Anglicanism’s Problem with Bishops – Time for a New Paradigm?

It happens too often that, in ecumenical conversations between Anglicans and churches whose ministry is not ordered by bishops in historic succession, the question of ministry becomes the sole sticking point, thus appearing to give the ordained ministry of the church a greater importance than our understanding of salvation or the Trinity. Of course, there may be some Anglicans who will insist that there is no salvation outside the sacramental life of a church ordered with bishops in apostolic succession, but I imagine that they are a tiny minority. After all, our common baptism has been recognised ecumenically for some time.

Briefly, the standard Anglican position on the importance of the apostolic succession of bishops is that it is a necessity for churches who unite but is not essential for the recognition of the sacramental efficacy of ministry in other churches. If it were, there would be no possibility of entering the kind of local ecumenical partnerships that happen all over the UK. Bishops in historic succession are seen as a sign, but not a guarantee of the apostolicity, unity and catholicity of the church. The Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, which has stood as a standard position for Anglicans for over a century, places historic episcopate locally adapted, alongside the Scriptures, Dominical Sacraments and historic creeds as the conditions necessary for the uniting of churches. This statement could, of course, be altered by a Lambeth Conference, but this is not likely in the near future and I would be among those arguing for a maintenance of the place of the historic episcopate in our church, albeit constantly evolving in response to changing circumstances. I wonder, though, if it is possible to imagine an approach that does not alter this position, but makes one simple step that would remove a significant block to ecumenical progress in many places. That simple step would be the removal of the necessity of episcopal ordination, but not oversight, for any presbyter or deacon seeking to work in an Anglican context, either in a permanent or occasional capacity.

As a starter, I would suggest the following rationale and conditions for such a move:

  • First of all, the reason for the change would be to allow greater sharing of ministry in a context where mission is the key driver for the church’s ongoing life and witness. The missionary focus of ecumenism is increasingly recongised in the WCC (The Church, Towards a Common Vision and Together Towards Life) and in the thinking of Pope Francis (Evangelii Gaudium).
  • The key theological rationale for this move would be the acceptance that God’s action through the sacramental life of the church is not primarily dependent on the nature of the minister’s ordination, but on the operation of the Holy Spirit in free and gracious response to the prayer of the church.
  • In order to accept each other’s churches as expressing apostolic faith, there has to be a significant level of agreement between these churches on doctrine, founded on the historic creeds but including sacramental theology and ecclesiology (including a theology of ordained ministry as necessary to the right ordering of the sacramental and missional life of the church). This agreement would also recognise the exercise of episkope in each church. I would regard ecumenical texts such as Reuilly and Meissen as possessing such a level of agreement. To spell this out in terms that make sense in our local context, a Presbytery of the Church of Scotland clearly exercises episkope.
  • One of the features of that eccesiological agreement could be the recognition of the continuity of apostolic faith expressed in the sign of a continuity of ministers ordained in historic succession (ie presbyteral rather than episcopal succession) but that this continuity is at the service of apostolic faith, not the sole guarantor of apostolicity.
  • Presbyters and deacons working in an Anglican context would recognise the ministry of their bishop as a personal expression of episkope and as a sign of continuity apostolic faith. They would also accept the disciplines of that church, as an Anglican priest would do if they were working, for example, in a Reformed church.

It seems to me that this small move would signal a serious intent for Anglicans to work more closely in mission with partners in non-episcopal churches without losing the distinctive apostolic ministry of bishops. The question of the place of bishops in united churches belongs to a later stage of our growing together, but I think it would be a good first step towards greater unity if we were to leave behind the notion that only those presbyters who have been ordained by a bishop in historic succession exercise a valid sacramental ministry. Surely the Holy Spirit is not bound by such constraints.

I would be grateful if others could comment on this little bit of ‘thinking aloud’ as I think our ecumenical conversations need to grasp this nettle in creative ways as a matter of some urgency.