The Basic Unit of the Church?    (by Jon Shuler​​)

A good friend, leading a large Episcopal parish, was deeply involved in a national movement among larger congregations. Boldly he proclaimed that the local congregation was the basic unit of the church. Then he was elected bishop of a strong diocese. Within a short time he was proclaiming that “the diocese is the basic unit of the church.” Another friend, impishly, said: “I guess Ed thinks the basic unit of the church is whichever unit he leads.”

There is no historical doubt that within several decades of the death of the last of the apostles, the church universally embraced a pattern of ministry known as “episcopal.” It became constant and continuous practice to maintain that pattern, with one man in each local community of faith designated as the “bishop” or “shepherd” of that congregation. But he was assisted by other men, some called “presbyters” and others called “deacons.” They were the collective leadership of that place, with the bishop thought of as “the first among equals.” But it was never one man ministry. And it was very local.

The church universal grew, and as she did the conserving tendency of all organizations was as applicable to the ecclesiastical organization as it proves to be in all others. Men with a position do not give up their prerogatives easily, nor do traditions once established change quickly – if ever. In the first centuries when there was one congregation in a city there was one bishop and college of clergy. The jurisdiction they were responsible for was called a “parochia” in Greek. By the time cities had dozens of congregations, a few centuries later, there was still only one bishop and one college of clergy caring for them all. The title of bishop remained, but the function had changed.

When the administrative complexity of many congregations grew too great, diocese were invented to solve the problem. One bishop would oversee one diocese, and be the chief minister for all the clergy therein. Though originally, in the Roman Empire, a diocese contained many provinces, now the nomenclature was flipped. An ecclesiastical province came to contain many diocese. Now there was one very special bishop, named an archbishop, who would coordinate and give order to a whole province. Then in time some of the provincial archbishops would be thought more special than others, and their jurisdiction would be called a “patriarchate.” After centuries of this structural arrangement, some theologians would argue that this pattern was by divine intention. The next step to argue that by divine intention there was one very extra special bishop who would come to be called the “vicar of Christ.”

What stayed constant was the leadership of a man called “bishop.” Now there was one who claimed the oversight of all the churches of the world. And everywhere, all bishops had drawn to themselves the sole leadership of the church. Some of these leaders were holy men, but many were not. By the time of the Reformation, the structural pattern cried out to be rethought. The reforming fathers thought it should be subjected to biblical  scrutiny and judgment. The Church of England, in modern form, was one result.

Next Week: A Reformed Episcopate?

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