Rowan Williams and “the distinctive charism of bishops”



A statement by Bonnie Anderson, President of the House of Deputies of the Episcopal Church at Preparing for Lambeth: A Conference for Religion Writers held at Virginia Theological Seminary on May 30, 2008.

There are two dynamics that will significantly affect our bishops at the Lambeth Conference. One is the exploration of the role of bishops and the other is the discussion of the proposed covenant.

Examination of the role of bishops:

At the opening of the Lambeth Conference in a traditional “retreat” style of brief theological reflection by the Archbishop, silence and mediation by the participants, then reflection, our bishops and all invited bishops, will reflect upon the archbishop’s words about “the bishop as a disciple of and leader in God’s mission”.

This event is a conference for bishops and it seems completely right for this topic to kick off this historic event. But I think that this topic also speaks to the Archbishop’s hope to confront what he has identified as a “major ecclesiological issue”. I think that the Archbishop has given up trying to get our bishops to take an independent stand on the future of the moratorium of same sex blessings for instance, and is now moving to “plan B” and turning his attention to encouraging our bishops to understand their “distinctive charism” as bishops, perhaps in a new way. I envision Archbishop Rowan pondering in, to use his word, “puzzlement” why these bishops of the Episcopal church don’t just stand up and exercise their authority as bishops like most of the rest of the bishops in the Communion do. Why would our bishops “bind themselves to future direction for the Convention?” Some of us in TEC in the past have thought that perhaps the Archbishop and others in the Anglican Communion do not understand the baptismal covenant that we hold foundational. Perhaps they just don’t “get” the way we choose to govern ourselves; the ministers of the church as the laity, clergy and the bishops, and that at the very core of our beliefs we believe in the God- given gifts of all God’s people, none more important than the other, just gifts differing. We believe that God speaks uniquely through laity, bishops, priests and deacons. This participatory structure in our church allows a fullness of revelation and insight that must not be lost in this important time of discernment. But I think our governance is clearly understood. I just don’t think the Archbishop has much use for it.

In his Advent, 2007 letter, Archbishop Williams states:

A somewhat complicating factor in the New Orleans statement has been the provision that any kind of moratorium is in place until General Convention provides otherwise. Since the matters at issue are those in which the bishops have a decisive voice as a House of Bishops in General Convention, puzzlement has been expressed as to why the House should apparently bind itself to future direction from the Convention. If that is indeed what this means, it is in itself a decision of some significance. It raises a major ecclesiological issue, not about some sort of autocratic

Episcopal privilege but about the understanding in The Episcopal Church of the distinctive charism of bishops as an order and their responsibility for sustaining doctrinal standards. Once again, there seems to be a gap between what some in the Episcopal Church understand about the ministry of bishops and what is held elsewhere in the Communion, and this needs to be addressed.

At the Lambeth Conference, I believe that the voice of the conformed bishop will be easily heard and affirmed. The prophetic voice will not be easily heard.

Our bishops will experience a dynamic that will encourage them to guard the unity and to hold the communion together, perhaps even through the vehicle of a covenant.

The Archbishop has made it clear to our bishops that when they accepted the invitation to Lambeth, they have indicated that they are willing to work with implementation of the recommendations of Windsor, including the development of a covenant. Again, in the Archbishop’s Advent letter:

I have underlined in my letter of invitation (to the Lambeth Conference) that acceptance of the invitation must be taken as implying willingness to work with those aspects of the Conference’s agenda that relate to implementing the recommendations of Windsor, including the development of a Covenant.

A word here about the process and how the process for receiving comments on the second draft of the covenant underscores the understanding of the role of the bishops by the ABC. The people of the provinces, the clergy and laity have a voice regarding the second draft through their bishop. Unlike comments received on the first draft from all interested members of the communion, with a process for laity and clergy to give direct input, comments on the second draft are made solely, directly by bishops. The Secretary General wrote to all the primates and provincial secretaries with the St. Andrew’s Report and the Joint Standing Committee supporting resolution. There were three specific questions attached and the primate was asked to determine how to address the questions and which body was the most appropriate to answer. The questions are:

1) Is the province able to give “in principle” commitment to the Covenant process at this time (without committing itself to the details of any text)?

2) Is it possible to give some indication of any synodical process which would have to be undertaken in order to adopt the Covenant in the fullness of time?

3) In considering the St. Andrew’s Draft for an Anglican Covenant, are there any elements which would need extensive change in order to make the process of synodical adoption viable.

The input of the clergy and laity of the Episcopal Church is especially important as the Anglican Communion considers the development of a covenant. The joint work of the House of Deputies and the House of Bishops is the highest institutional expression of our belief that God speaks uniquely through laity, priests and deacons and bishops. It is thus crucially important that our bishops go to Lambeth knowing what we think about the current state of the proposed Anglican covenant.

