The Archbishop of Canterbury has issued his Advent Letter to the Primates. We’ve all been waiting for this. It has been expected that this would include his response both to the New Orleans statement of the Episcopal House of Bishops, and to the reactions of the various provinces of the Communion to the New Orleans statement. It does include those, and is worth the close reading it requires. As you might expect, there are already many reactions out there in the blogosphere. You can check out the usual suspects.
I have a number of concerns about it myself, and you can read an initial response here. However, there are additional concerns it raises for me.
On section in particular caught my attention:
A somewhat complicating factor in the New Orleans statement has been the provision that any kind of moratorium is in place until General Convention provides otherwise. Since the matters at issue are those in which the bishops have a decisive voice as a House of Bishops in General Convention, puzzlement has been expressed as to why the House should apparently bind itself to future direction from the Convention. If that is indeed what this means, it is in itself a decision of some significance. It raises a major ecclesiological issue, not about some sort of autocratic episcopal privilege but about the understanding in The Episcopal Church of the distinctive charism of bishops as an order and their responsibility for sustaining doctrinal standards. Once again, there seems to be a gap between what some in The Episcopal Church understand about the ministry of bishops and what is held elsewhere in the Communion, and this needs to be addressed.
This is for me an interesting paragraph, in that it raises a very interesting question: does the Archbishop of Canterbury believe that the Episcopal Church is not sufficiently “Episcopal?” That is, are we sufficiently “bishop-led,” which is, after all, what “episcopal” means? Does he believe that our bishops are not “bishops enough?” That they are not sufficiently independent within the Episcopal Church?
There are two places, really, to examine the ministry of a bishop, and both are in the Book of Common Prayer. (Interestingly enough, the Constitution and Canons of the Church say very little about the ministry of a Bishop, beyond certain institutional and administrative functions.) The first is the rite itself of Ordination of a Bishop. In that rite there is this description of the office of Bishop:
My brother, the people have chosen you and have affirmed their trust in you by acclaiming your election. A bishop in God’s holy Church is called to be one with the apostles in proclaiming Christ's resurrection and interpreting the Gospel, and to testify to Christ’s sovereignty as Lord of lords and King of kings.
You are called to guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the Church; to celebrate and to provide for the administration of the sacraments of the New Covenant; to ordain priests and deacons and to join in ordaining bishops; and to be in all things a faithful pastor and wholesome example for the entire flock of Christ.
With your fellow bishops you will share in the leadership of the Church throughout the world. Your heritage is the faith of patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and martyrs, and those of every generation who have looked to God in hope. Your joy will be to follow him who came, not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.
After the description, there is a series of questions. To each the bishop-elect is to answer with some variation of “I will with God’s help.:”
Will you accept this call and fulfill this trust in obedience to Christ?
Will you be faithful in prayer, and in the study of Holy Scripture, that you may have the mind of Christ?
Will you boldly proclaim and interpret the Gospel of Christ, enlightening the minds and stirring up the conscience of your people?
As a chief priest and pastor, will you encourage and support all baptized people in their gifts and ministries, nourish them from the riches of God’s grace, pray for them without ceasing, and celebrate with them the sacraments of our redemption?
Will you guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the Church of God?
Will you share with your fellow bishops in the government of the whole Church; will you sustain your fellow presbyters and take counsel with them; will you guide and strengthen the deacons and all others who minister in the Church?
Will you be merciful to all, show compassion to the poor and strangers, and defend those who have no helper?
This description and these questions are the most complete description within the Prayer Book of the office and ministry of a bishop. My question for Archbishop Williams would be, are these so different from the description and commitments of bishops in any other province of the Communion? One can look, for example, at the parallel texts in Common Worship in the Church of England. There are differences, certainly; but none that seem to address the “authority” of a bishop. Bishops in both churches undertake the same responsibilities.
Another, albeit briefer, description is in the Outline of the Faith, or Catechism, in the Book of Common Prayer. In catechetical style, it is given this way:
Q. What is the ministry of a bishop?
A. The ministry of a bishop is to represent Christ and his Church, particularly as apostle, chief priest, and pastor of a diocese; to guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the whole Church; to proclaim the Word of God; to act in Christ’s name for the reconciliation of the world and the building up of the Church; and to ordain others to continue Christ’s ministry.
That seems a more succinct, but certainly consistent description of the ministry of a bishop. It reflects the same responsibilities described in the rite of Ordination.
So, it would be incumbent for the Archbishop to say in what sense this understanding of the office and ministry of a bishop is deficient. He has suggested that there might be “a major ecclesiological issue.” He needs to be more specific as to what he believes is the issue.
But, honestly, we know his issue is not in the office and ministry of a bishop of the Episcopal Church, but rather in the exercise of that ministry. We all recognize, I think, the differences in the exercise of that office between the Episcopal Church and, say, the Church of Nigeria – Anglican. However, we need once again to reflect on how much that is a result of the “local adaptation” of the episcopate as understood in the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral. Do the differences between those local adaptations really rise to the level of “a major ecclesiological issue?” If so, then we need to consider as well differences involved in, say, Australia, where Sydney and the rest of Australia seem to operate as two different churches; or the differences in the unified Churches of North and South India. Surely these “local adaptations” might also cause some concern; and if not, why do those with the Episcopal Church rise to this, and not those others?
If it is about the exercise of the office and ministry, and about “insufficient” independence of Episcopal bishops, how is that to be distinguished from expectation of an autocratic episcopate? Can he or any of the bishops in the Church of England speak so independently of the General Synod, or make commitments that the next General Synod cannot alter? Are the Synods of Canada so different?
I would agree with Archbishop Williams that one of the major issues in current Anglican troubles involves the roles and ministries of bishops, and especially of primates, those primi inter pares. The Archbishop certainly highlights the issue in this paragraph. What is not clear, although it may be implied, is how he thinks that part of the issue should be resolved; and his implication seems to be that resolution would be easier if it could just be settled in councils of bishops (not unlike the Roman model). Perhaps that could be done without “some sort of autocratic episcopal privilege,” but the Romans haven’t done so well on that score; and if a frog had wings, it wouldn’t thump its tail so much, either.
Addemdum: In light of this discussion and comments, folks might want to read the opinion expressed here, or the summary available here, on the limitations of, among others, the House of Bishops. It was prepared by Sally Johnson, Chancellor to the President of the House of Deputies, Bonnie Anderson; and it is certainly relevant to this discussion.