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Hallo again to all.

Not long ago, we read with amazement a serious, rather high-profile proposal for the abolition of bishops in the Church of England. Suggestions about the deletion of bishops from the ministerial rolls (always by people other than bishops) have cropped up before in church history. In many cases, bishops themselves have in obvious instinct for self-preservation protested plans for the eradication of their kind; in others, the office has in fact been allowed to fall into desuetude and to die out for a time. There have also been periods when a clamour was made for smaller territorial dioceses—and hence more bishops, not fewer of them or none at all. The recent, noteworthy growth in the number of bishops and dioceses in our communion establishes the general tenor of recent Anglican life in this latter camp.

Thomas Nast on the peril of bishopsWe are quite sure that no one took this particular proposal to be anything but another provocative salvo in recent debates about the internal arrangement of the Church of England and the Anglican Communion as a whole. And as is often the case, the debate is quite as intense on the outside of those bodies as it is inside of them. What struck us most here, though, was the idea that a perceived problem in the church—controversy about bishops, discipline and authority—could be eradicated for the greater good just by removing an entire class of people from our ranks. Never mind that church government by these people is usually understood as the touchstone of our polity, and that it has been so for much of our history. Since bishops are the problem, says this odd line of reasoning, they must go. Be gone, gaiters! away, mitres! no more episkope! The days of the Root and Branch Petition are back, at least for some.

We are here (as almost always) more convinced by a rationale of church improvement that involves something other than the removal from our numbers of people perceived as problematic by another group of people. Surely the Gospel is meant to be spread rather than diminished, to grow in influence instead of becoming a precious commodity in danger of perishing from its own exclusivity, dignity and respectability. If bishops wish to come to the holy table, what business have priests, deacons and layfolk—or commentators outside the church—in turning them away? They, too, have roles and gifts for the building up of our common life.

We suspect that most Anglicans today have real contact with their bishops only in the context of confirmation or administration rather than in a more extended pastoral way. Sadly, this can make children into bartering pawns in arguments about jurisdiction or allegiance, and turn bishops into absentee landlords demanding fees for services rendered. It is not ideal, and it must in some sense minimize the lived apostolicity of our dioceses if we think of bishops as people who come to visit from time to time, or as the ones who sign the dotted lines and chair the meetings. But we stick with the theory that abusus non tollit usum—abuse of a thing does not abrogate the right use of that thing. And we think we have met bishops whose life work is the magnification of God in the Church rather than the jealous guarding of their own official prerogatives, or the uncareful government of the blessed company of all faithful people to its detriment. By all means, let us keep the bishops, good ones, tall ones, short ones, quiet ones and even some loud ones. In addition to being a tactile link to the remote past, they focus our ecclesial life in a way the New Testament already assumes as regular. It strikes us as more worthwhile to refresh and repair an office distorted in places instead of just getting rid of it in the face of everything scripture, tradition and reason have to offer on the subject.

Could the Anglican tradition live on without any bishops, as it did for a full 48% of its history in North America, and as Roman Catholics did in Japan from 1596 to 1847, or Orthodox Christians in Alaska did from 1740 to 1841?* We imagine it could well do so, and that such a situation would bring out unknown strengths in unexpected places. Should it have to go without bishops, and would it be wise at this juncture to send them out to pasture, no matter what alleged financial and therapeutic benefits could redound to the communion as a result? The question looms large from time to time, but we lodge herewith a cheerful, decided No in the debate. Vestment makers will rejoice, but so, in some sense, will the holy church throughout the world.

See you next week.

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Last updated: 27 August 2006

* By our reckoning, if the Prayer Book was first used for worship in North America in 1579, and no bishop provided for the hemisphere arrived there until 1785, a full 206 years of our history there took place in the noticeable absence of bishops on the ground.

(Click for the 1 August update on Cynthia's cancer.)

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