I am heading back (on Sunday) from what I can only describe as an inspirational service at Canterbury Cathedral where my friend Rob Innes was ordained as the new Bishop of Gibraltar in Europe. (Yes, formal Anglican services can be inspirational!). The recent debate about women bishops (which might continue, for reasons below) raises the question of what bishops are for. Those to the ‘left’ who don’t have bishops (but do have people exercising episcopal ministry in some form) often wonder what the fuss is about; those on the ‘right’ wonder at the departure of the C of E from apostolic tradition!
It’s worth reflecting a little on the Anglican understanding of the three-fold ordering of ministry as ‘bishops, priests and deacons.’ The Church actually claims slightly less than people realise for this ordering; it cannot be derived clearly from the New Testament, but the NT does not oppose such ordering, and it has been an ancient practice. In that sense, Anglicans have generally believed that bishops are not for the esse of the Church, but for its bene esse—not part of its essence, but for its good; not its being, but its well-being.
‘Deacons’ are about service, as the name suggests (from the Greek diakonos and verb diakoneo to serve), but it is also clear that ‘deacons’ had a spiritual and leadership function. Stephen was appointed ‘to serve’ (the noun is not used of him) but he was clearly a leader ‘full of wisdom and the Holy Spirit’ (Acts 6.3). Phoebe was a ‘deacon’ (using the masculine form of the noun, not a ‘deaconess’) of the congregation in Cenchreae, near Corinth, and was a ‘leader of many, including me’ says Paul (Romans 16.2), using the personal noun cognate with the abstract noun ‘leadership’ in Romans 12.8.
The term ‘priest’ is a corruption of the Greek presbyteros, ‘elder’, and etymologically has no connection whatever with the OT priests (Heb kohen, Greek hieros). The term presbyter is included in Anglican ordination liturgy, and is the preferred term in many parts of global Anglicanism. Church of England eucharistic theology is clear that the priest/presbyter who presides at Communion has no sacerdotal function; the bread and wine are not ‘offered’ (there is clear avoidance of such terms in acclamations and eucharistic prayers) and the service is primarily a ‘memorial’.
Within the NT, the terms ‘overseer’ (in older translations ‘bishop’, Greek episcopos) appears to be more or less interchangeable with presbyteros; a good example comes in the reading we had at today’s service from Acts 20, where Paul says farewell to the elders from Ephesus (Acts 20.7) whom ‘the Holy Spirit has made…overseers‘ (Acts 20.28). Interestingly, this lack of clear demarcation is reflected in the Ordination Service itself:
Bishops are called to serve and care for the flock of Christ. Mindful of the Good Shepherd, who laid down his life for his sheep, they are to love and pray for those committed to their charge, knowing their people and being known by them. As principal ministers of word and sacrament, stewards of the mysteries of God, they are to preside at the Lord’s table and to lead the offering of prayer and praise. They are to feed God’s pilgrim people, and so build up the Body of Christ.
They are to baptize and confirm, nurturing God’s people in the life of the Spirit and leading them in the way of holiness. They are to discern and foster the gifts of the Spirit in all who follow Christ, commissioning them to minister in his name. They are to preside over the ordination of deacons and priests, and join together in the ordination of bishops.
As chief pastors, it is their duty to share with their fellow presbyters the oversight of the Church, speaking in the name of God and expounding the gospel of salvation. With the Shepherd’s love, they are to be merciful, but with firmness; to minister discipline, but with compassion. They are to have a special care for the poor, the outcast and those who are in need. They are to seek out those who are lost and lead them home with rejoicing, declaring the absolution and forgiveness of sins to those who turn to Christ.
Following the example of the prophets and the teaching of the apostles, they are to proclaim the gospel boldly, confront injustice and work for righteousness and peace in all the world.
Isn’t that an exhilarating list of responsibilities?! There is very little here that you could not also say of presbyters; there are clearly the liturgical functions of confirmation and ordination, but alongside that there is a strong explicit statement of working with rather than governing over their ‘fellow presbyters.’ Just as an archbishop is primus inter pares, first among equals in relation to his (for the moment!) fellow bishops, there appears to be a similar ethos in the relation between a bishop and the presbyters he (for the moment!) is working with. In fact, since many of the charges in the service were for the bishop being ordained to follow the example of Christ, and Christ is the example for all disciples, there is close contact between the duties of a bishop and the goal of all disciples, to…
Pray therefore that you may be conformed more and more to the image of God’s Son, so that through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit your life and ministry may be made holy and acceptable to God.
