Sunday, November 14, 2010

Some Thoughts on Episcopacy

November 14th is the anniversary of Samuel Seabury's consecration as the first Bishop of Connecticut in 1784. He is also accorded first place in the sucession of the American Church though he did not align with the Protestant Episcopal Church until 1787.

Back in the eighteenth century, Episcopal consecrations were semi-private occasions. Seabury's took place in the large room over the bank in Aberdeen High Street which then served as St Andrew's Episcopal Kirk. The consecrations of White, Provoost, and Madison all took place in the relatively small Chapel in Lambeth Palace. This creates quite a contrast to the sort of consecrations we have seen in TEC recently - the jamboree that accompanied Ms. Glasspool's consecration in an LA area arena would not have been further from the semi-private affair at which Seabury was consecrated. The eighteenth century conception of a bishop was that of a 'Lord Spiritual' whose authority derived as much from the complicated web of rights and privileges accorded to him by law and custom as to his spiritual authority. Certain bishops - Canterbury, York and Durham, and Armagh - were great territorial magnates - who were expected to act in the government interest, and to be in London (or Dublin) during the Parliamentary season. Their spiritual functions tended to reduced to being 'Confirming and Ordaining machines.' It was not uncommon at the beginning of a bishop's tenure for him to have to make up the backlog left by his ailing predecessor, and confirmations at which several hundred candidates were presented to the bishop were not uncommon. However, above all else bishops were administrators licensing clergy, enforcing residence, administering clerical and moral discipline, and at time, cajoling vestries to repair churches.

The sort of Episcopate that Seabury, White, Provoost and Madison embarked on was different to that of both the Established Churches of England and Ireland, and that of the disestablished Scottish Episcopal Church. They lacked both the political clout of the English and Irish Bishops, and the absolute spiritual authority within their dioceses that the Scottish bishops enjoyed. They also had to work out what it meant to be a Bishop within a constitutionally governed Church.

As is so often the case, the role of an American bishop was defined by the familiar logical device of thesis; antithesis; synthesis.

The thesis seems to have been postulated by Seabury, who embraced the Scottish pattern of Episcopacy. Unlike say Pennsylvania where there was a State Convention of the Protestant Episcopal Church that included both clergy and laity, Connecticut simply had an advisory council of priests. Seabury saw Church governance as a purely clerical responsibility, and acted accordingly by barring laymen from church councils. The flip side of his high view of the clerical office was that he devoted a good deal of his time to administering the neglected ordinance of Confirmation, and to examining candidates prior to ordination.

The antithesis was provided by both White and Provoost, both of whom acted much like the Commissaries of the Colonial Era. They saw themselves first and foremost as administrators, except that they did not just license clergy, they also ordained them. Confirmation would be administered to any who sought them out, but as yet they did not feel it incumbant upon them to go out on confirmation tours like their brother in New England. In addition to their clerical style, there was also a difference in the way in which they governed the Church in the States where they were bishops. White ran the Church in Pennsylvania in co-operation with the State Convention. Policy would be agreed and then implimented. Periodically, White would tour parts of his diocese ascertaining its general state, but his duties as Rector of Christ Church & St Peter, Philadelphia, kept him at home for long periods. However, he gradually embraced the more actie style of Episcopacy developed by Madison and later by Hobart.

The synthesis was provided to some extent by James Madison, Bishop of Virginia, who until his health began to decline in the late 1790s combined a little of both the Seabury and White approaches to the Episcopate. Madison toured a distinct area of Virginia each summer visiting parishes and administering confirmation. He also managed to work reasonably harmoneously with a Virginia Convention dominated by the FFVs. These landed gentlemen were hostle to 'too much bishopping' - which is probably why they chose the already overly busy Madison as their bishop. However they could accept Madison as he was one of their own and understood the complex elaionship between Church, Gentry and State in Virginia. Unfortunately for Madison, the disendownment of the Church in Virginia denied his diocese necessary funds and a serious decline set in during the mid-1790s. As his health declined, Madison largely gave up travelling, and this has led to the myth of his being a 'failed' Episcopate. It was left to the High Church Bishop Hobart and the Evangelical Bishop Richard Channing Moore to develop the Madison model of Episcopacy into the norm for the American Episcopal Church.

The traditional American model became one of the Bishop first and foremost as the chief sacramental minister of his diocese, but also as the one who put into effect the diocesan policy agreed between himself and and the Diocesan Convention. The bishop was expected to be the leader, but not a tyrant. Most of the great American bishops - the two Bishops Potter of New York, Manning - also of New York, several successive bishops of Pennsylvania during the early twentieth century, William Lawrence of Massachusetts, etc., understood this complex relationship between monarchical Episcopacy and Constitutional government and were able to bring to a high pitch of efficiency.

