On Polity #4: The Episcopate.

On Polity #4: The Episcopate.

Polity and common understandings:

Having written on some first principles of Polity, Polity as provisional, and given a rationale for a series on polity, I now would like to make some comments on the matter of the Episcopate.

Of course these are brief and no substitute for a real exploration of the subject, but they do suggest a starting point, namely that polity involves a lot of what we might call common understandings – things unwritten because in some sense practiced and assumed to be true. 

The Episcopate as central to order.

Anglican Churches believe that the office of bishop is central to the right ordering of the practical theology of the church – that is its pastoral, sacramental and teaching practice. These roles concern being the head of household, the head teacher of a learning or religious community, or the shaman of a community.  The notion that there should be a focus of communal unity is a perfectly ordinary expectation of organizational life, common to many structures in society.

Power might or might not rest with such a person, but authority does.  Bishops, like Principals or Abbots have authority in specific areas. They exercise the power that goes with that authority in accordance with a governing polity, and in some sad cases in accordance with personal or corporate desire for power itself.

It is either an accident of history or the product of God’s odd sense of humor that the episcopate has been endowed in many parts of the world with the trappings of princely power.  The fourth principle of the Chicago Lambeth Quadrilateral reads, “The Historic Episcopate, locally adapted in the methods of its administration to the varying needs of the nations and people called of God into the Unity of His Church.” Those needs might or might not engage bishops in the exercise of authority as somehow parallel to the offices of the state, but the “Historic Episcopate” is not about such powers. It is about the spiritual authority that guides the church and guards its unity and how that authority is incarnated.

At various times greater or lesser accent has been given to the bishop as ruler in the church – the role of administrator, judge, liege lord, prince, etc. But those duties, the duties of temporal rule, have been secondary to the duties as head of household, the stand-in, as it were, for Jesus as head of household.  In all likelihood the earliest form of the episcopate was indeed of a person held in such regard that he (or perhaps she) was like a parent to the household of the church. There is an echo of this found in the phrase, “Reverend Father in God, I present to you…” used in the 1928 BCP ordination rite.

There is little warrant in the early church for a Papal or any other “religious” state, such things as Papal Tiara, archiepiscopal designations (Archbishops and Metropolitans) which are in effect parallel “spiritual” jurisdictions to those of various national or imperial “secular” leaders. The notion of a prince bishop is very far from the needs of most Christian communities.

The temptation to consider bishops as “Lords Spiritual” and “princes of the Church” may be there in English or Roman ecclesial systems, but in The Episcopal Church the Bishop is not “My Lord Bishop”, “Your Grace” or “Monsignor.”  She or he is “Bishop.” In any event it is assumed in the Lambeth Quadrilateral that bishops will operate in different sorts of ways in different church circumstances, and so it has been in The Episcopal Church.

Episcopal order in a democratic society.

In the years leading up to Independence and the forming of The Episcopal Church, churches in the colonies went to considerable lengths to continue with clergy ordained by bishops, and when it became clear that The United States of America was off and running, arrangements were quickly made to provide for an episcopate in this new country. The history of all that is not the subject of these notes, except to say that Anglicans in the colonies did not forget, even with bishops absent, that they were part of an episcopal church in polity and practice.

Among the problems in determining just what the polity of The Episcopal Church is in reference to bishops is that “facts on the ground” often give a different read on the role and duties of bishops than is offered in the Prayer Book and the Constitution and Canons.  Just as in the practice of the Church of England or the Church of Rome there were symbolic and practical ways in which the power of the episcopate was exercised, so it was to be in the Episcopal Church. But those characteristics of the polity of the Church are adjunct to the canons themselves, bringing extra-canonical expectations and understandings into the question of the role of the episcopate.

There is nothing in the Book of Common Prayer, for instance, that suggests that bishops ought to wear mitres, and certainly no sense that these bits of headdress signal any princely standing – spiritual or otherwise.  But the “on the ground” polity does indeed include outward and visible signs of the significance of the bishop’s office, including the wearing of the miter, seal rings, pectoral crosses, etc.  In the last fifty years the elaboration of episcopal attire has spread widely in The Episcopal Church and the relationship of that spread to changes in the role of bishop can not be wholly accidental. The polity accretions of practice are a reality. Bishops that where royal looking regalia can too swiftly assume royal privilege and power.

The ordination of a bishop, as set forth in the Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer, distinctly indicates that he or she will guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the Church, proclaim and witness to it, be a chief pastor and overseer, chief sacramental officer, lead, supervise and unite the Church, ordain priests and deacons and share in ordination of bishops, teach and stir up the conscience of the people of the diocese, encourage and support all baptized people in their gifts and ministries, nourish them, pray for them, celebrate with them,  share in the government of the whole Church, sustain presbyters and guide deacons and all others who minister in the Church, and show mercy and compassion to the poor and defenseless.

