Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Episcopacy asserted: Part I

Our Episcopal and Anglican world is regularly rocked by the doings of bishops, and in recent years, how they become bishops. This is perhaps not surprising, given our name is “episcopal,” the Greek word for bishops, and our church structure is (theoretically) hierarchal with bishops at the top.

The selection of American Episcopal bishops is recently in the international news with the election of The Rev. Canon Mary Glasspool of Maryland (photo below) as an assisting, or “suffragan,” bishop in Los Angeles. Canon Glasspool, if confirmed, will be the second openly gay bishop living in a partnered relationship; her election has roiled the waters of the already fractured Anglican Communion.

You may recall that in 2003, the Episcopal Church elected and confirmed Gene Robinson, an openly gay partnered man, as bishop of New Hampshire, and we are still living in the aftermath of that election.

You might also ask why have bishops at all if this is so much trouble. Or perhaps you are a faithful practitioner of another church, or another faith tradition, that is not so encumbered by bishops, and you might find the rest of this posting less than relevant to your life. Fair enough.

Whether to have bishops at all was a hot topic in the Reformation, and a number of Protestant churches have gotten along perfectly well, thank you, without bishops. Also fair enough.

But we in the Episcopal Church have bishops, and like it as not, we are joined at the hip with the other bishops of the Anglican Communion, that odd creaky federation of churches that is an outgrowth (or backwash) of the British Empire. We in America were the first to break with the Brits, and our Episcopal Church was the first to find its own path, and our path not surprisingly has always had a major independent streak from that of England.

What I’d like to do today is look a bit at the topic of bishops and make a few observations that I hope might clarify some of the issues before us. I have no huge solutions to offer, but perhaps some smaller ideas that I hope will add to the dialogue. This is not a posting about gay inclusion issues, so please hold your fire on that for another day. Today, let's talk about bishops.

In my estimation, there are two countervailing forces at work that make this debate over bishops seem intractable. The first is a difference among Anglican provinces in how bishops are selected. The second is a conflict in how the various Anglican churches view the authority of bishops. The two are interrelated, but let's pull them apart for the sake of argument.
Today I will look at the election of bishops, and another time, at their authority.

The American Church began electing bishops in local church conventions soon after independence was won from Britain. The first American so elected, Samuel Seabury (picture at right), sailed to Britain in 1784 seeking ordination from the English bishops. The Archbishop of Canterbury and his fellow bishops refused to “lay hands” upon him, so Seabury went to Scotland where a group of “non-juring” bishops ordained him.

The Scottish “non-juring” bishops were dissenters from the English bishops on the matter of choosing monarchs. Their political arguments are not so important to us now, but they highlight that the American Episcopal Church got off to a rocky start with the English bishops, and since then Americans have never really consulted the Archbishop of Canterbury on who should be a bishop in America. The snub from England was patched over in the decades that followed but never really forgotten.

It needs to be underlined that our election of bishops by a church convention is a novel, thoroughly modern idea, and it is a practice not widely shared in the rest of the world. In one sense, we are not very Anglican at all because we have long practiced a form of democracy in the election of bishops.

To understand how different we really are, I’ve gone back into the depths of Anglicanism by reading Jeremy Taylor’s essay, Episcopacy asserted, written in 1642, his first major work. At the time it was published in Oxford, Taylor (1613-1667) was a rising star in the Church of England (years later he would be made a bishop) and he was considered the most eloquent "divine" of his generation; at the time, Taylor and the Church of England were battling the Presbyterians over whether there should be bishops at all.

Taylor (picture at right) painstakingly traced the history of bishops from the early letters of the New Testament forward through the early church and into his own time. His conclusion was that Christ commanded that there be bishops, and that the earliest apostles would “fix” a bishop in place whenever they established a new church.

How a man became a bishop (they were all men, after all) was not by an election of a local church, but by the other bishops or apostles. “But here lies the issue and strain of the question,” Taylor wrote.

And so it is the “strain of the question” for us. Centuries ago, the English church began selecting bishops with the approval of monarchs and their ministers, and sometimes with their active promotion.

Thomas Cranmer was the pick of Henry VIII as Archbishop of Canterbury. As the British parliamentary system grew, bishops took seats in the House of Lords. Church and state grew intertwined in the persons of bishops.

In the modern Church of England, the Prime Minister, in the name of the Queen, approves the bishops. The selection process is done largely in secret, and is a mystery to all but the insiders. That church and state in Britain are a muddled mess is a major understatement. Indeed, most Americans would be highly offended if the Congress and President picked our bishops, but that is precisely how bishops are chosen in Britain.

