When my wife and I first told an Episcopal priest we wanted to join the Church, he acted a bit befuddled by it. He said, “Well, we don’t have a bishop right now.” It wasn’t the warmest of welcomes, but it did give me a hint that there was something I needed to learn about the Episcopal Church. There were some things for which bishops were required. But why? When that diocese called a new bishop, it was a big deal. But still I wasn’t sure what it was about.
Since then, I have encountered all sorts of hostility to bishops qua bishops, not that they were individually overbearing or oppressive, but simply that they were bishops. I recently read a Face Book post from an Episcopalian who loves General Convention and thinks the Church would be perfectly fine if we could get rid of the House of Bishops. Some of us just don’t like having them around. But what exactly is so offensive about bishops remains unclear. We make them necessary. We name our Church “Episcopal,” which identifies us by the fact that we have bishops. But a lot of us would like to see them driven into the sea -- despite our choice to join a Church that identifies itself by the very name “Episcopal.”
I later learned in Church history that the Puritans, who were committed to eradication of the episcopate, called bishops “pompous, pretentious, popish prelates.” The anti-bishop sentiment is part and parcel of our Calvinist-Puritan heritage, which in turn is linked to democracy. So Bishops are associated with Catholicism and Monarchy – two targets of knee jerk opposition.
But what are Bishops really? The office of Bishop is described in the New Testament, for example I Timothy 3: 1. Traditionally Catholics have read the New Testament as prescribing three orders of ministry: Deacons, Priests, and Bishops. Protestants have insisted that “Bishop” and “Priest” were interchangeable terms, referring to the same office. Who knows? It is quite possible that different Biblical authors used the term with different meanings and that the structures of congregations in various places differed in New Testament times. But early on, at least by the time of St. Ignatius of Antioch (35 – 98 CE), the three orders of ministry were solidly in place. His Epistles, written on the road to his martyrdom in Rome, are the first texts setting out the role of the Bishop in the Church.[i] See particularly his Epistle to the Smyrnaeans:
Since Ignatius’ day, the proper role of Bishops has been unity. Catechism at BCP p. 855. We are called first to personally symbolize and embody unity and second to work practically to form and sustain unity within the Body of Christ. I call it a cruciform unity extending one direction in time and the other in space. We symbolize our unity through time by the practice of apostolic succession. Our pedigree, however flawed, extending back through time as we are made bishops by the previous bishops who became bishops in like manner represents the continuity of the Church from Jesus to the believers of today.
Apostolic succession is the symbol part of unity through time. But the reality of continuity through time is the continuity of the mission. That’s were it takes more than a pedigree to make a bishop. The crucial second part of our task is practical, functional. It is to remember the faith and the mission of the apostles, that is to say the Great Commission, the Creeds, and the teachings of Jesus, and to keep that faith and mission front and center in the attention of the Church. There are always fads and fashions coming and going in Church circles. We like something new. And that is fine. It keeps us fresh and alert. It adapts the Church to the culture just enough to make sure the culture can understand what we are saying and what we are doing. That is all good. We need inventive people to innovate. But we also need the stodgy old bishops to keep telling us of “the old, old story of Jesus and his love.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D0aiahIo8Sw
This House of Bishops meeting in Taiwan puts me in mind of our role of creating and maintaining unity through space. Here I want to start with one of the four symbols of the bishop’s office,[ii] the crosier or staff. It has taken on different symbolic meanings through the centuries. But there are two theories about the origin of crosiers. One is that we were just copying the staffs carried by pagan Roman augurs while they were predicting the future. But I favor the other theory. Priests and deacons did their ministry in their own local communities. They were pretty much planted in place. But the bishops were always on the road. They travelled from town to town visiting existing congregations and planting new ones. They carried walking sticks for purely practical reasons and the sticks came to symbolize the nature of their ministry.[iii] Today, bishops go from place to place to connect the people in each place with the people in all the other places. My job is to remind Episcopalians in Elko that there are Episcopalians in Pahrump and vice versa. A bishop is a weaver, a spinner, a networker, a message bearer, a matchmaker.