It is left to the Constitution and Canons to specify particular actions of governance that require episcopal engagement, and while there are a wide range of such actions,  it is unclear that the governance role assigned to bishops could not be provided by some alternative oversight mechanism.  The polity of the church (BCP) assumes that bishops in their governance function are important, but it does not assume that the authority of the bishop is exercised by the bishop alone.  Far from it.   

The canons spell out in greater detail just how that authority is exercised.   It is important that we recognize that in The Episcopal Church there exists significant “checks and balances” such that Episcopal authority and Episcopal power are not one and the same. Election rather than appointment is the general rule regarding clergy and governance committees, review by committee the norm regarding the ordination processes, discipline by boards and courts rather than by the bishop alone, all point to the sharing of power within the context of episcopal authority.

Anglicans often claim that in the episcopate we find the instrument that carries forward the apostolic mission and teachings of the faith. Bishops in their teaching role played a very large part in forming the creeds, the canon of New Testament scriptures, and the liturgical and sacramental norms of the Church. And with it they also formed, by teaching, the fact that it was by their apostolic authority that they did so.  The Episcopal Church BCP service for the ordination of bishops stresses the teaching, pastoral and prophetic roles of the bishop, but says very little about the administrative function. But the Book of Common Prayer clearly provides that the teaching, pastoral and prophetic roles are also carried out by all baptized persons to one degree or another.

Our polity, as explicit in prayer book and canons, characterizes the office of Bishop as one of spiritual authority but an authority exhibited in the church in a dispersed way. 

This understanding of the role and function of the bishop in the church is not one shared by all the churches in the Anglican Communion, much less in the wider catholic community. It is, however, what we have and we contend, as a matter of polity, that in all things pertaining to the early church’s intention, our bishops are sufficiently the focus of unity in a diocese and collectively as a synod of bishops, sufficiently the focus of unity in a church, to insure that this church continues the “Apostles teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers” in a unified way.

The Episcopate in Anglicanism

The brokenness of Christendom is a given. It is unclear if this is good or bad, for brokenness in the Church is perhaps a sign that we too participate in the brokenness of the world and that all are in need of restoration.

Be that as it may, in the whole church catholic, the Episcopate has not been the guarantee of unity, but rather both a reach for unity and a source of division.  Anglicans have few illusions about the dangerous scripts available to bishops no matter the structure of their synods or councils. At the same time we Anglicans believe the core of the episcopate – that we Christians are gathered with Christ as our head and that we have an outward and visible sign of that unity is our gathering with our bishop – is a gift of God.

There are countless ways to be confounded by the idle games of power that play out the church, but there are also profound ways in which the relationship between bishop and people can and does mirror the household and the householder, the church and its Chief Pastor for whom the bishop is a sign.

While Anglican Polity understands the episcopacy to be a core value – along with Scripture, Creed and Sacraments – I believe it is clearly derivative and subject to suspension, re-formation, and where it has died out or never has been, regenerated from the stock of the whole Christian community.  I do not believe that only those churches possessing the episcopacy by “manual transmission” of the laying on of hands into the bowels of first century Christian community are to be counted as catholic. Rather I believe that churches holding the faith that in our common life is found the presence of the Lord Jesus who will lead us into all truth will come to some sense of sacramental authority that looks much like what we find in the episcopate.  The last quarter of the Lambeth Quadrilateral may be a stumbling block to reunion at first, but if we view the episcopate as a gift and not as our “property” we may be in a better place to work for a unity.

In The Episcopal Church we seem a long way from that position, although some of our ecumenical discussions bring us closer to an understanding of how we are one with churches who had to develop an episcopacy on their own, or who had the episcopacy and suspended its function because of the misuse of episcopal power. 

We do, however, firmly believe that the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral is right on the point: the Episcopacy is locally adapted in the methods of its administration to the varying needs of the nations and people called of God into the Unity of His Church.  In our church that has meant election by the people of dioceses, consent by lay, clerical and episcopal representatives of all the dioceses of the church, and ordination by at least three bishops, with jurisdiction limited by ordination and canons. 

There is a tendency for power to gravitate or be pulled toward those who are bishops. The polity of the church must provide means to guard against this. The purpose in having bishops is related not to power but to authority, not to the sword but to the staff.  It seems to me we need to work constantly to see that the authority of the bishop is exercised in powers dispersed and widely inclusive of all orders and ministries of the church.  Perhaps too we need to find ways to include in our administration of the church the considered input of those who are not part of the gathered community but are part of the larger community in which we live.

What would it look like to include a member of the local synagogue in the search committee for a new bishop?  Or a Presbyterian pastor? Or a recipient of aid in a homeless shelter?  Are the poor to be numbered among the electors? Nothing in our polity precludes such possibilities. In the history of the church there have been occasions of election by acclimation, and surely among the acclaiming were people of no standing in the church itself.

