The proposed Anglican Covenant is above all about episkopé and episkopus 2 – the nature of oversight and the ordering of authority for oversight – in order that the church may constitute its life for the sake of the Gospel, to witness and pass on the faith that it has received. The question of bishops is then placed in the broader context of the central questions of the church: How is the church to be faithful to Jesus Christ? How should the church order its life for the sake of the Gospel? What does that mean and what does that require? The answers to these questions tell the story of the church in its development, divisions and reformations. The proposed Anglican Covenant can only be understood as part of this larger story as given and received in the churches that form the Anglican Communion.
As a constructive proposal for ordering the life of the Anglican Communion, the Anglican Covenant has an understanding of episkopé that reflects the understanding and exercise of the episcopate in the Church of England. As the Anglican Roman Catholic International Consultation noted in 1993, in the Anglican Communion ‘patterns of synodical government developed in which laity clergy and bishops shared the authority of government’.3 Formed from missionary expansion and the worldwide expanse of the British Empire, churches within a nation or nations formed provincial churches. Each of these postcolonial churches became ‘responsible for ordering its own life’ with its own ‘independent legislative and juridical authority’.4 While these churches share a common understanding of episkopé, the authority of bishops within the churches of the Anglican Communion is understood differently reflecting Anglicanism's Protestant as well as Roman Catholic roots.
The Anglican Covenant with its proposal for the development and exercise of the episcopate is a particular proposal for the ordering of episkopé. It raises the question of the relationship between those churches of the Anglican Communion that may agree to adopt the Covenant and those who do not. This is the same question raised in ecumenical discussion between churches where there are shared understandings of episkopé but differences in the ordering of episkopé and the role and authority of bishops. Only in understanding the different ways episkopé has been ordered historically can the present discussion turn from a narrow focus on ‘who's right?’ to ‘what are the range of ways of ordering the life of the church so as to be faithful to Jesus Christ and the mission of the church?’ Only in asking this ecumenical question is it possible to avoid unnecessary division and continue to seek the greatest, possible, visible unity between those churches forming the Anglican Communion.
This essay argues that a normative reading of the history of episkopé only in terms of the specific authority of the role of bishop fails to acknowledge the diversity of ways in which episkopé has been structured. The attempt to concentrate authority in order to resolve difference and insure conformity may be called ‘the puritan temptation’. This temptation is not to be identified narrowly with the New England Puritans of the sixteenth and seventeenth century but more generally with all churches that seek to purify the faith. For the sake of purity, however, the consequence may be divisiveness and division. Faith as grounded in charity may be compromised and the larger unity and witness of the church may be lost. This argument requires a brief account of the nature of episkopé, how it became variously structured in the ordering of ministry in the church, and what are strengths and weaknesses or dangers in these different ways of ordering ministry. In this context, the proposed Anglican Covenant may be assessed from one perspective within the Episcopal Church.
Episkopé and the Ordering of Oversight
The story of bishops begins with the early church. Read backwards, the understanding of episkopé is too easily identified with the development of the ordained office we now call bishop. In the early Church, the gathering of the Christian community was varied. Only over the first three centuries were common writings agreed upon in the canonization of Holy Scripture, common worship established (including baptismal formularies and Eucharistic liturgies), creeds developed expressing the basic tenants of faith, and power and authority ordered in an ultimately liturgically ordained leadership. The office of the bishop only developed over time from elders of the community exercising episkopé in a local community to an office signifying and effecting common faith and communion between local churches as part of a worldwide communion.5
In the development of Christian communities in the first century, episkopé was understood to be exercised by the one who presided at the Eucharist. In obedience to Jesus’ command, Eucharist is the central act of worship in which the church is the body of Christ offering itself to God for the sake of the world. In this offering the church marks its fundamental reality as communion (as koinonia), as bound together in the intimate love of God and neighbor. Episkopus (the one who exercises oversight) was the elder in the community who embodied and represented the Christian faith in his life. Like the host or community leader, in calling the community together in celebration of their faith, this person provided oversight.
As a household and school of charity, episkopé was also a matter of teaching what Christian faith meant and required. As a matter of traditioning, of (literally from the Latin) handing over or passing on the faith received from the Apostles, Christian faith is passed on through the life of the community of faith – for example, in the reading of Scripture, in catechetical teaching, in the declaration of baptismal vows and their summary in creeds, in practices of prayer and charity, in practices of repentance and reconciliation, and in worship as given in the structure of prayer and readings and in the actions of gathering together and in going out into the world.6 In the second century, as with Irenaeus’ Writings against Heresies,7 those exercising episkopé did so in writings for the broader Christian communities. The one who provides oversight in the teaching of faith is the one who proclaims the faith as apostolic and catholic, as an unbroken tradition that begins with the apostles and which unites the local community with the universal truth of Christian faith.