Pray earnestly for the gift of the Holy Spirit.
It is complete nonsense to suggest (as was said to me last week) that any order of ministry is an ‘icon of Christ’; this is the function of all God’s people! This was explicitly picked up by Richard Chartres, Bishop of London, in his magisterial and inspiring sermon:
The bishop must be first and foremost a disciple. As responsibilities increase prayer must be the first priority.
If there is so much commonality, what can be said theologically (as opposed to legally or administratively) about the distinctive role of episcopal ministry?
The NT word group has two main senses to it. The first is to ‘oversee’, in the sense of standing back and looking at the big picture. In this sense, the word is a close synonym with ‘panorama’; the ‘scop-‘ element (which we use in periscope, telescope, microscope) corresponds to ‘orama’ from another Greek word for ‘seeing’, and the ‘pan’, meaning ‘all’ corresponds to the ‘epi-‘ meaning to look ‘over’. This sense was brought home to me sharply a few years ago when we were on holiday in Corfu, and came across a village called Episkepsi in the north of the island. It was sited on the top of a ridge, giving it a panoramic—or perhaps episcopal!—view over the land as it fell away towards the coast. I took this picture from a further along the ridge, and you can get a sense of the breathtaking overview.
The second sense of the word group is ‘to see to it that’ (Heb 12.15, 1 Peter 5.2), paying careful attention and ensuring that something happens or gets done. The focus here is making things happen or see that they have been done right. Interestingly, the abstract noun episcope, ‘oversight’ or ‘visitation’, combines these two senses. God’s ‘visitation’ to his people (Luke19.44) in the person of Jesus coming to Jerusalem involved a careful looking around—which explains the otherwise mysterious phrase in Mark 11.11 ‘He looked around at everything…’ But it then involved a holding to account for the things that had not been done right—hence the driving of the money-changers from the temple the next morning (in Mark’s chronology).
So episcopal ministry means having a good overview, and then ensuring that things get done—seeing what is needed, and seeing it is done. This corresponds to a term I heard used in management training of the ‘helicopter quality’ of good leaders—the ability to rise up high and see the overall lie of the land, then drop down low and attend to particular things that needed dealing with. Since there is much talk of the episcopal nature of presbyteral ministry (especially as numbers of stipendiary clergy are falling) it is the scope, rather than the kind, of ministry that is distinctive for bishops.
What then might be the impact of the recent decision to (at long last!) appoint women as bishops? If you believe many of the gender studies (and all research in this area is disputed, because it is so politicised), men tend to be stronger on focus and achievement, and women tend to be more relational and better at seeing the bigger picture. So having women in the House of Bishops might help balance the second sense of episcopacy with some more of the first sense.
Linda Woodhead has commented that she hopes that accepting women bishops might have a generally liberalising effect on the Church. In the short term, she might well be right; amongst those talked about as possible contenders to be the first women bishops, few if any are evangelical, and most would like to see the the Church change its position on same-sex marriage. That presents a real problem for people like me, who believe there is a biblical case for women in leadership. As Elaine Storkey expressed it:
New Testament scholars have long encouraged us towards a deeper exegesis of ‘gender leadership’ passages in the Epistles and it is evident that the Holy Spirit gives powerful gifts to both women and men for service in the Kingdom. Many evangelical churches in the country make no gender distinctions in types of Christian leadership, and now the Church of England is on board.
It would be ironic if leaders were appointed on biblical grounds who moved the Church away from biblical theology. Its possible that some will see the change as theologically correct, though a ‘political’ error. And a certain group in the Church might be in a position in a few years’ time to look back and say ‘I told you so!’
The third issue which will be watched with interested will be the impact of having female leadership on the gender balance of Church attendance. There is some good evidence that attracting men is a key part of church growth, and as I have explored previously, this remains a significant issue for the church in Britain and the Church of England in particular. The ordination of women as presbyters has happened at the same time as a decline in the number of men being ordained; is this causal or coincidence? I am not sure there are any simple answers here—but it is interesting to note how many church traditions which are currently growing appear to have an ‘(A)lpha male’ approach to leadership.
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