One essay question I like to pose to students in the Anglican History and Theology class is this: In the Anglican tradition, why are bishops seen as important? In other words, what are bishops good for? Alas, most students, perhaps wary of the essay ending up in the hands of an ordaining bishop, choose to write on another question.
Bishops are central to the Anglican tradition. But we often forget that the nature of episcopal ministry has changed many times over the course of church history. If St. Peter was the first pope, his ministry was a far cry from that of the regal popes of the medieval period or even bishops of the Church of England who today sit in the House of Lords. Augustine of Hippo was a bishop, but he had a ministry that was deeply local and contextual and tied to a relatively narrow geographic area. Approaches to vestments have changed too. It is only relatively recently, for instance, that Anglican bishops began to default to wearing mitres. Today, our expectations of episcopal ministry are such that we expect bishops to be supported by staffs, offices, and all manner of other accoutrements—but this is a relatively recent understanding of what it means to be a bishop. Indeed, some would argue quite compellingly that the outsize focus on bishops in the church today is a detriment to building a culture of lay leadership in ministry across the church.
All of this came to mind as I read about the Diocese of the Arctic’s decision to elect three new suffragen bishops: one to replace a resignation and two new posts. (On Thursday last week, the Diocese of Montreal’s own Annie Ittoshat was elected to one of these posts.) The occupants of the two new posts will also serve as incumbents of parishes. In one way, this makes sense: the Arctic is a large, sparsely-populated, and not terribly wealthy diocese. Combining parish ministry and episcopal ministry makes good financial sense. Plus, it might helpfully lower the profile of bishops and allow “regular” Christians to live out the fullness of their calling. In another way, it’s more confusing: is the person a rector or a bishop? If the bishop is primarily the rector of a church, on what grounds is she or he granted a role in the larger councils of the church? ? (It’s not only in the Arctic that this happens, mind you: in the Diocese of Western Kansas, the bishop is not only bishop but also vicar of two parishes and a municipal prosecutor.)
As we think about the future shape of the church, the nature of episcopal ministry and the role of bishops in leading the church needs to be part of that conversation. Among much else, bishops offer leadership in mission, continuity with tradition, oversight of the church, a connection between the local church and the church universal, teaching for discipleship, and embody the church in the public square. Are the current structures of episcopal ministry best suited to the reality of the church today? Perhaps in some places they are. But perhaps in others, the role of bishop needs to continue its ongoing evolution so that the church can reach the fullness God is calling it to.
This message was written by College Principal Jesse Zink for this week’s Wingèd Ox, a weekly news digest distributed to the college community.