With Bishop Ian Douglas with us at the next service, it’s a good day for us to think about bishops, their role in the Church 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.
From 1 Timothy 3: “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.”Wise words to live by for all of us, but certainly wise words for our bishops to be respectable & sensible, gentle not quarrelsome, not lovers of money or 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.” (BCP p. 855)
But in the beginning, the church was not structured like our own day, they were single churches spread out, often fearing persecution; house churches meeting in homes of wealthy patrons. After the Roman emperor Constantine ended the violence against Christians, and then made 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.
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.
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. 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 folks there) and they were looking for a fresh start. Ambrose, a catechumen, but not yet baptized, was well known and liked in Milan for his authority over the area as the local Governor. The people rose up at the election and said they wanted him, he accepted after some initial hesitation, was baptized and ordained first as a deacon, then a priest and finally as bishop. A Church that was tested & fragile was brought together under his leadership and began to flourish.
In 1783, Samuel Seabury, a clergyperson here in the newly formed state of CT, after his election 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 because he did not have to make such a vow. And the Episcopal Church in the brand new USA had its first bishop in 1784.
In 1989, Barbara Harris was elected suffragan bishop (which is an assisting 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 understand 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. We all have a role play in God’s mission in our world today, which is what our Bishop Ian would say. So on this Trinity Sunday let me end with Bishop Ian’s words on our calling as the baptized by our Triune God.
“As followers of Jesus Christ today, as the Church, we too share in this household of God and thus are called to preach peace to those who are far off and to those who are near. Participation in God’s mission, therefore is at the heart of the baptismal call…Just as God sent Jesus into the world, and Jesus sent his disciples to the ends of the earth, we too are sent in mission.
The calling of the Church, the calling of every Christian, is to participate with God in the restoration of unity between ourselves and God and ourselves and each other; to participate in the missio Dei. It is the work of the Church to herald and effect the new order where alienation, division and separation give way to inclusion, reconciliation, and unity. The eminent missiologist David Bosch has thus summarized,
Mission is, primarily and ultimately, the work of the Triune God, Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier, for the sake of the world, a ministry in which the church is privileged to participate. This is the deepest source of mission. . . there is mission because [our Triune] God loves people.
Our identity as followers of Christ is dependent upon, and judged against, how faithful we are to the mission of God, to the making real of God’s reconciling love in the world. As Christians we are “called and sent” to live beyond ourselves trusting that God will use us to effect God’s restoration to unity; God’s redemption of creation to wholeness and oneness in Christ.” Amen.