Thomas McKenzie
by grace alone
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Mysteries of Anglican Governance, Part Three

The Purple Shirts

Bishops are a big deal in the Anglican church (as they are in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches as well). Understanding how and why this is will help you in understanding Anglican polity, and the Anglican Way in general.

The Anglican Church preserves and protects the Gospel through our bishops. They are the successors of the Apostles through heritage, teaching, and character. Our bishops were consecrated by other bishops, who were consecrated by other bishops, all the way back to the Apostles. This is known as “Apostolic Succession.” This Succession is literal, through the laying on of hands. It is also a succession in preserving both the true teachings of the Apostles, and the fatherly love that they had for the people of God.

We rely on our bishops to be apostolic in their succession, their teaching, and in their character. They govern the church, and they also unify it. Without them participating fully in their roles, the church lacks unity. If a bishop is not apostolic in these three ways, he harms the church and should be removed. Many of the recent problems in the Anglican church come from bishops who are not apostolic in their teaching and/or character. 

There’s an old Anglican liturgy for the ordination of bishops. Near the beginning of the service we find this prayer: “Give grace, we beseech thee, to all Bishops . . . that they may diligently preach thy Word, and duly administer the godly Discipline thereof; and grant to the people, that they may obediently follow the same; that all may receive the crown of everlasting glory; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord.” (The Ordinal)

As can be seen in this prayer, the Anglican bishop is meant to preach the Word of God and administer church discipline. The rest of us are meant to obey both the Word of God and receive the discipline that comes from the bishop. As an American, this bugs me. I don’t like the idea that some man can “discipline” me. Who does this guy think he is? This also bothers me as an evangelical Christian. It sounds like it’s the bishop’s job to tell me what the Word of God says and my job to obey it—or obey him. Shouldn’t I figure out for myself what the Word of God says? 

When people think of “discipline” they think of “punishment.” That’s what my dictionary gives as the first definition. The second definition of the word, the one marked “obsolete,” is “instruction.” My dictionary goes on to say that discipline is “training that corrects, molds, or perfects the mental faculties or moral character” (m-w.com). When bishops are told to administer discipline, they’re being commanded to mold us in a particular understanding of belief and character, in a specific way—the Anglican Way. A bishop is responsible for ensuring that his churches, clergy, and people are living the Anglican Way. If we aren’t living out that Way, he’s supposed to correct us. Guidance, drawing boundaries, saying “yes” and “no” are the responsibilities of the bishop. Punishment is not. 

What about interpreting the Bible? Evangelicals believe that each individual has the right and responsibility to read and interpret the Bible for themselves. This is sometimes referred to as the “priesthood of all believers” (1 Peter 2:9). There’s something both beautiful and valuable about this idea. It’s beautiful because it indicates that God is in relationship with each of us as individuals; and it’s especially valuable when church leadership has gone astray. There have been times in the Anglican Church, including recently, when bishops or priests have taught ideas that are incompatible with the Bible. In those times, it’s sometimes been the college student, the “little old lady,” or the business person who has confronted the pastor with the truth of God’s Word. 

When church leadership goes astray, God raises up prophetic voices among the laity. When church leadership is functioning as it should, it is the leaders who must be the prophetic voice to the people. Bishops especially are called by God to guard the faith of the Apostles and constantly remind us of their teachings. They must make sure that the priests, deacons, and lay leaders under their care are preaching and living the Gospel. Bishops are messengers of Christ and his Apostles. They are the spiritual inheritors of their office through apostolic teaching and through historic succession. This means that, assuming they are in line with the Gospel, bishops have more authority to interpret the Bible than do laypeople. No, that isn’t democratic. It doesn’t sit well with us modern folks. But it’s the catholic way of doing things. It’s Anglican. 

Anglicans believe in authority. We believe that God has given leadership roles to certain people. We also believe that all human beings are sinners. Sinfulness, more than any other human characteristic, is evenly distributed. Those in authority make mistakes, they say and do stupid things, and sometimes they go totally astray. It’s the task of the larger Church—other archbishops, bishops, and priests, as well as committed laypeople—to call bishops and other leaders to account for their mistakes. We believe in authority, but we don’t believe that our authorities are closer to God than anyone else. They aren’t more Christian, more beloved, or more saved. They’re simply the ones who are given the great burden and joy of leading others in this Anglican Way.

This article is edited from my book The Anglican Way. The next article will be about the Anglican province(s) in North America.

Thomas McKenzie