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13 Responses to "Rowan Williams and “the distinctive charism of bishops”"
  1. This important issue needs to be considered in the context of the difference between the established Church of England and our non-established character. the ABC thinks that bishops have an innate authority which probably comes from the English establishment of the church, where we feel that bishops have authority derived from the will of the entire body of Christ. To discuss episcopacy without keeping this distinction in mind is to risk falling into error.

    Ron Miller

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  2. It seems to me that American Anglicanism has angled towards the most ancient understanding of ecclesiology: i.e., a bishop/pastor was chosen FROM the congregation BY the congregation -- one of "their own", serving as their own voice and their own presider. The bishop/pastor was not selected by "someone else" and did not represent "someone else". Any inherent authority he had was merely the embodying of the authority of the congregation itself. He was not hauled in and dropped on a congregation by some external authority.

    The later - medieval - concept was that the bishop was "above" the congregation, representing some exterior superior authority. He was, in a sense, "sent to" the congregation to transmit some over-arching ministry, rather than raised up from and by the congregation to serve them. The congregation, the assembly, became the RECIPIENT of episcopal ministry rather than the SOURCE of it.

    I've always thought that there seemed a singular propriety when bishop was elected from WITHIN the electing diocese, rather than imported from somewhere else. (And this, to my mind, has always been one of the special "strengths" of the bishop of New Hampshire -- he was "one of their own".)

    The allegiance of the bishop in this ancient (and American) procedure is to his/her people, not to some foreign principles or some greater external entity. True, s/he is vetted and approved and eventually consecrated by his/her fellow bishops and the broader church, but primarily represents his/her constituents.

    And that seems to be incomprehensible to most of the rest of the world, although it is something that the apostolic bishops/pastors would have understood very well.

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  3. Brava, Bonnie! She not only totally hits the nail on the head, but shows the kind of leadership we need from the House of Deputies -- a willingness to "speak truth" to episcopal power!

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  4. You know, there's nothing about bishops having a "distinctive charism" that per se denies the "distinctive charisms" of each of the other orders of ministry. On the other hand, there's nothing about a "distinctive charism" that requires the distinction be that of "prince bishop.:

    The General Convention did in fact speak to our willingness to commit to a covenant process without committing to any specific text (or to signing on to the final text); and to the appropriate synodical process (albeit implicitly). I think we will see that there would need to be significant change in some parts of the St. Andrew's Draft for it to have significant hope in General Convention.

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  5. Thank you, Bonnie! You didn't use this phrase, but I will: checks and balances.

    We have seen what episcopal oppression is like; many have labored under clerical oppression in their parishes. Laypeople have to have the power to put the brakes on runaway rectors and bishops. Otherwise we end up with Don Armstrong and John-David Schofield, parishes and dioceses in ruins.

    General Convention, opt out of any proposed Covenant. No matter how it's worded the American Church will lose its autonomy, those very checks and balances that have protected us from the most egregious errors.

    Let us take confederated or affiliated status with Canterbury as a positive, freedom-enhancing development. Of course we're "second class citizens" to the delusional British, what else is new? The sun never sets on that island, though it sure does get dark pretty fast.

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  6. I am a priest of the C of E. I am opposed to establishment of our Church, believing it will be more on a par with other members of the Anglicna Communion were it to be disestablished from all traces of secular power.

    Congratulations to Bonnie. I am also oppposed to proposals for primatal supremacy over deciison making in our Communion. Bishoops are there to serve not to dominate.

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  7. Here's a portion of my ATR article that addresses the Windsor Report's thoughts on the ministry of bishops.

    The merit of the notion of bishop as teacher depends on what kind of pedagogy is involved. The Report seems to espouse a sharp division between “accredited leaders” and other Christians. It envisions a teaching church, consisting of ordained ministers (especially bishops, mostly men), and a learning church, which affects doctrinal development chiefly by giving or withholding its “consent.”11 Bible study is encouraged for all (para. 57), but teaching by “bishops” and “primates” is stressed as the means by which “the authority of God vested in scripture is brought to bear—in mission within the world and in wise teaching to build up the Church” (para. 58).

    The Report gives the impression that the faithful are largely passive recipients of teaching, which consists of the application of Scripture’s “message” in a local context.12 The gifts of the Spirit are not emphasized. Several of these involve teaching, and none is restricted to ordained ministers. The episcopacy is largely a second-century development. 13 In the New Testament, office is bound with charism (1 Cor.12:28, Rom. 12:6-8, Eph. 4:11-16), and the church retains an open

    structure as it awaits the work of the Spirit, the parousia of Jesus, and the Reign of God.