The polity of the church concerning Bishops is fairly clear cut in canons. The responsibilities are laid out, the duties clear, the qualifications and required affirmations of the bishop-elect specified. What is not so clear is the relationship between the expectations of the BCP and Canons and the expectations of the rather inbred “episcopal” ethos of the church community itself.


  1. I think our Catechism spells out the power and authority of Christian ministry fairly well.

    Q. Who are the ministers of the Church?
    A. The ministers of the Church are lay persons, bishops, priests, and deacons.

    --with lay persons first --because without the laos --the laity, there are no bishops, priest and deacons. Yes, bishops are the primary order from which the ordained are ordered. But bishops are not the primary 'order' of the Church --the laos are.

    (BCP, p855)

    I wonder if a re-visit to this little bit and the bits that follow in the discussion of ministry in our catechism might serve us better than ordination vows etc.

  2. Hi Margaret...I think of you and your move and new work.

    Yes the Catechism is a good source. But I was interested in looking specifically at the matter of bishops because that office has been such a historical and present issue. The question in a sense is, "why bishops?"

    All I was trying to do was push on the idea that we ordain bishops for one sort of authority, sort of an authority in community, but the world (and often bishops themselves) push in a very different direction. The push is for bishops who are authoritarian, whose power is "from above" and not from within the community.

    It would be interesting to see just how the catechism relates to the various vows taken in baptism, ordination, life unions, etc.

    I will go off and think more on what you say.


  3. Some excellent stuff here, Mark!

    One aspect I notice (at least in my own church) is that quite a bit of power accrues to the bishop simply by virtue of the bishop's role in licensing clergy and laity to ministry roles. A license given can be withheld or even withdrawn. Cue clergy being diffident and timid in the hearing and seeing of the bishop, especially if they are thinking about their next move. This (again, in my experience) is often not very noticeable because meetings between clergy and bishop are, well, polite and dignified. But I have had occasion to speak up to a bishop or bishops on a matter ... only to be told, "Thank goodness you are willing to speak up; the other clergy are afraid to do so."

  4. Obviously the costs associated with salaries at 815 requires attention -- see The Lead on this.

    Is your concern about the episcopacy also directed at the PB office and esp its archiepiscopal accoutrement and ambitions? Naughton is calling for curbing that in, given economic realities.

    It seems to me that one reason for ramping this up was to better situate the polity of TEC as 'hierarchical' so as to win law suits. Naughton appears to believe the lawsuits have gone well and that 'TEC/815' will win what is left. So is the point that the two were linked for expediency sake and can now be unlinked?

    Your comments on the Episcopacy are a bit vague when it comes to the PB's office and especially its financial costs.

    Can you say more on this?


  5. Also on the topic of Bishops. Jim Naughton has provided an extremely helpful perspective when he writes this:

    “…(T)he General Convention…will probably authorize a rite for the blessing of same-gender relationships. Some bishops will not allow the rite to be used in their diocese, raising an interesting question that won’t be addressed by the church, about whether bishops should be allowed this kind of discretion.”

    Helpful, because it focuses the polity issue so clearly.

    He clearly believes small-b 'bishops' are there to implement General Convention 'rulings' (whether they are constitutional or not is irrelevant). That being so, he muses about 'discretion' being allowed.

    If this is the polity of TEC it should be renamed, "The General Convention Church."

    If it is indeed "The Episcopal Church" a Diocese has the duty to determine whether it can receive a GC canon or resolution if it judges the ruling against the BCP or the teaching of the church according to scripture.

    It has always seemed to me that the way Naughton phrases this is in fact the tacit understanding of a great many progressives. Same-sex blessings will be brought in, and if a diocese cannot receive the new teaching, that is where the polity issue will focus itself. For the Bishop and Diocese have their own duties vis-a-vis the constitution and the faith of the church, not to mention their own constitution and canons.

    I believe this is the arena where the role of Bishop will be severely tested, on the ground, in the next season. I suspect many moderate Bishops will not like this effort to have a "General Convention Church."


  6. What is not so clear is the relationship between the expectations of the BCP and Canons and the expectations of the rather inbred “episcopal” ethos of the church community itself.

    I think what you mean is the gap between what we wish for and what we have. If I were as optimist I would suggest that gap would be filled by the Holy Spirit; if not the Holy Spirit, then perhaps a spirit of forbearance while we make appropriate canonical adjustments?

    Perhaps some of the tension that we live with is the tension between authority and power.

  7. I hope that it is not lost on anyone that Msgr's username here is an abbreviation for one of the very titles that Father Mark points out that we do not usually use in the Anglican Communion, Monsignor.

