Conference explores ecumenical implications of role of bishops

October 14, 2002

While waiting in the lunch line at a Roman Catholic retreat center near Boston, Massachusetts, one participant in an intense three-day conference on the power of bishops summarized the issue succinctly: 'Bishops--can't live without them but sometimes can't live with them either.'

The September 20-23 conference was sponsored by the Anglican-Lutheran Society, the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts and the New England Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). It drew about 45 participants from Europe and North America to address a topic with broad ecumenical implications.

In a series of six lectures by Episcopal, Lutheran and Roman Catholic theologians--and some lively discussion in response--it was demonstrated quite forcefully that the role of bishops in the church has historical roots but has become an 'ecumenical issue' as the churches entered an intense period of formal dialogues over the past 40 years or so that led to new relationships.

The role of bishops was a major point of contention, for example, in dialogue between Lutherans and Episcopalians that finally led in 2001 to adoption of Called to Common Mission (CCM), establishing full communion between the two churches. Most of the opposition among Lutherans centered on an agreement to install all future Lutheran bishops in the historic episcopate, a significant change in the pattern of oversight among American Lutherans.

By what authority?

Confessing that Lutherans are tied to their 16th century Reformation history, Professor Michael Root of Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, Ohio, described how the role of bishops has 'become a problem for Lutherans.' In fact, the problems began during the Reformation, he pointed out, because Luther and the Reformers were dealing with a serious confusion of secular and ecclesiastical authority exercised by the bishops at the time. The question became what authority could be exercised by those bishops in the face of a 'careless mixture' of sacred and secular powers.

How did Lutheran ecumenical discussions come to focus on a topic which usually is not thought of as one of the central themes of the Reformation? Root asked. Article 28 of the Augsburg Confession dealt with the power of bishops in a way that would finally divide the church because Lutherans felt 'they had no choice but to exercise episcopal discipline over their churches and then later when they felt they had no choice but to ordain clergy without the participation of bishops recognized by Catholic church authorities.'

The result was, according to Root, 'an alternative and self-perpetuating church structure to that of the episcopal and papal structure that had been in place in the West from the third century. It was the practical rejection of the authority of the actual bishops on the spot that marked the move from a reform movement to a separated church.'

Mixing sacred and secular powers

The Augsburg Confession also made it very clear that 'in Christendom the teaching of Christian freedom must be preserved, namely, that bondage to the law is not necessary for justification' and that the 'chief article of the Gospel must be maintained, that we obtain the grace of God through faith in Christ without our merit and do not earn it through service of God instituted by human beings.' So the bishop has no power over the consciences of believers, even though they 'may make regulations for the sake of good order in the church.'

While Augsburg said that 'it is our greatest desire to retain the order of the church and the various ranks in the church--even though they were established by human authority,' hostile or heretical bishops meant that 'the churches are compelled by divine right to ordain pastors and ministers for themselves, using their own pastors.'

Necessity of oversight

Moving to implications for today's ecumenical discussions, Root said that the question is whether Lutherans, 'for the sake of unity,' are committed to episcopacy as the preferable church order. When the ELCA adopted CCM, it was a sign that it was committing itself to a 'historic and evangelical episcopate' and saw itself as still bound by the commitments of the Lutheran Confessions on this question, Root said.

Yet Lutherans today do not agree on the role of bishops, Root observed. Contrary to the understanding of North American and Nordic Lutherans, some continental European theologians argue that structures that have developed since the Reformation 'show no particular preference for episcopacy.' (On a practical level, that has meant that Nordic and Baltic Lutherans and British and Irish Anglicans could embrace 1996 Porvoo Agreement, establishing full communion, because they share the historic episcopate while the German Lutherans could not participate because they don't agree.)

In the crucial 1987 Niagara Report stemming from one of the official dialogues, Lutherans and Anglicans concluded that they have 'always agreed that there exists a divinely instituted ministry to serve the mission of the Gospel,' Root said. 'Anglicans in their theological reflection and Lutherans in their practical experience have recognized that some form of oversight is a necessity.' Niagara asserted that this ministry of oversight 'is the heart of episcopal ministry. As a minister of oversight, the bishop is vitally related to both the unity and continuity of the church,' said Root.

