A Reformed Episcopate?      (by Jon Shuler​​)

Until recent decades, one of the defining characteristics of the English people has been an innate conservatism. Patterns of life changed very slowly. Village traditions were kept alive for centuries. Titles, dress, speech, and governing institutions were very resistant to change, even of a modest kind. Those days are now gone, except as kept alive for the sake of tourism and the money it brings in to the country. When I was first a student in England in 1969, customs still prevailed in church and state that had not changed for four hundred years. That is largely gone from modern England. It is a new day.

The same English cultural pattern, that is the older conserving one, prevailed in the tumultuous changes of the 16th century. As the cry of “reformation” swept over the country the forces resisting change were strong. Nevertheless when a combination of political, economic, and social forces prevailed, and the old king was dead, those desiring ecclesiastical change rushed into the breach. Between the death of King Henry VIII in 1547 and the ascendancy of Elizabeth I in 1558, the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Church of England were all subjected to reform. By 1570 the central instruments that would shape the Church of England had all been put in place: the Book of Common Prayer, the Ordinal, and the 39 Articles of Religion. And the governance of the church by bishops had been retained. A very conservative revolution had been accomplished. And it shaped all of subsequent Anglicanism.

What did not happen, was a biblical reform of the ancient patterns, or at least not a very thorough going reform. Bishops still lived in palaces, sat in the House of Lords, and commanded great wealth. Two archbishops remained, one in York and one in Canterbury, with the ancient primacy granted to the latter. But the authority of bishops had been made subject to law, and the law made them subject to the Book of Common Prayer as approved by Parliament. Ancient prerogatives survived in many places, especially in the wealthiest diocese, but the unfettered power of earlier centuries was reigned in. Bishops still had sole responsibility for confirmation of those baptized as infants, the power of ordination, and the presidency of ecclesiastical courts. But most of the laity, and most of the clergy, almost never saw or interacted with a bishop in any personal way. The pastoral ministry of overseeing a local community, which had once been the bishop’s principle ministry, had long since devolved to the parish priests. The ancient duties were now theirs, but the name bishop belonged to others.

Thomas Cranmer knew that the evolved structures were a long way from the early patterns of the church, and sought to reform them. Whenever a man was ordained a priest he was now called back to the standards of the first century, as revealed in the New Testament. He was to be faithful to the “doctrine, sacraments, and discipline of Christ.” The plumb line was not medieval tradition, but the teaching of the Lord Jesus. And he was given authority, by ordination, to exercise oversight in the parish, in the same “office and ministry” as the “apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers.” Cranmer sought to restore the ancient episcopate to the parish priests.

Next Week: Oversight of the Congregation

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