Sadly, today, the view of the role of bishop has changed again. The old understanding of the bishop as the 'chief priest' of the diocese has been replaced by a more secular model - that of the business world. Whilst the church, in the administration of its finances does need to embrace sound business practices, it should not allow secular management principles and ethic to become too entrenched in matters relating to mission and ministry. Sadly, the corporate church, with its boards, committees, and focus groups has become the dominant influence on the life of man dioceses. It is said of eighteenth century governments that 'politics was essentially personal' today, the personal often gets lost in amongst all the politics. I fear that the impotence of the Anglican tradition in the new mission fields of the West stems from the fact that we have organised the life out of the Church by creating so much dead bureaucracy.

The other great danger for bishops is - to borrow a word from sixteenth century polemic - 'prelacy.' The church has always had a few bishops who spent too much time standing on their dignity and paying too much attention to the outward trappings of their office. Sadly, that tendancy seems to be more marked today than ever. The world weary observation that "power corrupts; and absolute power corrupts absolutely" is as true of bishops as any other class of men. As the office of a bishop has increasingly been aligned to the secular model of a CEO, so the stories of petty episcopal tyranny - the ecclesiastical equivelent of the Office horror story - seem to multiply. Bishops, especially in TEC, though we have had (more than) our share in the Continuum too. There seems to be a certain class of bishops who seem to regard it as ethical to either intimidate priests who disagree with them personally, or have their assistants do it for them. To act in such arbitary ways, often in defiance of centuries of Church tradition, seems to be a paticular malaise in those dioceses that have lost any real sense of mission.

I suspect that what the church needs now is a little dose of realism, and a return to that concept of the episcopate laid down in the Ordinal and the Constitution and Canons of the Church. The language of the Ordinal, which is largely that of Cranmer's 1553 revision, sees the role of a bishop as being that being a preacher of God's Word; a teacher and guardian of the Faith; a governor of the Church; and one to whom the work of raising up fit and proper persons for the ministry is specifically entrusted. The Constitution and Canons of Church give a framework to enable that work to be done. I suspect that any bishop who gives himself to conscientiously to fulfil those tasks will have his hands very full indeed. The words Cranmer uses to accompany the presentation of the Bible to a newly consecrated bishop are particularly important to understanding the true task of an Anglican bishop:

"Give heed unto reading, exhortation, and doctrine. Think upon the things contained in this Book. Be diligent in them, that the increase coming thereby may be evdent unto all men; for by doing them thou shalt save both thyself and them that hear thee. Be to the flock of Christ a shepherd and not a wolf; feed them, devour them not; hold up the weak, hal the sick, bind up the broken, bring again the outcasts, seek the lost. Be so merciful that ye be not too remiss; so minister discipline that you forget not mercy; that when the Chief Shepherd shall appear, you may receive the never-fading crown of glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."


  1. Well written and well considered article. Considering the author to be a bishop himself makes it all the more meaningful.

    It would be wrong, however, to assert that the problem of "prelacy" is only in TEC. While not all Continuing Anglican bishops are guilty of this, some certainly are guilty of "prelacy."

    Sadly, I have also experienced lots of unhealthy attitudes of clericalism among some Continuing Anglican clergy, who try to rule a parish in a matter of "pay and obey", leaving the laity who pay all the bills and signed the mortgage, guaranteeing it with their own personal assets, with absolutely no say whatsoever in the church building, furnishings, etc.

    The day is fast approaching when I believe many laity, including myself, will stop paying.

  2. Absolutely excellent. We can only hope that this will be heeded.

  3. This is a post with which I have almost total agreement. The episcopal office has frequently been molded by both time and circumstance, but we as Anglicans should find our model for same in two places. The first would be in the solid tradition of the prayer books and then in the apostolic and sub-apostolic church. If we do our best to live up to these models, I don't think that we shall go wrong.

  4. Excellent post!

    And, yes, sadly, I believe that Bryan's comments are all too cogent.

  5. Excellent article Your Grace. My question is, how do we address the issue Brian has brought up? There's a kind of synergy between the clergy in laity in the church. If one has more power than the other, then things start going badly quick. How do we strike that balance where the Priest is not overbearing, and yet is not totally beholden to the Vestry?

  6. Thanks, Fr. Steve, for bringing this up again.

    In our congregation, we have an annual meeting in which a vestry is elected but in the last five years, there have never even been one solitary vestry meeting.

