A bishop is entrusted with a daunting role and is asked to do an extremely difficult job. Some clergy crave a bishopric and think that somehow they deserve it, but if they get it, they find it is not quite what they hoped for. There is always a sense that a prospective bishop should shrink from the responsibilities that will be thrust upon him or her. There is an ancient tradition of reluctance: the candidate would decline twice over, sincerely or in pretence, with the words, Nolo episcopari ("I do not want to be a bishop"). Some would say that a bishop has a thankless task. But a bishop is not a bishop in order to be thanked. A bishop's first thought will be, in the words of St Paul, "Who is sufficient for these things?" Lancelot Andrewes, an eminent, scholarly bishop in early 17th century England, had those words engraved on his episcopal seal. But a bishop will answer that question in the same way that St Paul does: "Our sufficiency is of God" (2 Corinthians 2.16; 3.5, KJB).

The bishop's first priority in fulfilling the role that is thrust upon him or her is not to ask, "How well am I doing?" or, "How am I going down with my people?", but to be faithful to the calling that they have received from God and the Church. If a bishop's aim in life is to please the people and to be a popular figure that everyone loves, he or she will be a dismal failure as a bishop. A bishop seeking popularity is doomed to fail; their integrity is already draining away. "Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets" (Luke 6.26). As Abraham Lincoln famously said, "You can please all of the people some of the time, some of the people all of the time, but you can never please all of the people all of the time."

IN THE Anglican Communion there is a continuous succession of bishops, going back to the apostolic age, which is one of the ways (though not necessarily the most important) in which we know that the church of today is the same church as the church of the apostles - that the church is apostolic. It is clear from the study of church history that the Anglican understanding of episcopacy and its practice has evolved considerably over the centuries, as it has in the Roman Catholic church. However, there is a strong case for thinking that the essentials have remained much the same over time, while the emphasis on different aspects of episcopal ministry has varied. Anglicans look not only to Scripture, but also to patristic and medieval, as well as to Reformation and modern, models of episcopacy as sources for how they understand that ministry now.

BISHOPS are regarded in Anglican, as well as in Orthodox and Roman Catholic ecclesiology, as successors of the Twelve Apostles. This looks like an extremely grandiose claim and one that raises expectations that cannot be realised - including that bishops should be able to work miracles! So what does it mean? Obviously, bishops cannot be successors of the apostles in respect of the apostles' unique, irreplaceable role as witnesses to Christ's resurrection (Luke 24.48; Acts 1.8). What is meant, I suggest, is that bishops continue the work of the apostles in three ways: (a) upholding, expounding, and promoting the apostolic faith; (b) leading the faithful in the apostolic mission of the gospel in the midst of the world; and (c) being a visible link through history, by continuous succession, with the church of the apostles. In these three ways, the episcopate - the historic episcopate - forms one of the building blocks of the visible, faithful continuity of the church through history, that is to say, its apostolicity. As Michael Ramsey succinctly put it with reference to the early church, 'The Episcopate succeeded the Apostolate as the organ of unity and continuity.'[ . . .]

Contrary to popular assumption, it seems that the Twelve [Apostles] were not missionaries who travelled to the ends of the earth with the gospel. They seem to have been based, at least at first, in Jerusalem and the surrounding area (Acts 8.1; 11.1; 12.3; 15.4). Neither did they preside as resident chief pastors in a local church - not even in Jerusalem, where James (not the apostle, but the brother of the Lord) appears to have had a presiding role (Acts 15.13-21).

It was Paul who was the missionary apostle who founded churches and continued, even when not physically present, to have oversight of them. And it is Paul's concept of an apostle as a missionary and founder of churches that has become the normative understanding of apostolic ministry. But, as an outsider, Paul had to seek approval from the apostles and elders in Jerusalem for his mission to the Gentiles and his gospel of radical freedom from the law. The apostles were not a loose bunch of freelance individuals, each doing his own thing as he thought fit, but were constituted as a body, a team, a unit, possibly a council - or in later ecclesiology, a "college" - by the call and commission of Christ (Mark 3.13-19; Matthew 28.16-20). Collectively the apostles were responsible for the welfare and integrity of the Church - and in that sense bishops follow in their footsteps.[ . . .]

The process of transition from apostle to bishop in the early church remains obscure, but . . "the picture is one of gradual development from various forms of episcope always present, into a pattern of one bishop in each local church". Altogether, while there is not a single New Testament example of apostles laying hands on bishops, a sound theological case can be made for holding, as Anglicans do, that bishops are successors of the apostles in certain defined ways. This further suggests that the episcopate belongs to God's intention for the Church; that it is, albeit through a process of providential development, of divine institution. However, that is not the same as saying that episcopacy is of the esse of the Church, such that no church can be a church without it. That has always been very much a minority view among Anglican theologians, has not been officially endorsed, and has not figured in Anglican ecumenical dialogue.

This is an edited extract from Becoming a Bishop: A theological handbook of episcopal ministry by Paul Avis, to be published by T & T Clark in July 2015.

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