Bishops: an alternative view

David G Sharp

My immediate reaction on reading Stephen Booth’s article in the Summer Headline was to misquote Hamlet (Act 2, Scene 2): ‘The gentleman doth protest too much, methinks’. From my perspective, this is not a gospel issue, unlike justice, poverty, peace or climate change. Therefore, it is not worth wasting a lot of energy on. The variety of systems of church government, including episcopal ones, in which evangelicals are happily engaged, indicates that there is no one ‘evangelical way’.


Having said that, however, there are some points of Stephen’s that I would like to pick up. The first is the glaring error of equating the ideas of Apostolic Succession and Historic Episcopate. They are not the same. Apostolic Succession is ‘the theory of a continuing line of descent from the apostles to the present-day church transmitted through episcopal consecration’. The idea seems to have emerged in the western church in the third century. However, ‘the New Testament evidence is strongly against there being monepiscopal succession throughout the Church’.1 In 1939 it was stated that ‘the Methodist Church is unable to accept the theory of Apostolic succession… as constituting the true and only guarantee of sacramental grace and right doctrine’.2


The historic episcopate is defined somewhat differently, for example in Sharing in the Apostolic Commission, a report of the Anglican-Methodist International Commission (1996). ‘Within Anglicanism, the historic episcopate denotes the continuity of oversight in the Church through the ages from the earliest days, expressed in a personal episcopal ministry, the intention of which is to safeguard, transmit, and restate in every generation the apostolic faith delivered once for all to the saints’.3 There is no hint here of mechanical transmission, nor any attempt to push the succession back to the apostles themselves. The issue under discussion today is not ‘apostolic succession’, which is largely discredited, but ‘historic episcopate’, which Methodism does seem to be able to accept.


Booth also claims that the doctrine of the historic episcopate ‘first makes its appearance in the Epistle of Clement of Rome to the Corinthians (c. 96 AD)’. That is not the only interpretation. Clement was writing to a situation where senior Corinthian presbyters (elders, also called bishops) had been deposed in a dispute, possibly with a Gnostic group. ‘The letter betrays no knowledge of monepiscopacy, but appeals to a simple form of apostolic succession…. Later tradition promoted Clement to a monarchical bishop, the third pope after Peter, or even his successor…’4 The case against Clement is at least ‘not proven’.


Quite rightly, because it is part of our foundation document (the Deed of Union), Stephen emphasises Methodism’s loyalty to the principles of the Protestant Reformation. But he is selective in his choice of Reformers! He omits all reference to the two strands of Reformation tradition that probably influenced Wesley the most: the Church of England and the Moravians. They both managed to be Protestant, reformed and to retain bishops in the historic episcopate. (Incidentally, the Lutheran picture is not quite as clear as Stephen suggests. Lutheran churches in Scandinavia continued to have bishops, although the German Lutherans did not). In this light, to accept the historic episcopate can in no way be described as repudiating our Protestant Evangelical origins. On the contrary, it could be argued that we are returning to our roots!


Two other matters call for brief comment. First, there is a hint in the section ‘History of the Doctrine of the setting up of an Aunt Sally: the Prince Bishop who lords it over his diocese. For well over half my ministry, the appointments I served in brought me into contact with a number of bishops. We need to get rid of the medieval stereotype. The bishops I have met have been hard-working servants of their clergy and of the churches in their care.


Secondly, there is the matter of the Restoration and the 1662 Book of Common Prayer (BCP). My ‘Book of Common Prayer with Historical Notes’ indicates that some changes were made in the order of service for the Consecration of Bishops between Cranmer’s original BCP of 1552 and the 1662 BCP. None of them, however, can be said to promote the theory of apostolic succession. They mainly involve collects, prayers and changes to the version of the Bible to be read. (More interesting are the indications that, in creating the order of service for the 1552 BCP, Cranmer drew on many far older texts, particularly various Sarum rites). Nor is there anything about apostolic succession in the Acts of Uniformity of 1559 and 1662. There is merely, in the Preface to the Ordinal, which goes back to Cranmer in 1550, a one-sentence reference to the three-fold order of ministry – bishop, priest, and deacon – being self-evidently scriptural.


There is one area in which I agree entirely with Stephen Booth’s argument: John Wesley’s understanding of presbyters (elders) and bishops (overseers) in the New Testament. He came to the conclusion that the two terms were alternative titles for the same office. So much so that, as the Rev. David Tripp pointed out at a Probationers’ Retreat I once organised, John Wesley incorporated parts of the BCP order for the Consecration of Bishops into his order for the Ordination of Methodist Ministers. This was very clear in the 1975 Service Book (MSB page G12, para. 16), and there are still echoes in the current Worship Book (MWB page 308, para. 19).


While we may agree with John Wesley’s view of the New Testament evidence, it does not mean that we can force our interpretation on other equally evangelical brothers and sisters who interpret the texts differently. Moreover, we are in a minority among the Christian churches on this issue. The 2000 Conference report Episkopé and Episcopacy has a section on the episcopate world wide, which includes several Methodist traditions.5 So, as we already have a group of ministers who increasingly fulfil a role which approximates to that of a modern bishop – our District Chairs - I personally concur with the ex-President, Tom Stuckey, in his Pastoral Address to Ministerial Session of Conference (see the Methodist Recorder, June 22, pages 12 and 14). Let us get on with appointing them bishops and have done with it! At the very least, then, the world outside the church will have some idea of their function!


For bishops are deeply embedded in the history of all strands of the church: Orthodox, Roman, Reformed/Protestant. We cannot make them history in the sense that Stephen Booth wishes. We are being given the opportunity, however, to determine how best they can fulfil their role at the point we have reached in history – the first decade of the 21st century. The role itself is equally embedded in history: the wording of BCP 1662 goes back via Cranmer’s 1552 order to the Sarum Pontifical, and beyond that to scripture: ‘Be to the flock of Christ a shepherd, not a wolf; feed them, devour them not. Hold up the weak, heal the sick, bind up the broken, bring again the outcasts, seek the lost. Be so merciful, that you be not too remiss; so minister discipline, that you forget not mercy: that when the chief Shepherd shall appear you may receive the never-fading crown of glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord’. Is this what we want to consign to history?


1. New International Dictionary of the Christian Church, pp 59 - 60

2. A Response to ‘The Outline of a Reunion Scheme for the Church of England and the Evangelical Free Churches of England’. Quoted in ‘Statements and Reports of the Methodist Church on Faith and Order’, Vol. 2, 1984 – 2000, Part 2, p. 371.

3. ‘Statements and Reports’ (as above), p. 379.

4. New International Dictionary of the Christian Church, p. 235.

5. ‘Statements and Reports’ (as above) pp. 394 - 402

The Revd David Shapr is a supernumerary minister in the Gordano Valley Circuit and former new testament Tutor at Cliff College.

Headline Autumn 2006 pp 21-22