The Anglicans were one of the few reformational churches that retained Bishops as biblical and historical. Most of the other groups, in our humble opinion, threw the Bishops out with the bathwater. We feel like that was a mistake. Here’s why.
First, because of history. In Paul’s Epistles we find that there were presbyters (elders) that oversaw the churches. By the time of John’s letters (late first or early second century), one of the elders of each area was identified as the episkopos, or bishop who would lead the elders in a geographic region. This latter development quickly became the norm in the whole Christian world until the Reformation of the sixteenth century. The Bishop was the chief shepherd of the churches, hence the symbol of the shepherd’s crook that many Bishops still use to this day.
Second, because of continuity of witness. Anglicans believe that we are not only to preach the same message as the Apostles and early Christians, but also that we are to keep the same structure and history. Let me explain this with an example.
When the Cleveland Browns’ owner wanted to move the team to Baltimore, the fans went berserk. In the end, they were allowed to keep the team name, colors, historical record. The team itself became the Baltimore Ravens. After three years, the Browns were reorganized and started playing again in Cleveland. Because they kept connected to the same history, people today recognize that team as a continuation of the historical, original Cleveland Browns.
Basically we believe that retaining Bishops is one important, visible way of showing that we are a continuation of the historical, original Apostolic church. Not the only way, but one important way.
Third, it is a good way to lead churches. Churches tend to gravitate toward regional leader/pastors naturally. Whenever a church without bishops organizes, over time, if it doesn’t want to totally disintegrate into totally independent congregations, it will elect regional leaders. It is inevitable! The early church wasn’t re-inventing the wheel with regional bishops. They were following Hebrew and Roman patterns and their hybrid was very practical and effective (it actually was a part of what turned the whole world “upside down.”) Why re-invent the crook?
Fourth, and related to number three, it provided accountability. Sure, Bishops have gone rogue and done a lot of damage. But so have pastors and so have lay people. There is no foolproof system for preventing abuse, heresy, or mismanagement. However, the regional Bishop provides accountability to the pastors in the field. But the Bishop is also accountable to the councils of Bishops. And the Bishop is accountable to lay synods or bodies and clergy councils. This system, wisely constructed by our spiritual ancestors, has worked for thousands of years. It hasn’t worked flawlessly, but looking at history with a wide angle lens, it has done a better job that any other system of governance.
Fifth, because it can lead to church multiplication. We consider the Bishop to be the chief pastor of the churches in the whole diocese. The local priest, or Rector, is serving in the stead of the Bishop. This means that for us, the regional grouping of congregations is in reality our local church. Our diocese is a local church with multiple congregations. This doesn’t always lead to church planting or resource sharing automatically. But it has that kind of latent energy in it. Most successful church planting movements have been regional rather than national. Even if there is a national push, it is the city, county, or town regions that end up finding out how to actually do the mission within their own cultures. The episcopal structure and the diocesan structure is ready-made for this.
Finally, unity. Yes, we Anglicans are currently somewhat divided. And yet it is our Bishops and Archbishops who are gathering to represent us, and to lead us toward unity. Archbishops representing the majority of the world’s eighty million Anglicans just completed a meeting in London this week. The Roman church is the world’s largest church, with Bishops galore. It has held together for thousands of years, and the system of governance is one important reason for that. In fact, the Christian Church was one church worldwide for one thousand years, and two churches for another five hundred after the split between East and West. It wasn’t until Protestants got rid of the system of Bishops that we split into thousands of denominations. Makes you wonder? Statistically in our own day, the three largest Christian bodies in the world (representing about 60% of world Christians) all have bishops. Anglicans believe that despite our current divisions, holding to and reforming our episcopal system of governance will only serve to help keep us united.
Does a church denomination have to have bishops to be truly Christian? No. Do we consider non-episcopal churches our brothers and sisters in Christ? Yes! But our beloved brothers and sisters are missing out on a blessing. Anglicans believe that one of our gifts to the unity of the worldwide church might someday be the episcopate. Someday, when other reformational churches are working with Rome and the East to try to figure out how we could possibly re-unite, the Anglicans would be ready to offer a bridge. The bridge would be a restoration of the episcopate to our fellow reformational churches. We have a lot to receive from our non-episcopal sister churches, but we’d have at least that one thing to give.
So the next time you see a Bishop dressed in a funny robe and a tall, pointy hat, you may chuckle, but at least you’ll know why we insist on being decidedly old school when it comes to leadership.
Photo: Consecration of St. Augustine. Saint Augustine Altarpiece (Huguet) Public Domain.