    The priest collects the offerings, deposits them, writes the checks and buys whatever he wants without ever asking the vestry, etc. We are allowed no input whatsoever! We elect a treasurer, but there are a treasurer in name only, they aren't even allowed to handle the accounts. He spends money without any consultation of the people whatsoever.

    I am to the point where I feel I can no longer give money to the congregation under these circumstances. I am seriously considering giving my tithe to a local United Methodist Church where my grandparents were members. There I know the money will be democratically and properly spent according to the Administrative Board of that congregation.

  7. Brian,
    Not knowing all the ins and outs of sounds like your vestry needs to start meeting regularly. Also, your priest is taking quite a chance doing all the money stuff would be a simple thing for an accusation of mishandling of money to come out against him..He should really take that into consideration...It might also be good to check into your church's constitution to also determine the roles of the vestry and that of the priest. I went through a hard church closing (not Anglican though) a few years ago and thankfully our pastor knew the constitution inside and out and was able to deflect some of the harsh accusations that were flying around about him which were simply not true...

    I don't know if any of this helps or maybe these are all things you have considered before, but I hope that things can be addressed reasonably in your parish.

    BTW, great article! I love your posts for their historicity and consideration of modern application!

  8. A priest should never handle the funds of the church. Neither should the treasurer. Money (checks and cash) should be counted by at least two persons (none of which should be the priest or the treasurer), the funds deposited, and a copy of the deposit slip delivered to the treasurer. The treasurer only writes checks authorized by the budge or approved by the vestry as a whole. The priest only has authority to spend funds specifically allocated to him. I have never heard of a priest being able to spend parish funds as he sees fit.

  9. The vestry of a parish should meet a minimum of four times a year. If the standard/usual bylaws are in force then the senior warden with the concurrence of two other vestry men can call a meeting and the priest cannot do a blnd thing about it. Like the UK parliament there is a fail safe, if only people are aware of it.

    I tend to advise vestries and clergy that they need to work together. There is a technical division of responsibility, but it should not be slavishly obeyed. In my own parish I never make a major liturgical decision without hearing what the vestry has to say, and they do not make major financial decisions without my being on board. The system works best by mutual trust.

  10. Thanks for your kind and concerned replies. At least I now know that I am right to be concerned.

    To be quite plain, I am sure the priest is not taking money for his own use or in any way being dishonest, but I don't believe he should spend church funds and authorize labor and work to be done to the church on his own.

    If it were not for the fact that I signed (I wish now I hadn't) the mortgage for the church building, I would have dropped out long ago. I feel like I need to at least attend once in a while to keep a tab that the mortgage payments are being made.

    I know that in anything the Bishop will side with the priest, and not congregation, so I fear there isn't much I can do.

  11. As well it should, Your Grace. One would hope the good gentlemen and his fellow vestry members would make an appointment with their bishop and discuss the problem with him.

  12. Brian -

    I think it is a mistake on the part of a bishop to automatically side with a clergyman - they are as capable of messing up as other men. It also adds to the laity's frustration, which is probably why the 100,000 supporters if the original ACNA back in 1977 have evaporated to a mere 20 to 25 thousand today. Peter Nott, who was the Bishop of Norwich in the 1980s used to sy that if you wanted to lead that diocese you had to 'find out where they were going and walk in front of them.' I do not think that is entirely a Norfolk phenomomen, but clergymen should listen carefully to their lay-folks so that they can command their respect, and get everyone moving along in the same direction, and that, hopefully, to the glory of God.

  13. Sadly, I don't see any change being possible. The clericalism runs too deep. We of the laity are just there to pay the bills for them from what I can see. And the priest, nor the bishop, even care that over 50% of the members have left in the last year for similar reasons that distress me.

    I have decided to go back to the Methodist Church. Modern Methodism isn't perfect, but at least the people are treated as equals and not as servants to be ordered about by the clergy. I have found a small, traditional Methodist Church that still uses the 1662 BCP liturgy.

    I came to the continuum because I loved the services from the 1662 BCP that I grew up with in the old Methodist Hymnal. But, I didn't even get the Book of Common Prayer at all. Instead, they use the Missal and it just isn't the same.

    The additions in the Missal just ruin what was a beautiful liturgy in its own merits.

    I truly think the only place left to find a real Anglican Church is the UECNA (and the Chapels Royal in England), and sadly I live too far from the nearest parish to attend with the weekly regularity that I prefer.

    From what I can see, other than the UECNA, the continuing Anglicans don't want to be truly Anglican - they prefer to imitate pre-Vatican II Rome.