Episcopacy is desirable 'not as by itself constituting the apostolic continuity of the church, but as one element in that continuity,' Root said. 'A truly historic and evangelical episcopacy is both a sign and an embodiment of continuity in the apostolic mission.' Yet the CCM agreement sees the common participation in episcopal succession as 'a sign, though not a guarantee, of the unity and apostolic continuity of the whole church.'

Dealing with issues together

In a seldom-cited provision of the CCM agreement, Root said that the Episcopal Church agreed 'to establish structures for collegial and periodic review of the ministry exercised by bishops with a view to evaluation, adaptation, improvement and continual reform in the service of the Gospel.' If episcopacy is a real but fallible sign of continuity in the apostolic mission, 'then it must be embedded in the midst of a variety of other ministries which stand alongside of episcopal ministry, at times correcting, at times being corrected, by it,' Root added. 'I would understand the logic of the recent Lutheran-Anglican agreements as mandating just the sort of synodical episcopacy that Lutheran and Anglican churches have come to embody in the 19th and 20th centuries.'

The idea also appealed to the Rev. Francis Sullivan, a Jesuit who described in his lecture the authority of the diocesan bishop in the Roman Catholic Church. After describing the role of the diocesan synod, a broadly representative 'assembly of selected priests and other Christian faithful' that offers assistance to the bishop, and the pastoral council that has a similar consultative role, he offered some ideas for 'the renewal and reform' of the role of bishop.

Sullivan said that there is 'an urgent need of changes that would provide for a more effective participation of priests, members of religious orders, lay men and women, in the processes by which decisions are made in our church,' he said. 'The mistakes our bishops have made in the handling of cases of the sexual abuse of children make it all too clear that bishops need to tap the gifts of wisdom, counsel, and knowledge that are available to them in the other members of the church.'

Addressing issues ecumenically

'How does the new relation between our churches affect the way we are dealing with potentially divisive disputes in our midst?' Root asked. 'Are we addressing these questions ecumenically? Are our bishops addressing them collegially, understanding that the college embraces both of our churches?'

Pointing to issues facing each church, Root said that 'our relation means that Lutherans should have something to say about the dispute in the Diocese of Pennsylvania, something to say not as outsiders but as Christians in full communion; perhaps not as members of the immediate nuclear family, but at least as cousins. Conversely, why does the ELCA's task force on human sexuality include only Lutherans? We are certainly not alone in addressing this topic and whatever solution we reach will impact our relations with other churches.'

One church catholic

'It seems to me that in contemporary America the combination of clear commitment to the Gospel and a sense of unity with wider tradition is what Lutherans and Anglicans together peculiarly have to offer,' Root said. 'What catholic Christianity, within which Lutherans and Anglicans belong, has to offer, what it should offer, is a strong sense of unity with the one church of all times and places...We need imaginative and creative ministries but our congregations are not entrepreneurial units, out there on their own. Every congregation or parish is a realization in its place of the one church catholic.'

Root concluded that 'the peculiar challenge we face as churches sharing a historic and evangelical episcopate at this moment in American life, it seems to me, is to be truly and commitedly evangelical while also being flexibly but authentically catholic...We need symbols and signs of the larger realities we are part of...As churches we are to continue the mission Christ gave to the church through the apostles 'to the end of the age.' The historic episcopate is meant to symbolize the reality of this unity and continuity of all ordained ministry…. and how that can be manifested locally.'

The bishop as missionary

In his presentation, Professor Ian Douglas of Episcopal Divinity School in Massachusetts tackled the issue of 'The Power of Bishops and the Missionary Episcopate in the Episcopal Church USA' by 'placing the role and authority of the bishop within the larger missiological context of the church as mission.'

Douglas traced the development of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society, the corporate name of the Episcopal Church, pointing out that 'since 1835 the Episcopal Church has said that mission and the church are inseparable. To be an Episcopalian is to be involved in mission. The church is mission,' and the mission field is the whole world. The General Convention in 1835 'created the missionary episcopate.'