So why do bishops meet with each other? I bet you’ve guessed it. We connect the dioceses to each other. It isn’t so much with programs, projects, and governance decisions as with names, faces, and stories. In the hallway, the Bishop of Haiti says to me, “Have you heard from Guillene?”
“I just know she has a field placement,” I say.
“She is in the process now,” he tells me.
Guillene is a young woman from Le Beaux in the mountains of Haiti. I met her there on a mission trip years and years ago. Our parish sponsored her thorugh college and I have been her confidant as she struggles to become a priest in a place where women are new to priesthood. Her bishop is happy to tell me good news he knows I will be glad to hear.
On a coffee break I approach the Bishop of Louisiana and ask him if he knows which New Orleans parish Nevada Barr worships at. I tell him about her novels and her book of spiritual reflections. He says he’ll track her down for me. I want to invite her to speak at an event someday.
The new Bishop of Fon du Lac tells me about an issue in Native Ministries there and I tell him about my experience here. Related to the whole queston of how we work things out, I also tell the story of how we bishops used the African Indaba process to break our gridlock on same gender blessings in 2009.
I ask the Bishop of Chicago for permission to celebrate, preach, and teach at St. Ignatius of Antioch Church in his diocese. Our niece and her family worship there, the book group has read God of Our Silent Tears, and the rector has invited me to visit. The Bishop of Chicago gives me permission and a warm welcome. I ask the Bishop of Milwaukee permission to preach and teach at Nashotah House seminary. He says I don’t need his permission (I don’t need it. I just want it.) and extends a cordial welcome including to get together socially.
I happen upon the Bishop of Missouri. Over lunch, he tells me about their experience in Ferguson during the troubles so far, and what he foresees down the road. It isn’t just a story in the newspaper now. It is about real people, our people.
The Assisting Bishop of Atlanta brings me greetings from members of my former parish, St. Francis, Macon. We talk over how things were there in my time and how they have been since. Talking with him leaves me feeling good about my time there. The parish is doing well.
Several bishops ask me how it’s going in Nevada and I tell them about the things that were hard in 2014 but how those very same things look hopeful for 2015. They nod and share helpful stories from their experience, affirming my sense that we are doing ok.
The bishops network in little sub groups. At HOB we meet officially in table groups during sessions. I am sitting between Texas and Alaska this time. The College For Bishops classes go out to dinner as a class. I am class of 08. We decorate the head and tail of an otherwise devoured sea bass and take pictures of it. Over the course of a year, the bishops of each Province meet. (I am Province 8). The Bishops of Small Dioceses meet. Support groups (mine is the High Desert Bishops) meet. Bishops with common interests, like Bishops United Against Gun Violence, meet. And so we are networked to each other and bridge our people across the miles, the mountains, the forests, and the deserts. – even the oceans.
There is a lot poured into this container we call episcopacy. It all has to do with unity, with relationship – a matter on which all of us, the bishops included, are a bit ambivalent. Sometimes it would be so much easier to “go our own way.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jpX9OKS2yQk
That’s natural. Christianity sees Reality as a proliferating diversity (to borrow a term from the deconstructionists); hence, the natural, even healthy, impulse to go our own way, to kick against the traces. But Christianity sees Reality as diversity that dances within an essential unity. The bishops are responsible for the unity in the Church. We are the nagging reminders of our connection to each other including those inconvenient people we have gone before. We are connected, connected, connected. And that sometimes constraining connection is our lifeline.
[i] Contemporary Epistles by St. Clement of Rome do not so much describe the role of the Bishop as exemplify it. When the still-rowdy Corinthians had deposed their priests, the Bishop of Rome at least claimed the authority to challenge them. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Epistle_of_Clement
[ii] The four symbols are crosier, miter, ring, and pectoral cross.
[iii] Later when Emperor Constantine legalized us and we became the Roman Empire at prayer, the crosier came to represent authority as the staffs or scepters carried by Imperial officials represented their power. Later, after the Fall of the Roman Empire, in the Western Church we rather softened and sentimentalized the symbol into a shepherd’s staff.