A good friend and reader of this weekly blog asked me the other day: “Why do you dislike bishops so?” I was not surprised by the question, as I have heard it before, but it shows my friend has not understood what I have written. I love and respect my bishop. I am a faithful Anglican Christian. I believe the Lord of the Church brought the ancient episcopacy into being in the first century, but I believe the current understanding of this office in the church has strayed from the original purpose for which it was instituted by God. I believe God desires the spiritual oversight of his church to be very local, and tied in a living way to a worshipping community that gathers week by week at the table of the Lord. I believe that the ministry of oversight given to bishops is meant to be exercised by a man called by God to that office. I believe he is to be the head of the local community of leadership, both ordained and lay. His principle work is to preach and teach the Word of God, to preside when faithful believers gather for worship, and to take order for the extension of the church’s full time ministry. But this is not what the modern episcopate does. It must be reformed, I believe.
But where can this begin? In the long run, only God knows, but now some things are very clear. First, the ordination vows that all the clergy take commit them to a higher duty than to obey canonical complexities and liturgical rubrics. I do not believe they are free to cavalierly disobey the authority that is placed over them by the present ordering of the church, but I do note that for centuries they vowed to submit only to “godly ad-monitions,” and to “godly judgements.” These are frequently not the same thing as the latest guidance from the diocesan office, or the meeting of the bishops of a province. Nor is it always the same thing as obedience to things “lawful and honest” as the 2019 Book of Common Prayer states. I do not say it is not, but it may not be. Are there bishops who recognize this, and who will publicly acknowledge it?
Second, are there bishops holding office now who would be willing to relax the hold they exercise over their clergy in dozens of minor things, in order to free them all to focus on major things? Could the attention to many institutional and highly clericalized matters be dispensed, for the sake of a new and radical obedience to only that which the Lord Jesus commanded? What if everything that is now funded and supported by the existing structures was brought under the scrutiny of the only one mission given by the Lord of the church? What if everything began to be evaluated by its fidelity to that one mission, that the church is to be “making disciples” conformed to all that Jesus taught?
Third, are there not a few local rectors in every diocese whose faithful gospel integrity has been proven over time, and who could be “released” by these bishops to pare down the ministry of their local congregation to earlier apostolic example, and thus to become a test case for the restructuring of the local church for mission?
I can only speak as one voice, but when such reform has begun in times past there has always been a surge of new life and growth given by God. Sometimes even revival.
Next Week: Clarifying the Mission