He added, 'The calling of the bishop was not so much to the settled community of believers, but rather to the world beyond the church,' while not ignoring the needs of the church, its people or clergy. 'The role of the bishop is to lead the church forward in mission, to go ahead of the people to extend God's healing community, and to motivate the faithful to full participation in God's mission.'

'The authority of the episcopate resides not in the individual bishop, no matter what her/his charisma or leadership skills or lack thereof, but rather in the office of the bishop as a point of unity for all the baptized in mission,' he said.

New realities

The 1998 Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops in Canterbury introduced some new realities, Douglas pointed out. Church leaders from the industrialized West 'had to wrestle with the fact that we in the West can no longer rest in the economic and political privilege of colonialism or the theological/philosophical paradigms of the Enlightenment.' Until then Anglicans in the West, including bishops, 'could ignore these radical shifts in the Communion and thus avoid the hard questions of identity, authority and power.'

Lambeth 1998 signaled 'a turning point in Anglicanism,' demonstrating that 'a profound power shift is occurring within Anglicanism,' Douglas argued. 'It became abundantly clear' that the churches in the developing world would not stand idly by while others set the agenda. How do these changes 'challenge our understanding of Anglican identity and affect our understanding of authority, particularly the authority of bishops and/or archbishops?' he asked. 'What forces are there within Anglicanism today that hinder us from living into the possibilities of genuine mutual responsibility and interdependence in the Body of Christ as a global Christian community embodying vast differences like we've never seen before?'

In answer to the question, Douglas pointed to two forces--the 'ongoing legacy of colonialism' and the 'philosophical and theological roots of modernity.'

'Like it or not, colonialism and neo-colonialism die hard,' he said, and 'a lot of Anglican interaction today is not yet free from the vestiges of colonial power plays and/or new colonial abuses.'

While the Anglican Communion has historically 'traded on the power of the Enlightenment as much as it has on the power of Western colonialism,' today the majority of Anglicans 'are able to live in multiple realities, both the Enlightenment construct as well as their own local contexts.' He added that the movement 'from being a church grounded in modernity and secure in the Enlightenment to a post-modern or extra-modern reality is as tumultuous as the shift from colonialism to a post-colonial reality.' It is particularly terrifying for those who have enjoyed privilege, power and control--and the transition is being 'vigorously countered' by those people.

A dangerous trend

'There are some in the Anglican Communion who believe that these changing times require increased power for bishops augmented by a new central structure of authority...a curia, if you will...with new kinds of authority and responsibility for the unity of Anglicanism.' That trend toward increased authority of bishops and greater centralization of primatial power is obvious in the 'Virginia Report' prepared by the Inter-Anglican Theological and Doctrinal Commission in 1998.

Douglas pointed out that a Lambeth Conference resolution on the Instruments of the Anglican Communion 'for the first time ever in the history of Anglicanism imbues the archbishops of the Anglican Communion with heretofore unheard-of pan-Anglican authority and power,' giving the primates authority to intervene in the life of local Anglican provinces when issues of diversity create problems.

The trend is applauded by those who are convinced that some churches in the Anglican Communion, like the Episcopal Church USA, 'are pursuing an errant path with respect to issues of human sexuality,' and they are looking for 'guidelines on the limits of Anglican diversity.' At a 2001 Primates Meeting in North Carolina a proposal emerged that laid out a role for them to serve 'as chief judges and magistrates who had the power to throw a church out of the Anglican Communion for perceived errant ways.'

Addressing a question directly to the Lutheran participants, Douglas asked, 'What does your experience of episcopacy in its many forms across the Lutheran world have to offer us as Anglicans today? How can your historic emphasis on the pastoral and missiological imperative of ordained pastors serve as a check to our misappropriation of the mission episcopate and new found fondness for the curia in Anglicanism? Can Called to Common Mission help those of us in the United States, in particular, to reclaim the role of bishop as chief missionary?'