Oversight of the Congregation  (by Jon Shuler​​)

The history of the parish and its ministry in England is so historically complex, and unique to that country, that their patterns have not generally prevailed in the wider Anglican Family. Where there was a high degree of hierarchical authority in the culture, Anglo-catholic patterns of top down authority have sometimes prevailed. Where the more historic reformed Anglican church has been strong the authority has stayed in the parish. In the United Sates of America, where the very first daughter of what would one day be called the Anglican Communion came to birth, it stayed local. The parish priest was expected to give spiritual oversight, assisted by a vestry of committed laymen. For almost two centuries this pattern prevailed without the presence of a bishop.

Life in the colonial parishes went well with good local leadership, but suffered in its absence, and the cry gradually went up for bishops to be consecrated for America. The “completion” (as it was called) of the Episcopal system became a fact soon after the establishment of an independent nation. But there were many voices calling for a reformed episcopate, not the monarchical episcopate of medieval England, and a “constitutional Episcopacy” was the result. Bishops were accorded their customary roles, but they were subject to the consent of their clergy and laity in a constitutionally ordered way. And they had little of the hierarchical authority and trappings of old.

Nothing signified this more than the expectation and requirement that the bishop was in charge of a local congregation. He had Sunday duties every week in the same place. He had all the responsibilities of any other parish priest, plus those of his episcopal office. When the diocese were small, this duty was not onerous, but as the church grew it became more and more difficult for some men. Those with clear leadership vision and ability brought on younger men to share in the ministry of the parish, to be trained for an eventual call to lead a parish of their own. This lightened the burden for the bishop and freed him to care for the wider community. As the churches multiplied the division of diocese was resisted, however, and the span of care remained the state. The ability of any bishop to care for all the churches under his jurisdiction suffered in the nineteenth century, and by the twentieth administrative structures and systems were being adopted from the business world. Soon bishops ceased to lead parishes, and again the episcopal office was completely separated from the care of a local community.

Once more the ancient pattern of oversight in the local church suffered. Parish priests had spiritual duties, but less and less authority. Bishops gradually ruled. Little by little doctrinal confusion, scriptural laxity, and grave moral error crept in to many parishes often without the bishops knowing it. It was not long before even the episcopal office was corrupted. When godly efforts to bring moral reform commenced, there was frequently a blindness within the reforming movements to the problems which were endemic to the very system presumed. To defend the “historic episcopate,” as some tried valiantly to do, turned out to be defending a system that was divorced from the ancient ministry understanding that had once given it shape.

Next Week: Can These Bones Live?

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