The episcopacy

An Episcopal priest recently contacted me with these three questions:

Is the episcopacy necessary for the wellbeing and growth of the church? How does a bishop exercise power and authority? If we ask Jesus what he thinks now about the office of the episcopate, what might he say?

The Episcopal Church, like many other Christian Churches (e.g., the Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists, Orthodox, some Pentecostal groups), has bishops. The Greek word episkopos in English becomes episcopal and its cognates. The word bishop similarly has its etymological roots in the Greek episkopos. In Greek, a bishop or member of the episcopacy was an overseer. In particular, the New Testament usage of episkopos denotes an oversee of one or more Christian congregations, a meaning that continues in the Christian tradition today.

The theological and biblical question has never been whether bishops are necessary for the wellbeing and growth of the church but adherence to the biblical model of ministry.

Some Christian Churches (e.g., the Baptists, Congregationalists, and Quakers) do not have bishops. In Presbyterian denominations, the presbytery collectively acts as the bishop.

A commonly expressed argument in favor of bishops is that connectional Churches hold clergy more accountable for their actions. However, even a cursory review of sex abuse problems among the clergy points to a disproportionate number of those problems occurring in Churches with bishops.

Furthermore, bishops are expensive. Typically, a bishop is paid approximately the same or more than the highest paid clergy in the diocese. Most bishops have one or more staffers; searching for and calling a new bishop is expensive; bishops tend to travel extensively, visiting not only diocesan congregations but also attending many meetings.

For me, the existence of the episcopacy is a given (or not, depending upon the denomination). I’m comfortable with Churches emulating the biblical pattern of ministry (bishops, priests/pasts/elders, deacons, and all of the baptized). Trying to alter an existing pattern of ministry in a dying religion such as Christianity ignores the basic problem of reversing declining membership and participation.

My interlocutor’s second question – how does a bishop exercise power and authority – points to a far more pressing issue. How do bishops collectively and individually add value to their denomination and diocese? Here are some suggestions:

·       Model trustworthy, gift affirming ministry that respects the dignity and worth of each priest/pastor, deacon, and lay person

·       Focus their and our attention on the big questions and ignore the little stuff (what the Lutherans call adiaphora)

·       Support diocesan clergy through pastoral care, listening, assisting each in finding a call that matches that individual’s gifts and abilities, etc.

·       Minimize administrative overhead (time and money) and maximize ministry and mission

·       Hold all persons within the diocese appropriately accountable for growing in Christian virtue and adhering to legal and moral behavioral standards

·       Ensure that the bishop him/herself is held accountable by the Standing Committee and House of Bishops

·       In other words, exercise power and authority in a Christlike manner, i.e., a truly life-giving way characterized by justice, mercy, and steadfast love

What might Jesus say about the episcopacy today? This poignant and timely question was the third and last question my correspondent sent me. in view of current events in the Roman Catholic Church, Jesus would be extremely displeased with much of the episcopacy.

Illustratively, covering up sexual abuse and misconduct is at best a misguided way to protect the abuser and thee institutional cost at the cost of the one abused. Indeed. most often the perpetuator continues to harm others. In fact, covering up abuse not only egregiously harms those abused in the past, present, and future, but also harms the abuser by failing to give the abuser the opportunity to move toward wholeness. Additionally, the cover up when discovered harms the institutional church more than if the ecclesiastical authorities had dealt with the problem openly and appropriately.

Similarly, Jesus appears to have lived among the poor, according to what we know about him from the New Testament. Yet several Roman Catholic bishops have recently attracted media notice when they purchased residences costing more than one million dollars.

We Anglicans are not beyond criticism. Sexual abuse has occurred in every province of the Anglican Communion. The Church of England provided palaces for their bishops in which many of their bishops continue to live.

Closer to home, would Jesus approve of the compensation that our bishops (and some other clergy) receive? Jesus would surely insist that bishops and other clergy receive a living wage. Does a living wage anywhere in the U.S. require a compensation package of more than $250,000? Does any bishop (or other cleric) continue to exercise his/her ministry in order to obtain better retirements benefits or because s/he does not have good alternative career options? (In the interest of full disclosure, the same questions apply to senior military chaplains (Navy Captains and Admirals; Colonels and Generals in the other military services), of whom I was one.)

Would Jesus approve of authoritarian bishops whose actions reflect more concern about the bishop’s authority than those actions communicate trustworthiness, care for the wellbeing of the bishop’s clergy, and an unrelenting focus on ministry and mission?

Would Jesus approve of bishops whose calendar and efforts are devoted to administering the Church instead of revitalizing a dying institution? Admittedly, asking that question is easier than answering it. For one part of the answer, cf. my Ethical Musings posts, “For such a time as this” and “Looking to grow?”.

Would Jesus approve of bishops who struggle with mental health problems, relational difficulties, or spiritual emptiness not seeking appropriate help, perhaps even resigning (or taking a leave of absence) her/his diocese to concentrate on moving toward personal wholeness?

No bishop is perfect; every bishop remains fully human, no more deserving of dignity or respect than is any other human. Hopefully, a bishop does have a goodly measure of spiritual maturity that surpasses the average. Bishops have a challenging ministry in the best of times. Bishops, like all Christians, need God’s help and the support of others.

The path toward Church renewal entails improving the episcopacy, not eliminating or replacing the episcopacy. Questions such as the second and third ones discussed above are essential for keeping the episcopacy aligned with the Jesus path, promoting episcopal integrity, and for helping bishops to live into their calling more fully.


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