Meanwhile, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has repeatedly suggested that the American Episcopal Church should consult more widely with the Anglican Communion in the making of bishops. He holds that our “catholicity” requires us to consider how our bishops are connected one to the other across national lines. He is perhaps correct. But his assertion invites scrutiny of how he was selected as a bishop and how other Anglican bishops are selected in other provinces.

The question for Williams should be this: Should the rest of the Anglican Communion, including the American Episcopal Church, be consulted on the appointment of the next Archbishop of Canterbury? After all, we define Anglicanism, in part, as recognition by the Archbishop of Canterbury. We have a stake in who holds that office.

And that should raise a very uncomfortable question for the Church of England and all of the Anglican Communion: Should the Anglican Communion continue to be entwined the British government? The Anglican Covenant, promoted by Williams, should address this issue as well.

This is no small question, and I would submit the issue is a major reason why our churches seem to be talking past each other. The bishops in the rest of the Anglican Communion, including in Britain, have consistently brushed off our arguments that our way of church governance is crucial to our understanding of our identity.

Meanwhile, we have perhaps underestimated (and taken this value for granted) that our church is not an arm of the U.S. government. In fact, much of the world assumes correctly that their governments and religions are enmeshed, and not just in the Christian world (though it should be noted that the Vatican would never put up with the Italian government thinking it could pick bishops). The separation of church and state is still largely an American value, not well understood or appreciated in other countries, and much misunderstood in our own.

This is an old issue. Taylor himself touched on it in another book, A Discourse on the Liberty of Prophesying, published in 1646. The book itself has a curious history. Taylor, once he became a bishop, tried to disown it and asked his publisher to gather up any copies that could be found and burn them. He did not succeed; I have a first edition copy in my personal library, and Liberty can be found in the compendiums of Taylor’s work. And thank goodness, for it is a little known masterpiece of the English Reformation.

In the book, Taylor argued that governments are ill equipped to enforce matters of faith. He rested his argument on the fact that there are honest differences by faithful people in interpreting Scripture. In Taylor’s view, to allow a government to be, in effect, the final authority on scriptural interpretation was irreconcilable with the freedom of conscience of individuals. “For it is best every man should be left in that liberty from which no man can justly take from him.”

The larger Reformation issue he addressed was that the Roman Catholic Church asserted that it was the sole interpreter of the Bible; reformers like Martin Luther disagreed, but some Protestant reformers sought to replace the Vatican with themselves as the sole authority on Scripture. Taylor thought it just as wrong to insert the state in place of the Vatican.

But Taylor also hedged here. He wrote that God spoke through the conscience of human beings (Ductor Dubitantium, 1660), but he also believed that bishops should rule the church. Taylor did not resolve the inherit tension in his stance, and it may be that in his English muddle much of the current Anglican tensions lay.

The notion that bishops are all-powerful is certainly a legacy of the early church and was inherited by the English Church. The issue Taylor confronted was a Puritan government trying to control the church and the bishops. Taylor took it for granted that bishops should govern the church alone with no interference from the people in the pews. “I say they [bishops] had power alone to govern alone, for they had the government of the church alone before they ordained the first presbyters.”

The American Episcopal church, though, took a much different course, shaped by the events of and between the War of Independence in 1776 and the Constitutional Convention of 1789. The Episcopal Church inherited a system of federal checks-and-balances from the founders of the United States; the Episcopal Church saw the authority of bishops differently than their English counterparts. Authority was spread among the people and clergy, and limits were put on the power of bishops. That, too, is underappreciated and misunderstood in the rest of the Anglican world.

Next time I will look at episcopal hierarchy and suggest a different way of viewing the authority of bishops.


Megan said...

Thank for for the historical context to this debate. I knew (vaguely) of this history of the first American bishop, and have always felt that it was good to keep in mind.

Velky Al said...

I think if you asked many an Englishman, and thankfully for once that term is the correct one when discussing this rather than it being lazy shorthand for British, about the disestablishment of the Church of England then the vast majority would agree.

Speaking as a Scottish Episcopalian, one of the things I appreciate about being a Piskie is that we are not the established church in Scotland, and we have no representation in the UK parliament through the House of Lords, thus leaving us free to tread our own path in many ways, as we have done for centuries.

I have to admit though a personal preference for bishops not to have an territorial see, and rather practicing an itinerant ministry as did the bishops of the Ancient Irish Church prior to the Synod of Whitby in 664.