“The Usefulness of Bishops”


Lk. 12.49-56

In the Name of God, Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. Amen.

Like many who join the Episcopal Church as adults, I love the distinctive worship of our Anglican tradition. I love the stately language of the prayers and the emphasis on beautiful music.

But worship wasn’t the crucial factor that attracted me to this church. What really made a difference to me was the fact that the Anglican Communion has bishops.

I am not saying that our consecrated leaders are central to my personal religious experience! I can try to love God and my neighbor without bishops.

Nor does my faith depend on the various pronouncements that our bishops make about politics or morality. I realize that our bishops are sometimes mistaken when they make judgments about contemporary issues. As it happens, some Anglican bishops must have been mistaken in recent days – because they have disagreed about whether weddings between gay people can be celebrated in church.

The Bishop of Albany, for example, has forbidden his clergy to bless New York State civil marriages of gays and lesbians, while the Bishop of Long Island permits such blessings. Obviously, since these pronouncements contradict each other, at least one of the opinions has to be wrong!

The need for bishops might also be questioned today, when they seem to cause the major conflicts in the worldwide Anglican Communion about issues like sexuality.

And if these questions about bishops seem too theoretical, there is the practical matter that bishops cost money. Incarnation pays an assessment of more than $40,000 every year to support the bishop of New York and the national Episcopal Church organization run by our Presiding Bishop. So we might ask, what are we getting for our money?

Well, here’s what I think we get. Traditionally, Christians have believed that bishops have what is called “apostolic” authority. A bishop represents the faith of the apostles in a given physical area known as a “diocese.” Sometimes bishops met together in “councils” and these councils, representing gatherings of Jesus’s disciples, would sometimes try to settle disputes about what Christians should believe. The Nicene Creed that we sometimes repeat in church was formulated at the Council of Nicea in the year 325.

And within the Anglican Communion, we have generally interpreted this understanding of authority in what I think is a healthy way.

First of all, we don’t expect our bishops to override our individual consciences. Bishops don’t make rules which tell us what we must decide in every moral dilemma.

Even when our bishops meet in “councils” such as the Lambeth conference and pass resolutions about such matters as sexual morality, even then, they don’t have the dictatorial powers over lay people that bishops in other Christian churches have. Although we pay attention to the pronouncements of our bishops, they aren’t absolutely binding upon us.

Yet bishops do have a spiritual authority in their leadership. In my view, when this authority is used wisely, it can be extremely valuable. For bishops can get our attention.

One example: Anglican bishops from African countries remind Anglicans in the West of the problems of poor people on their continent. Their lands are parched by drought; their families are broken by the scourge of AIDS.

Incarnation is just concluding a five-year program to support 50 AIDS orphans from a parish in Tanzania. And that program began through a friendship between the bishop of the local diocese in Tanzania and our own Bishop Catherine Roskam.

From the beginning of his term of office, the Archbishop of Canterbury has argued that western countries should give debt relief to poor nations – to grant them breathing room to re-build their economies.

And since there are far more Anglicans now in Africa than on any other continent, the concerns of the African bishops are given more attention and those concerns include the enormous financial debts that African countries have contracted.

Now, as we have seen in the course of this week of stock market gyrations, economics is an extremely inexact science, even for economists!

But Anglican bishops from developing countries forcefully remind us that the United States isn’t the only country with money problems! Here is a case where “Apostolic teaching” can make a difference in how we interpret the responsibilities of our faith.

At the same time, doctrinal teaching expressed by spiritual authorities who are descended from the original apostles of Christ reminds us that we don’t have to discover faith by ourselves. Christianity arose long before we arrived; it will continue long after we are gone.

So if I have a problem understanding what I should believe about prayer, I might try to solve my problems on my own. I might read books and study various techniques of meditation. But ultimately, my “prayer life” doesn’t depend on whether or not I’m successful in my individual study. For I am a member of a greater, historic church.

And the structure of my Church provides a structure for our corporate prayer life and for my prayer life. Our clergy are ordained by bishops who follow the ancient customs of the early church.

We even have a Book of Common Prayer. A printed “book,” gives us help in forming our prayers, so that we don’t have to invent prayers every day. And we need to pray in “common,” because we know that there is strength in numbers – that our individual souls are nourished by the united prayers of many Christians.

Of course, not every bishop who is selected as a successor to the apostles will prove to be a wise leader. The system must work with imperfect men and women.

Fortunately, the Episcopal Church is blessed with many checks-and-balances to counterweigh the imperfection of our leaders. Bishops are elected by priests and lay people and they govern along with democratic committees in their dioceses.

These checks-and-balances result in a system that is much more effective, even with its flaws, in helping us as individual Christians. My spiritual life is far richer than if I relied only on my own insights.

In other words, our church organization gives us the best of both worlds. We retain our individual freedom to accept or reject the advice of our apostolic leaders. At the same time, their presence in our “Episcopal” church (“episcopal” means “a church with bishops”) reminds us that we are part of a movement greater than ourselves.

Michael Ramsey, the 100th Archbishop of Canterbury who died in 1988, noted that the early church was “a continuous, visible, historical society, upon which the local community depended, inwardly and outwardly.”

Our Anglican tradition – with all its flaws – gives us a “continuous, visible, historical” link with all Christians, past and present. No wonder, then, that the Prayer Book calls the Church, “that wondrous and sacred mystery.”

And now unto God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit be ascribed as is most justly due all might, majesty, power, dominion and praise, now and forever, Amen.







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