Moreover, if teaching is about forming new Christians, teaching cannot be separated from discipline. Oversight in this sense is not individual pastoral care but more the role of the shepherd who rules or governs the flock. In this sense the bishop has been understood as the chief pastor who provides the bond of unity and identity for the communities of faith. In response to heresies, bishops as teachers and shepherds gathered in councils as a collegial body, as colleagues, hence the later term ‘college of bishops’. In gathering they bring together local communities in relationship to each other in order to inform each other so that they might express and further the church as universal communion.8
These three elements in understanding episkopé – presiding over Eucharistic worship and the community, teaching, and acting as the pastor who judges, admonishes and forgives (or more accurately declares God's forgiveness) – came to be understood as integral one to the other.9 The one who presides is the teacher, the one who embodies the Christian faith in their life and understanding. In turn, the one who teaches is the pastor who shepherds. Understood sacramentally, the bishop is a sign of the unity of the church. The bishop signifies and effects (brings about) the unity of the church as a communion of persons bound together as the bishop presides, teaches and pastors.
The focus and concentration of authority and power in the office of the bishop, what has been called the monarchical bishop, is tied to the development of the priesthood as a separate position or role in the church. Sometime in the second century, given the growth and conflict in the church, bishops assumed regional oversight over a group of local churches and the office of priest developed in which priests exercised episkopé on behalf of the bishop.10 In the further differentiation of office, from the fourth through the eighth century, bishops assumed teaching and governing authority over regional churches, what came to be four patriarchal or metropolitan sees in the East (with oversight over the churches of Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria and Constantinople) and one patriarchal or metropolitan see in Rome (with oversight over the churches in Rome). The bishops from within these five sees variously gathered in a series of councils from 325 (the First Council of Nicaea) through 787 (the Second Council of Nicaea) in order to define and form a common faith. Bishops who had oversight over local churches gathered together to consult and address matters of doctrine and discipline. Authority as a whole, though, remained dispersed. Regional churches were left under the authority of their own bishops who sought to teach and discipline in light of the councils in relationship to the practical realities of local congregations. Episkopé was understood as collegial expressed in ‘ecumenical councils’. It was also synodical, where the bishops in synod offered authoritative teaching.
By the end of the eleventh century, the power and authority of bishops had developed so that the Bishop of Rome became the final teacher and pastor of Christian faith in the churches of the West as distinct from the Eastern churches with their four Patriarchs. Councils within the Roman Church were not abolished but were largely shaped by papal concerns and questions and so reinforced papal authority. Claims of papal authority were exercised through teachings, the authority of appointments, and the power of absolution and excommunication. Reform movements within the Roman Catholic Church variously sought to balance a monarchical episcopate with a more collegial model.11
Further ‘reform’ of the monarchical episcopate in the West was at the center of the Protestant Reformation beginning in the sixteenth century. Understanding all human institutions as fallen, the Reformers claimed that the teaching and unity of the church depended upon the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit and in that light Scripture as the Word of God bearing its own witness to the truth. From this foundational claim flowed the development of the doctrines of justification by faith, sola scriptura, and the priesthood of all believers. The reformers, however, did not promote an individualistic approach to salvation. The Protestant reformers believed that Christian faith required episkopé. Far from renouncing church order, teaching and discipline, congregations were to insure the regular reading of Scripture, true worship and right teaching as given in catechisms and confessions of faith. Protestant reformers re-conceived forms of episkopé. Teaching and governance were not to be identified with a monarchical episcopate or even an episcopate balanced by the councils of the church. Rather, episkopé was given in more communal forms of authority. In the Lutheran and Reformed traditions, the bishop and hence episkopé were identified with the ordained minister in the local congregation and with collegial gatherings at the congregational level and at regional levels, variously constituted by those ordained or by ordained and lay persons.12
