That is, we are told, because bishops are ordained “for the whole church.” In the ordinal of the Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church (1979) the celebrant notes that the candidate has been duly and lawfully elected to be a bishop of the Church of God to serve in the Diocese of N. (p. 514) The celebrant goes on to say in the Examination, “With your fellow bishops you will share in the leadership of the Church throughout the world.” (p. 517) The candidate is asked, “Will you share with your fellow bishops in the government of the whole Church…?” (p. 518; emphases mine in all quotations)
But, what can we really mean by “the whole Church?” For all our commitment to the historic episcopate, and our faith that our Episcopal orders are just as clearly rooted in apostolic order as anyone else’s, we make no pretence that our bishops might function in churches in communion with Rome or Antioch or Alexandria or Constantinople. They might address our bishops as bishops by courtesy, but they don’t recognize their orders. (The fact that we would recognize theirs only highlights their failure to recognize ours.) Until recently, the same was largely true among those Protestant churches that used the title of “bishop.” Prior to Called to Common Mission, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in American would recognize the administrative title of an Episcopal bishop, but would never see any effect on their orders that might be implied by the concept of “the whole Church.” We hope soon that those churches of the Methodist tradition will have some recognition of our bishops and our place in the historic episcopate. However, there’s no functional sense in which an Episcopal Bishop, or a bishop of any province of the Anglican Communion would be recognized by all members of the whole Body of Christ, nor even by those members of the Body that preserve and cherish the historic Episcopate.
Nor can we mean, really, the entire Anglican Communion. That is, of course, evident now. The provinces of Nigeria, Kenya, and Uganda have declared themselves out of communion with the Episcopal Church and with General Convention, and thus, in any real sense, bishops of the Episcopal Church. Granted, there is a fudge about bishops that “maintain the ancient Christian faith” as those provinces choose to define it; but it is clear that bishops can’t simply act in and for another province of the Communion without official recognition. There is greater recognition of ministries; but it is certainly not universal. The Presiding Bishop-elect of the Episcopal Church could not be ordained a deacon in most provinces of the Communion. Moreover, the integrity of boundaries between provinces and diocese, and thus the limitations of recognition of orders, was one point repeatedly held as important Lambeth Conferences, the Windsor Report, and the Dromantine Statement.
Functionally, when we speak of electing for “the whole Church,” we mean the whole Episcopal Church. The Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church define the duties of a bishop, and also the limitations. Thus,
No Bishop shall perform episcopal acts or officiate by preaching, ministering the Sacraments, or holding any public service in a Diocese other than that in which the Bishop is canonically resident, without permission or a license to perform occasional public services from the Ecclesiastical Authority of the Diocese in which the Bishop desires to officiate. (Title III, Canon 18.2. These are the 2003 Canons, but this wasn’t changed in Columbus.)
A bishop may function in the diocese that elected him or her, providing administration, ordaining clergy, and functioning to teach the faith of and defend the unity of the Church, as expressed in that diocese. That bishop will serve and represent that diocese in the House of Bishops, and participate in the unity of that House, and so contribute to the unity of the Church. However, while those in another diocese may recognize that person as a bishop, they would not recognize that person, and so respond to that person, as their bishop.
So, we speak of ordaining bishops “for the whole church” proleptically – looking forward to a time when in fact the whole Body of Christ is united, and we all recognize each other. It looks forward to the coming of the Kingdom; but in our current experience it has little tangible effect. Instead, we elect and ordain bishops for a diocese of the Episcopal Church, and in some sense for the whole Episcopal Church, at least in the sense that we elect and ordain bishops to participate in the House of Bishops and in the General Convention. While theologically there is some sense of “the whole Church,” and of the meaning of episkope in the whole Church, Episcopal bishops are functionally bishops only of the Episcopal Church; and there are limits even in that.
Note that even this is not consistent throughout the Communion. For example, the constitution of the Church in the Province of Central Africa includes a provision for appealing controversies to the Archbishop of Canterbury. There has been some discussion of making that appeal in light of the controversy surrounding Bishop Kunonga in Zimbabwe. That is a level of recognition of ministries beyond that of the Episcopal Church. We’ve been quite clear as recently as the General Convention that we value the opinions of the Archbishop of Canterbury, but don’t recognize any jurisdictional authority.
So, what do we mean when we say we believe we elect and ordain bishops “for the whole Church?” In fact any ordination is within the purview of the particular faith community within which it occurs. That’s as true of our bishops as it is of Roman bishops or Methodist bishops or, for that matter, bishops of the “Three-Self Patriotic Movement” churches in the Republic of China. When the Kingdom comes, any bishop may be recognized by all bishops, and be able to represent the unity of the Body to any member. Until then, all bishops are as local as all politics, both within the Church and without. In that light, should we really be that upset if some bishops don’t recognize us? Even if they’re bishops who have been among us who no longer wish to be? Until there is “one whole Church,” our statements on the ordination of bishops are a matter of hope, and of God’s grace, for the future. Institutionally and today, they mean hardly anything at all.