With Bishop Jim Curry visiting us at the next service, it’s a good day for us to think about bishops, their role and our understanding of bishops today & throughout the centuries…
We begin with the NT, which speaks of three offices of the church, the overseers, presbyters and deacons. It is from these that our modern notion of three ordained ministries exist from the baptized: bishops, priests and deacons. Bishops are the overseers, episkopos in the Greek, those who oversee church affairs. We read about them in the Acts of the Apostles, but the term overseer seems to be interchangeable with elder or presbyter in those early days. Only later the letters of 1 Timothy & Titus talk specifically about different offices within the baptized community, and they alone lay out the office of bishop.
The church then was not structured like our own, single units spread out, often fearing persecution, house churches. After the Roman emperor Constantine ended the violence against Christians, and then makes Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire does the modern notion of a bishop start to form. As more and more churches are formed, the bishop moves from overseeing one church to many churches, and this begins the emergence of what we call dioceses today that is a group of churches in a geographical area formed with one or more bishops to oversee them.
To connect us with the apostles and those early bishops, the Church has followed what is called the Apostolic Succession…[see picture frame outside the side door of the Church, next to the Lending Library]
Bishops connect us to the past, and connect the churches under them together in common mission. The chief duties of a bishop are with the administration of those sacraments that belong to bishops, that is confirmation and ordination, and the oversight of the diocese, the parishes including the supervision of the clergy… Bp. Curry – 200th Anniversary of the Parish and visitation with us in 2003 (Baptized the Huber boys!). Our diocesan Bishop, Andrew Smith was with us in 2005 for his visitation of this parish and in June when we hosted the deanery confirmation at St. Peter’s.
It is these occasions in the life of a parish that a bishop comes and celebrates with them; the same is true for a dedication of a church, or a rebuilding or restoration of a church. 200 years ago! On September 18, 1807, Bishop Jarvis came and dedicated and consecrated this church as St. Peter’s Episcopal Church. The parish and the Bishop work together for the ministry of a diocese and the bishop comes to celebrate with the parish. But of course, there have been hard times too, for a bishop can step in with appropriate authority from the Standing Committee of the diocese to oversee errant clergy, which Bishop Thomas Brownell, the 3rd Bishop of Connecticut did with the Rev. Menzies Rayner priest of the diocese and rector of this parish in 1827. Two months later, Rev. Rayner was no longer an Episcopal priest…which at least the history book recorded is what the parish wanted.
Bishops have been greeted at times with either enthusiasm or disdain…
In Milan, Italy in 374, they were looking for a new bishop. The bishop had died (who was not well liked by a majority of parishioners) and they were looking for a fresh start. Ambrose, a catechumen, but not baptized was well know and liked in Milan for his authority over the area as Governor. The people rose up and said they wanted him, he accepted after some hesitation, was baptized and ordained. A Church that was tested was brought together under his leadership and flourished.
In 1783, Samuel Seabury, a clergyperson here in the newly formed state of CT, after his election up in Woodbury went to England to receive the laying of hands and ordination as a bishop but he could not swear allegiance to the King, so he went to Scotland and was ordained bishop there. And the Episcopal Church in the brand new USA had its first bishop in 1784.
In 1989, Barbara Harris was elected suffragan bishop of the Diocese of MA. She would become the first woman bishop in the Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion. She had death threats against her and bomb threats made at her ordination. Certainly, her ordination as a bishop, brought joy to some and anguish to others.
The Church, I believe, was renewed each of those times, and it began with guidance from the Holy Spirit to understood that there are no barriers for ordination. Those who are baptized into the midst of the Body of Christ are those who can be ordained, deacon, priest or bishop. And this is done in the Episcopal Church through an election by representatives of every parish, its laity and clergy. It is also true, that the ordained have a role amongst the lay people that calls them to live lives that follow Christ’s Gospel and his call to us.
I think of the words from 1 Timothy: “The saying is sure: whoever aspires to the office of bishop desires a noble task. Now a bishop must be above reproach, husband of one wife, temperate, sensible, respectable, hospitable, an apt teacher, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and not a lover of money.” Gentle, hospitable, temperate, above reproach. Wise words to live by for all of us, but certainly wise words for our bishops to be gentle not quarrelsome, not lovers of money, not drunkards… We expect our bishops, as the Book of Common Prayer states, “to represent Christ and his Church, particularly as apostle, chief priest, and pastor of a diocese; to guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the whole Church; to proclaim the Word of God; to act in Christ’s name for the reconciliation of the world and the building up of the Church; and to ordain others to continue Christ’s ministry.” (855)
Of course, this is a noble task and a large task. I don’t think any bishop is perfect. They have their strengths and weaknesses like everyone else. I am reminded of the words of the great Anglican Theologian, Richard Hooker, who wrote in the 16th Century: “As for us over whom Christ hath placed them [bishops] to be the chiefest guides and pastors of our souls, our common fault is that we look for much more in our governors than a tolerable sufficiency can yield, and bear much less than humanity and reason do require we should.” This is true today. We expect too much of our bishops, near perfection, and of course they must always do what we want them to do....
We need to remind ourselves that we work together in the Episcopal Church, all of us, for the common mission. Our bishops do not have as much power as other bishops in the RC and Methodist churches for instance; we have checks and balances in the Episcopal Church that require the bishop to work with committees, conventions, with the clergy and laity of their diocese. As a clergyperson I meet with our bishops and other clergy often. It is up to us as a parish, its laity and clergyperson to work with our bishop, to make sure our voices are heard, but also our prayers, and that we continue to walk together to do the ministry of Christ here in CT. Then we will be doing what the Apostles did and we will be working together for the ministry of Jesus, just as parishioners and bishop have done for the last 200 years here in Monroe.
And in a Prayer that is used at every ordination in our church, as well as a prayer used on Good Friday and the Easter Vigil, let us pray:
O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry out in tranquility the plan of salvation; let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.