Some Anglican Thoughts about Bishops

It is sometimes said that among Episcopalians there are two schools of theological opinion about bishops. One holds that bishops are of the esse of the church, the other that they are its bene esse. The former believe that bishops are essential to the church, the latter that they are not essential, but beneficial. At a recent clergy meeting it was suggested that in view of Bishop Pike’s article in The Christian Century last December a third possibility ought to be considered: bishops are neither essential nor beneficial!

The word “episcopal” is, of course, Greek in origin and means “bishop.” Its use in the titles of daughter churches of the Church of England emphasizes the Anglican conviction that the office of Bishop is necessary to the life of the church. In every Anglican diocese the bishop is chief pastor. The bishop is responsible for teaching and defending the Word of God as revealed in Holy Scripture, for maintaining Christian discipline, and for ordering public worship. The bishop in each diocese is the source of lay and priestly participation in the church, for it is the bishop who admits to the lay order by Confirmation, and creates the ministry by conferring Holy Orders.

Many evangelicals believe that Episcopalians cling to episcopacy because it is one of the ecclesiastical institutions which has been inherited from the English church. But this is not generally true. Many Episcopalians who give some thought to theology are loyal to episcopacy because they believe that the bishop is the living link which binds them to that Church built upon the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ being the chief cornerstone. And they find the origins of episcopacy not in the later ages of Catholicism but in Christ’s setting apart of an apostolic ministry.

In the creeds the Church is described as one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. When these four words are explained in the Book of Common Prayer, the Church is said to be apostolic “because it continues steadfastly in the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship” (Prayer Book, p. 291). The importance of this continuation in the apostolic faith is expressed in a vivid image by the Book of Revelation. In the 21st chapter, John describes his vision of the holy city, New Jerusalem, whose walls “had twelve foundations, and in them the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb” (Rev. 21:14).


In the service for the consecration of a bishop, the Prayer Book repeatedly stresses the responsibility which the bishops have for keeping the Church soundly established on her apostolic foundations. The collect recalls that Christ gave many gifts to the apostles, and prays that the present bishops and pastors of the church may also be given the grace to preach God’s Word diligently and administer the disciplines. The man who is to be consecrated must declare that he believes Holy Scripture to contain all things necessary for salvation, and that he promises so to exercise himself in its study that he will be able to withstand and convince unbelievers. He must assure the church that he is ready to banish and drive away all erroneous and strange doctrine contrary to God’s Word and will encourage others to do the same. In the closing prayer, the Holy Spirit is invoked upon the new bishop so that he may receive power to preach the Word, and to be a wholesome example in faith as well as in love and chastity.

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There have been periods in the history of Anglicanism when bishops have been something other than apostolic. There have been times when bishops have been servants of the state or lordly prelates. The liberal drift of the last half century has given the American church bishops who are successful corporation executives, public personalities, social leaders, or promoters of radical doctrines in politics and religion. But such concepts of episcopal ministry are departures from orthodox Anglican doctrine.

A key to traditional thought and attitude toward episcopacy is found in a quotation from a book by the late Bishop Frank E. Wilson. Contrasting Christianity with the other major world religions, Dr. Wilson observes that “Christianity is fundamentally different from other religious. Confucius left his classics. Buddha left a system of instruction. Mohammed left the Koran. But Jesus Christ left disciples … life comes only from life, it takes Christians to make Christians” (Common Sense Religion, p. 130).

The Anglican churches have remained loyal to episcopacy because they believe that bishops are living apostolic men. As Peter, James, John, and Paul did centuries ago, the bishops sustain and continue the life of the church by their ministry of word and sacrament. Being the living successors of Christ’s first ministers, the bishops have been called and set apart to do apostolic work—to preach and to bear witness that their Lord is the Son of God, that he is truly risen from the dead and is the living and only Saviour of all mankind. And like those first ambassadors of the King of kings, the bishops bear in their sacred office the authority of him who sends them out: “He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives him who sent me.”

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We Quote:

Our nation—indeed the world—today stands in our gravest time of peril, from the standpoint of human survival on earth. Nuclear, thermonuclear, chemical and biological weapons, and the swift means to deliver these weapons of mass destruction to virtually any point on earth carry grave signs that perhaps the Biblically-prophesied Battle of Armageddon may not be too far away. Many who once scoffed at this prophecy … are now concerned for fear of its validity.

For our nation to come through these dangerous times with survival and preservation of our liberties, we need not only to remain strong economically and militarily, but—above all—we must be strong spiritually and ever seek the guidance of Almighty God. We must be sure—as Mr. Lincoln so aptly put it years ago—not only that God is on our side, but more importantly, that we are on God’s side, individually and as a nation.

Our nation, though richly blessed by God, is certainty not immune from His judgment. Therefore, every American must give consideration, prayer, and effort toward individual spiritual regeneration so there can be no question as to our nation’s being on God’s side. We, who are in positions of leadership, must be humble and seek God’s guidance in determining the course of our Nation. For, it is written in Proverbs: “Righteousness exalteth a nation.… When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice.”—From remarks of Senator STROM THURMOND to the U. S. Senate Prayer Breakfast group.

Samuel M. Shoemaker is the author of a number of popular books and the gifted Rector of Calvary Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh. He is known for his effective leadership of laymen and his deeply spiritual approach to all vital issues.

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