The historical development of the varied exercises of episkopé in the different Christian churches – the early church, Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and Protestantism – reveals shared understandings of the nature of episkopé.13 History also reveals the dangers in the various ways of structuring episkopé in the church.14Sola scriptura given the inner witness of the Holy Spirit, the priesthood of all believers, and the priority of individual conscience is expressed in dispersed forms of authority. Dispersed authority highlights that the gospel is grounded in the local community and its experience of God in their lives. However, such dispersed authority can give rise to such diversity that the universal character of Christian faith and of the church as a community of faith is lost from view. Episcopal authority as personal given in the office of the bishops, exercised collegially and synodically – and even more so when tied to the primacy of the Pope – makes possible common expressions of faith as a matter of belief and practices. However, the centralization of authority may be imposed and deny the authentic expressions of faith as a life lived by particular people before God. This tension is not new but is present in the early church as raised by Paul regarding whether Gentiles could be Christian (Acts 10–15).15
Anglican Diversity in the Ordering of Episkopé
The ecumenical dialogue on the church and the order of ministry has – as evidenced by Le Groupe des Dombes’ ‘One Teacher’: Doctrinal Authority and the Church and by Walter Kasper's Harvesting the Fruits: Basic Aspects of Christian Faith in Ecumenical Dialogue 16– opened the question of whether, given shared understandings of episkopé, churches can be in full communion if they have ordered episkopé differently. As Le Groupe des Dombes asks,
Can these two structures – Episcopal-hierarchical and presbyterial-synodal – be reconciled in full communion? What is the sacramental deficiency (defectus) and the defect of communion and unity that affects the Reformation churches in the eyes of the Catholic Church? Reciprocally, what is the deficiency of collegial communion and the institutional excess affecting the Catholic Church in the eyes of the Reformation churches?17
As reflected in the ecumenical discussions, reasonable and faithful persons have disagreed about the structuring of oversight for the sake of the mission of the church. Anglican's ecumenical vocation – its role as via media between Catholic and Reformed – has in some sense been due to the fact that it has had in understanding episkopé and in its ordering of ministry been variously Catholic and Reformed, episcopal-hierarchical and presbyteral-synodal. Anglicans have shared the understanding of the centrality of the historic episcopate and the centrality of the person of bishop in both signing and effecting episkopé. At the same time as episkopé is realized and exercised personally, it is always exercised collegially and communally, in relation to other bishops and in relation to the community in synodal and other communal gatherings.18 Within Anglicanism bishops have been variously more or less monarchical in their exercise of episkopé and, in turn, have exercised episkopé more or less communally and synodically.19 Beyond the Church of England, the structure of episkopé in the postcolonial churches was variously ordered.
In the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America, the historic episcopate was affirmed and placed in a structure that was Protestant in terms of oversight resting in individual dioceses and a bicameral governing body for the national church, a House of Bishops and a House of Deputies comprised of diocesan delegations of laity and clergy. Moreover, dioceses in the Episcopal Church elect bishops through representatives of congregations, requiring in most cases a majority vote by laity and by clergy (since the Episcopal Church's Constitutional and Canons gives dioceses the freedom to determine the means of election20). Bishops are then ratified by the consent of a majority of diocesan bishops and a majority of diocesan Standing Committees (i.e. governing bodies composed of lay and clergy representatives). Bishops, moreover, having oversight over one diocese, cannot be transferred to assume diocesan oversight apart from the election by another diocese. Given such dispersed authority – for example, in the case of the election of Gene Robinson as diocesan Bishop of New Hampshire or in the election of Mary Glasspool as suffragan Bishop in the Diocese of Los Angeles – the presiding bishop cannot veto or repeal a diocesan election assuming a majority of bishops and Standing Committees consent to the election.21
In the Anglican Communion, other churches vary in their approach to episkopé. The churches that broke from England first – such as the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia, the Anglican Church of Australia, the Anglican Church of Canada, the Scottish Episcopal Church, and the Church of South India – differ in order and discipline but in terms of episkopé also lean more towards the collegial-synodical. In terms of governance, these churches are postcolonial in that they have ordered episcopacy apart from the Church of England. They differ significantly from the structuring of episkopé and the authority of the bishop in the Church of England. While the Church of England has become increasingly collegial in receiving input from those involved in and affected by the decisions of bishops, bishops stand at the center of power and authority. Bishops hold the power and authority for the election of new bishops, the appointment of bishops to specific dioceses, and the development of the teaching of the church (which can then be enacted by episcopal election and appointment). In this way, the Church of England insured order and conformity in new missionary churches planted in the worldwide reach of the British Empire.
On a spectrum from episcopal-hierarchical to collegial-synodical, both the Church of England and the Episcopal Church see in the person and office of the bishop the sacramental sign of the unity of the church. In the Church of England power and authority for governance stands on the episcopal-hierarchical end of the spectrum. In the Episcopal Church power and authority governance stands on the more Protestant collegial-synodical end of the spectrum.