    Bishops, priests, and deacons do take on responsibility for preaching and teaching, but how is this to be understood, given the baptismal ecclesiology of the 1979 Prayer Book?14 The gift of the

    the whole church (and each of its members) to participate in the ministry of Jesus.15 All ministry involves living out particular aspects of this ministry, to encourage others to exercise their gifts and to contribute to the process of evangelization. No ministry, including teaching, is restricted to any one order, and every order functions only in relationship with the others. God forbid that only deacons should serve the poor or confront the powers that “corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.” Both are baptismal promises.16 The case is similar with regard to proclaiming the gospel, teaching, celebrating the sacraments, and providing pastoral care and oversight (episcopé). The principal ministry of each order, including “laypersons,” is to “represent Christ and his Church.”17 Thus, Christians fulfill their baptismal vow to “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.”18 A better conception of the teaching ministry of bishops would

    stress its continuity with that of the baptized, breaking down any fixed division between teaching and learning churches. Distinctions remain within the body, but these are negotiable in light of the egalitarian implications of baptism (Gal. 3:25-29) and the requirements of the church’s mission.19 As successors of the apostles, bishops serve as sacramental signs of the primitive testimony to the resurrection. The bishop must be a “teacher of Scripture” because the contemporary church’s teaching is grounded in the “apostles’ teaching and fellowship.” 20 The chief criterion for including writings in the New Testament was fidelity to the apostolic “rule of faith” at the heart of the creeds.21 As Christians, we read the Old Testament in light of its messianic fulfillment. Together with the words and deeds of Jesus, his resurrection is central to any evangelical and apostolic testimony. Testimony arises from anamnesis, which plays a central role in the sacraments of the church, above all baptism and eucharist (1 Cor. 11:24-25; Luke 22:19). Anamnesis involves more than merely “remembrance” or “memorial”: “Through anamnesis, we become participants in the events, not as history, but as present realities in our lives.”22 The bishop’s authority to preside, oversee, preach, and teach comes from (and contributes to) the entire church’s active anamnesis of Jesus. What kind of memory is this? Johann Baptist Metz calls it “dangerous” and “subversive.”

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  8. Sometimes this reminds me of the story from the Brothers Karamazov and the Grand Inquisitor. God is told to go away because the Church has everything under control and God isn't needed. If we believe in the priesthood of believers then our hierarchical understanding is parallel and not pyramid. Clearly, England and much of the communion live with an absolute monarchist understanding, i.e.pre-Magna Carta. Parlament doesn't run this way, but the C of E apparently still thinks this way in spite of the Elizabethan settlement and other such things. What ever happened to agreeing to disagree in love? As the Rev. Tony Campolo once said sardonically concerning the Anglican Communion: "we can have people denying the Virgin Birth, the Divnity of Christ, the Incarnation, the inspiration of scripture but when it comes to HOMOSEXUALITY(!), well we've got to draw the line somewhere!" The universality of the catholic faith is certainly divided over cultural lines rather than doctrinal primarily. Again, it is about power and authority, both of which I believe in, but absolute power? I simply don't believe that such is Anglican, Biblical or Christian.

    The Rev. Rob Bagwell

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  9. I would be interested to find out from folks what people think the "distinctive charism of bishops" is. Doesn't "overseer" (episkopos) speak of some kind of authority that is not contingent? While I'm fully aware of the danger of clerical oppression, it seems like what we really want from our bishops is someone to show up on Sundays with a pointy hat and cool vestments, nod and bless what we have done, and then get out of our way. I'm pretty sure that notion does not align with the vows our bishops take at their ordinations/consecrations.

    I also take issue with the concept of bishops being raised up out of their own dioceses as somehow having a more valid authority. I was told at my ordination that I was being ordained for the whole church, not just for my sponsoring congregation, my calling congregation, or even my diocese. Similarly, a bishop is ordained not just for his or her diocese, but for the whole church (else why need consents from other dioceses?). To say otherwise makes it seem like we are a congregational church in which the only really valid ordinations are those that arise out of the congregation itself. The result is that we end up with the prevailing attitude that our selection of bishops is nobody's business but ours, regardless of wider ramifications. This applies to both the conservative and liberal wings of the church.

    I'm certainly not advocating for "prince bishops" or unchecked power, but I am suggesting that our attachment to the democratic process is more American and Protestant than it is Catholic and biblical. So, the question remains: What is the ministry of a bishop as distinct from that of a layperson, deacon, or priest? Inquiring minds want to know.

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  10. In my opinion, Rowan was calling the bishops in New Orleans on their logic, their intentional fuzziness in their NO statement. If General Convention is to take a future direction it cannot do so without the consent of the HOB -- we do have a system of two houses, not a system where one tells the other what to do. That is our system of shared governance.

    What a current HOB cannot do is make commitments that bind a future HOB. And in my opinion it is not appropriate for them to make statements as if they could. Individual bishops can of course make personal commitments.

    When it comes to their responsibility for upholding doctrinal standards, yes that is one of the things bishops are charged with doing. And that does not prevent the spirit from moving, but ideally allows time to assure that the prophetic voice is authentic.

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