    Are you assuming to yourself a place of honor Msgr? Are you trying to be more than you really are here among us? Why must every post by Father Mark be a means or an avenue by which you to turn the conversation to some form of denigration of TEC?

  8. Deacon Charlie Perrin5/1/12 3:32 PM

    In my studies of Church History I always wondered where anyone got the idea that bishops were a source of unity (especially outside of the diocese). To me the bishops of history seemed mostly to be divisive.

    Today is no different.

    Perhaps it is because we are all too human; and too full of ourselves.

  9. Mark - A timely piece with some good questions, especially given the Sauls' Plan to "Restructure for mission".

    As I read the canons, the Episcopacy is all about (1) vision and (2) mission. The "power" of the office rests in the "authority" of the office, which is mostly spiritual but the canons have given more and more corporate authority - especially in the past 30 years as we have moved, more and more, into corporate models of leadership.

    The "power of the authority" of the bishop is tempered, as I read the canons, by the Standing Committee, Diocesan Council and/or Convention. For example, the bishop can have a vision for program and/or mission, but without the authorization of Convention to approve the $, that ain't happening.

    It can and does happen because the bishop's major currency is her/his spirituality and charisma. But, if that is compromised in any way (and, we do have some examples of that), the results can be a diocese with their heels dug in deep and the bishop, sooner rather than later, leaves.

    I'm also concerned with the balance between "evangelism" and "mission" in the Episcopacy - at diocesan and national levels. We want the bishop - the "symbol of the unity of the church". My sense is that, as more and more dioceses are in financial difficulty, more and more bishops are spending less and less time in their dioceses and even less with clergy who are struggling in congregations.

    These bishops seem to have no real vision for their dioceses (or the church) and they provide no real leadership at the local level. They do seem to like dressing up and being symbols. The question arises, then, how long are we going to be willing to pay top dollar for a 'symbol'. That may sound harsh, but I'm guessing it's not going to take too much longer before the voices that are whispered in church parking lots begins to be asked around Vestry meetings when the line item for contributions to the diocese grows larger than the church's program budget.

    I'll leave with this story:

    I was stunned, recently, when I watched a clip of a bishop - who shall go unnamed - who is 'progressive' and known fairly broadly as a 'good guy' - during an episcopal visitation, talking with some kids.

    "Do you know who I am?" he asked.

    After some murmur and mumblings in the ranks of the rug rats, one kid shot his hand up and said, "I know! You're a bishop~"

    And, his grace said, "Well, yes, I'm 'a' bishop but I'm 'the' bishop." And then he added, "Don't forget that. I'm 'the' bishop."

    I thought, "Oh, my, my, my. It is not well with your soul."

  10. Brother David... I can't spell worth a damn and am no better at abbreviations, but why isn't msgr short for messenger rather than monsignor?

  11. Thank you, Fr Harris. You are correct.


  12. On EK's 'especially given Sauls' plan to restructure.' I think she is correct to bring this context into play, though perhaps for different reasons.

    Listening to the blog chatter (and there is a lot of it) the situation is indeed very confusing. That is because people do not agree what problem they are addressing, on the ond hand; and they have visions of the future that are not the same.

    There seems to be some agreement that the financial situation needs facing. And that a goodly proportion of dioceses are very fragile financially.

    Beyond that, 1) one group wants to see power move into the GC and HOD; 2) one group wants to see greater 815 hierarchy; 3) one group just wonders how either of these options addresses the financial problem or the sustainability of diocese issue. 2) costs money. 1) costs money.

    And neither is TEC as it has been in terms of episcopal/diocesan polity. To allow more program to devolve to the diocese (as in the questionaire -- what happened to that project?) at least addresses the financial drain at 815. But it does not fit in with the visions of 1 and 2 above.

    So the thing is stuck. It can't remain stuck for much longer because the financial reality is a fact on the ground and must be addressed. I think Sauls feels that pinch quite keenly, whatever his own vision for a different TEC might look like.

    I do believe EK is correct to mention this context.


  13. That may well be his intent, but it is not a known abbreviation for messenger. Just for kicks, I have now Googled msgr to see what came up, nothing regarding messenger, plenty regarding Monsignor.

  14. David--I have actually signed my name 'Messenger' in the past. This is where Fr Harris got the idea, I suspect. It's just a handle, like Counterlight or Point of Order. I don't google Point of Order to find out what it portends...

    At any rate, I did appreciate EK's mentioning the 'Sauls plan' because it does touch on the matter of dioceses/Bishop and of course the office of the Presiding Bishop and its costs.



OK... Comments, gripes, etc welcomed, but with some cautions and one rule:
Cautions: Calling people fools, idiots, etc, will be reason to bounce your comment. Keeping in mind that in the struggles it is difficult enough to try to respect opponents, we should at least try.