Tuesday, April 25, 2006

On Church Order: The Episcopate

I'm an Anglican. Anglican's have Bishops. So do Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Methodists and some Lutherans. (Probably others I am not aware of as well.)

Part of the reason I converted to Anglicanism is that I believe in Bishops. Not all Anglicans believe in Bishops. Some see Bishops as just "our way of doing things." Among those who believe in Bishops there is a broad range of reasons why this is so.

For me, the belief in Bishops is not about a mechanical understanding of "apostolic succesion." It's true that I can trace my priestly orders through my Bishop back through a line of Bishops that eventually links up with the Apostles. I do not think this is unimportant. Continuity -- especially ritualistic and institutional continuity -- helps preserve the integrity of institutions. The Church is no exception.

But things like succession are not the heart of the matter to me. I think the episcopate is important because it is corporate expression of taking up one's cross (and many will say their Bishop is surely a cross to bear ;-).

When I was Baptist I prized my independence. I loved that our church was beholden to no one. Well except Jesus/the Triune God. But what that meant in practice was that me, the other pastors and the elders, were free agents. We had some very minimal denominational commitments -- primarily doctrinal -- and these were good. Don't want to diss those at all. But at heart we lifted up Christian community as only the local.

Christian community is about many things, but it is clearly one of the central ways in which we incarnate taking up the cross and dying to ourselves. The episcopate is the way the Church has fleshed out this reality for a couple of thousand years. It is a way of local churches and local clergy having to die to their own agenda and live to the broader agenda of the church universal.

I recognize that there is all kinds of messiness in the episcopal order. I also realize that many a time it does not work out in a noble way. But messiness and lack of nobility are hallmarks of the Church this side of the eschaton.

My local parish, Saint Patrick's Church, has a Bishop. I am under his authority. We are under his authority. His authority is not unlimited and arbitrary -- it is guided by canons. But he is the primary pastor in our church. If he wanted us to do something he could simply tell us to do it. If the congregation did not want to do it they would have to leave. If I did not want to do it I would have to break my vows.

There are times when I squirm thinking about this structure. But in the end I believe in it and value it. It works on me. I don't feel independent the way I used to. Like I said, sometimes I don't like that. But I think it is good for me and good for the church/Church.

Happy Easter!!

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