The understanding of episkopé and the affirmation of the variety of ways in which episkopé may be ordered within Anglicanism is given in the statement of the Chicago Lambeth Quadrilateral, adopted by the Episcopal Church's General Convention in 1886 and by the bishops of the Anglican Communion at the Lambeth Conference in 1888: ‘The Historic Episcopate, locally adapted in the methods of its administration to the varying needs of the nations and peoples called of God into the Unity of His Church.’22 The proposed Anglican Covenant restates this fundamental claim and the corresponding challenge of episkopé to sustain the integrity of faith and unity between local congregations and a worldwide church. Quoting from a statement made by the Primates after their meeting in Alexandria, Egypt, in March 2009, the proposed Anglican Covenant says,
Each Church affirms its resolve to live in a Communion of Churches. Each Church, with its bishops in synod, orders and regulates its own affairs and its local responsibility for mission through its own system of government and law and is therefore described as living ‘in communion with autonomy and accountability’.23
The letter goes on to quote from a statement issued by the bishops of the 1930 Lambeth Conference: ‘Churches of the Anglican Communion are bound together not by a central legislative and executive authority, but by mutual loyalty sustained through the common counsel of the bishops in conference’ and of the other instruments of Communion.’24
The ‘Puritan’ Temptation
In terms of the ordering of episkopé for the churches that have formed the Anglican Communion, the Anglican Covenant offers a normative answer. The answer proposed falls along the episcopal-hierarchical lines of authority, as reflected in previous documents for the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission.25 Sections 1, 2 and 3 are deeply informed by the broader ecumenical dialogues on episkopé. Section 4 addresses adoption, maintenance, dispute resolution, withdrawal and the amendment of the Covenant. Section 4 moves from the nature of episkopé to matters of episkopus, in other words, to the ordering or structuring of oversight and the role of bishops.
The proposed Anglican Covenant expresses the ways in which episkopé and the office of bishop must be collegial and conciliar. This is given in commitment to the instruments of unity and to multiple processes of consultation. Power and authority to govern the life of the churches that have constituted the Anglican Communion, however, is centered in the Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion, responsible to the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC) and the Primates’ Meeting. The Standing Committee itself is constituted by seven persons elected by the ACC, the chair and the vice-chair of the ACC (who are also elected by the members of the ACC), and five persons constituting the Primates’ Standing Committee. The Archbishop of Canterbury serves as an ex officio member of the Standing Committee and serves as chair when present.26
In considering charges brought to it against actions by churches within the Anglican Communion, the Standing Committee
shall make recommendations as to relational consequences which flow from an action incompatible with the Covenant. These recommendations may be addressed to the Churches of the Anglican Communion or to the Instruments of the Communion and address the extent to which the decision of any covenanting Church impairs or limits the communion between that Church and the other Churches of the Communion, and the practical consequences of such impairment or limitation. Each Church or each Instrument shall determine whether or not to accept such recommendations.27
Here the means of discipline are broadly conciliar and collegial. The Standing Committee is a council and seeks input broadly from others and, in turn, makes recommendations to others having specific authority over aspects of the life of the Communion. This reflects Anglican polity and episkopé but also establishes a form of episkopé tied to an increased centralization of discipline.
The centralization of authority in the proposed Anglican Covenant make possible administratively and juridically a greater agreement on the meaning and practice of Christian faith. This is what Charles Taylor has described as a form of ‘puritanization’, of purifying Christian faith in seeking a greater unity and integrity of faith through increased specification of belief and uniformity of conduct.28 Ironically, such centralization may result in increased divisions. Jeremy Taylor indicated this problem in the seventeenth century given the bloody divisions between Catholic and Reformed views of the church. As he writes in his sermon, ‘Via Intelligentiae’:
when truth and peace are brought into the world together, and bound up in the same bundle of life; when we are taught a religion by the Prince of peace, who is the truth itself, to see men contending for this truth to the breach of that peace; and when men fall out, to see that they should make Christianity their theme: that is one of the greatest wonders in the world…. Disputation cures no vice, but kindles a great many, and makes passion evaporate into sin: and though men esteem it learning, yet it is the most useless learning in the world.29
From this perspective, the proposed Anglican Covenant pits puritans of different stripes against liberals accepting or tolerant of differences. Puritans see only a centralized and ultimately bureaucratic form of the Episcopacy – whether constituting a final decision-making body or convening those duly chosen as a final decision-making body – as necessary for the integrity of Christian faith and witness. They seek the integrity of belief and practice at the cost of ever-increasing division. Liberals see diversity in understandings and practices as essential to a faith that is received and lived among different people and across cultures. They court the danger of an acceptance or a tolerance that undermines teaching and witness.
The danger of the loss of integrity in the life and mission of the church is the central problem assumed in the Anglican Covenant. The ‘puritan answer’ to the problem of diversity, however, is not as self-evident as assumed or at least as offered by the proposed Anglican Covenant. The consequences in terms of time and cost are not considered. However, more significantly than time and cost are the consequences in terms of the attention given to contested differences and to matters of discipline. The danger is that attention to disputation turns Christian faith away from the Prince of Peace whose truth is the way of charity. The matter may be women's ordination, the blessing of the vows of gay and lesbian persons to form a life together, or valid forms of Eucharistic prayer. The danger of centralizing authority, where differences become points of focus, is not only the danger of the loss of charity but also the danger of moving too quickly to structural divisions which make difficult or impossible common life and witness.