Friday, January 12, 2007


When the Church-of-General-Convention constituted itself in 1789, the founders realized that they couldn't very well call themselves anything that had the phrase "Church of England" in it, given still fresh revolutionary sensibilities, and "Anglican" was not yet in anyone's working vocabulary. So they adopted the moniker "Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America." This delineated a classic middle way between Romanism (hence, "Protestant") and the various congregational and Calvinist bodies that existed in the land (hence, "Episcopal"--ordered by bishops).

This is my blog, so I can let my inner English teacher run free from time to time, and deliver an etymology lesson. Think in Greek: epi (outer, over--as in "epiphany") + skopos (view, see--as in telescope, microscope) = episkopos ("overseer", or if you are in a Latinate mood, "supervisor"). We find the word seven times in the New Testament, where it refers to an ecclesiastical office in the nascent Church, an office that quickly took a specific and enduring shape in the decades immediately following the apostolic era.

As words and languages evolve, try imagining a process like this: the initial 'e' and the inflected conclusion 'os' fall by the wayside, leaving "piskop." As they are often wont to do, the opening 'p' morphs to its consonantal cousin 'b'. Then the 'sk' softens into a consonant blend, 'sh'. Voila, we have "bishop."

One wag has joked that Anglicans have a high view of episcopacy and a low view of bishops. Given what I've been seeing from the port side of Anglican cyberspace over the last two or three years, I'm thinking it's probably not a joke. We hear a steady refrain that, if I can paraphrase in a summary fashion, goes something like this: "Sure, we have bishops in the Episcopal Church, but they are not really our leaders or representatives or policy makers or spokespersons. They duly confirm and ordain and preach and write and give pastoral care, and sometimes we let them preside at diocesan conventions, but otherwise we keep them on a pretty short leash."

This is democracy run amok. It is American, but it is not Anglican, and certainly not Catholic. There are good bishops and (God knows) there are bad bishops, but in a church that calls itself "Episcopal" there's no escaping them--that is, there's no escaping their primacy of authority in interpreting, teaching, and transmitting the truth of God, and in exercising godly authority, and in articulating the mind of the Church. That's what we elect and ordain them for.

Of course, those who are complaining, those who are trying to tighten the circle of episcopal influence, are reacting to decisions made by bishops, and groups of bishops, that they don't like. One thinks here of the Primates' Meeting (the Dromantine Communique sticks in the craw of General Convention supremacists), the Lambeth Conference (I.10 from 1998 is the offender here), and the Camp Allen group of "Windsor Bishops" (the mere fact that they met without the sanction of General Convention, and took counsel together for the future of Anglicanism, is a big no-no).

I don't have to work very hard to envision being in a situation where I am annoyed by what bishops do, either individually or collectively. But I don't willfully ignore the long theological tradition wherein a bishop is thought to encapsulate in his person the church which he serves as chief pastor, and is therefore qualified to speak on behalf of that church (diocese). I am, for that same reason, comfortable with the idea of the Lambeth Conference as speaking the mind of the Anglican Communion. I may not like what they say, but I am conscience-bound to give it the benefit of any doubt, and weigh it carefully, before discarding it.

That this principle is still operative within Anglicanism is evident in all the talk about "communion with the See of Canterbury." I personally have immense regard for the current occupant of that See, but it's not about communion with Rowan Williams, it's about communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury, because he is a personal microcosm of the diocese and province of Canterbury, and of the authority that office has held for some 1,400 years.

I don't expect the General Convention supremacists to back down from their position anytime soon. But it's good to be clear that, from the vantage point of broad Christian tradition, they are on thin ice.

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