Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Towards a Protestant Bishopric

Why has the episcopacy not been able to retain a Protestant character in these United States? Other nations have retained a Protestant conception of episcopacy, Ireland, for example, or even England, many nations in Africa, the Diocese of Sydney, the Reformed Churches of Hungary and Poland, etc. Why is it that episcopacy cannot maintain a Protestant character in the US? The Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States was founded with the explicit goal of condemning prelacy in favor of the "primitive" episcopacy. Yet, the Tractarian coup d'etat did not leave a Protestant episcopacy in place for future Episcopalians. The Reformed Episcopal Church was founded with even more explicit rejection of tactile succession and the esse position, yet, today it seems to have adopted the same position in regards to the episcopacy as the mainstream Episcopal Church.

1. A Question of Terminology - The Historical Succession

Perhaps one of the problems is in our discussion of the succession of bishops. There are really two issues when discussing episcopacy. First, is the issue of bishops themselves. Do we have an office or order of ministers above elders or presbyters? The Churches of England and Ireland, Sweden, Poland, and Hungary, said yes at the Reformation and maintained the office of bishop. The second question is should these bishops share in a succession? The Church of England and Ireland and the Scandinavian Lutherans maintained an historical succession of bishops. The Churches in Poland and Hungary did not. It is important to note that the succession has not been regarded of as necessary in Anglican thought, consider Archbishop Laud, who did not believe the succession to be necessary. He regarded the superintendents of Continental Lutheran Churches as being bishops in a true sense. What matters in Anglican circles is the biblical concept of oversight, which guarantees order and orthodoxy in the Church of Christ.

The question of terminology is an important one too. As the Anglican Churches have maintained an historical succession of bishops, we have to answer what that means. It most certainly does not mean a tactile passing down of sacerdotal powers; there is no transferral of powers in the Ordinal. I prefer the term "historical succession" because it provides the rationale for its maintenance in the Anglican communion, that is as an historical link to the Reformation and early Church, not the transferral of sacerdotal power.

It is also equally important to remember that Anglicans do not deny the "apostolic succession", only the misunderstanding of it. The true "apostolic succession" as taught in the Scriptures and maintained by our Reformers is the passing down of true doctrine. In this sense, our bishops should possess the apostolic succession of true doctrine and the tactile, historical succession to remind them of the great and saintly bishops who have preceded them.

2. Dioceses?

The question of how the Church is organized geographically has always been a concern of the Church. It seems that the earliest Church was organized according to the city. For instance, Paul references the "church in Ephesus" "the church in Corinth", etc. It appears that each city had a bishop and council of presbyters who governed the body of Christians assembled in that city (remembering that Christianity was largely an urban affair). As Christianity became more popular and eventually with the conversion of Constantine, the Church adopted the imperial system of governance in dioceses. Eventually one presbyter was elected to represent the whole region and govern it. This is the monarchical episcopacy that we know today. Later on provinces were organized (or archdioceses) with archbishops, metropolitans, patriarchs, and eventually popes.

The Church of England inherited this system but did not export it to America. It is important to note that the Protestant Episcopal Church was not originally organized into dioceses, but, rather, state churches. It was not until the 1820's that state churches were referred to as dioceses (partially due to the influence of Bishop Hobart).

The Reformed Episcopal Church was not organized into dioceses either. Originally, it was considered one geographic district, considering the small response to its organization. The Synod of Chicago was formed and elected Cheyney as its bishop. Subsequently, the Synod of Philadelphia and New York was formed. These were akin to dioceses but not the same because the president did not have to be a bishop. It wasn't until very recently that Reformed Episcopal Synods became dioceses.

Does the diocesan system bring about Tractarianism? I don't necessarily think so but perhaps we could begin to think of new/old ways of organizing the Church.

3. Cathedrals

The early Protestant Episcopal Church did not have cathedrals (perhaps due to #2). The bishop was a full-time rector who presided at the diocesan convention, ordained postulants to holy orders, and performed confirmations at the appointed time. The Colonial Church had lived 177 years without bishops and wasn't about to supply them with palaces and prelacy to keep them around. The early PEC model of episcopacy was very much akin to Jerome's concept of "senior presybter" rather than monarchical bishop. The early PEC wanted to avoid the notion of a bishop as an administrator and return to the notion of a pastoral bishop. However, the Church grew and so did Anglo-Catholicism. These two forces wielded a monarchical episcopacy with an administrative focus.

Cathedrals are not necessarily bad things but they re-inforce the notion of a monarchical episcopacy. Perhaps reconsidering their role could be influential in maintaing a Protestant character to our Episcopacy in the States.

4. Bene esse

Often the different positions relating to the episcopacy are summarized using the Latin words, esse or bene esse. Starting with the second one, which has its origins in the English Reformers and the Elizabethan Divines, which states simply that Scripture does not mandate any particular form of church government or polity. The office of the bishop is an ancient office which has served the Church well for 2,000 years, yet, there is no Scriptural mandate for churches to have bishops. For this reason, the Reformers did not "un-church" Continental Protestants for some of these Churches abandoned the episcopacy (out of necessity mostly).

The second view, esse, is that which regards the episcopacy as being essential in the governance of the Church. It tends to regard other non-episcopal churches as sects since they abandoned the episcopacy. Essential to this view is the notion that God has ordained for the Church to order itself with bishops. This view originates with some of the Caroline Divines and later Non-jurors. It was very popular with the Tractarian Movement as well.

These are only suggestions dealing with a frustration with the loss of a characteristically Protestant episcopacy in America. Perhaps others have better suggestions or ideas...

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