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Better Bishops

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Posted by Mark Burkill, 5 Mar 2019

An extract from Mark Burkill's Reform booklet, which outlines the biblical principles of episcopacy, its historical development and ends with some challenges for the contemporary church.

How episcopal ministry should be reformed today
A vision for the reform of the ministry of bishops in the present time can be articulated if we are willing to bear in mind basic biblical principles about episcopal ministry, alongside the way its ancient practice was consonant with the New Testament, and we do not make the mistake of making secondary features essentials. We must remember that bishops are of the same order as priests/presbyters, and therefore should essentially be engaged in pastoring through preaching and teaching. Episcopal ministry (as distinct from that of presbyters) emerged from a desire to conform the organisation of the Christian community to that of the society it was seeking to reach with the gospel.

Therefore its practice today should reflect the sociological characteristics of present day communities and networks. The bishop today should have a ministry that is not essentially different from that of the vicar/rector, but the sphere in which he exercises this ministry will differ.The local church leader naturally relates primarily to the local congregation, however the bishop’s distinctive ministry comes from his additional, connectional role. The following general points can be made in relation to this:

It is possible for a committee or other group to take on the responsibility for this connectional role, but it can be argued sociologically that an individual (who is properly accountable within a plural leadership and to godly synods) is best for this. Bishops can be a wise form of church government. Remember that this appears to be the best explanation for the distinction between bishop and
presbyters that developed in the early Church.

A bishop will be responsible for pastoring local church ministers. He can provide support and encouragement to those facing difficulties, as well as being the primary means of exercising loving scriptural discipline when this is necessary.

A bishop will be well placed to help in cases of pastoral breakdown between a minister and his congregation, if his own ministry is respected for its godly example. He can provide essential backing to a minister who is struggling with opposition to his gospel work. He can provide ways through an impasse created by a minister’s folly or lack of experience.

A bishop can have a supervisory role in the selection, training and ordination of new ministers. He cannot possibly take on all this work himself but his pastoral wisdom and experience will be key when it comes to making final decisions about who is suitable for ministry and how they should be prepared for this work.

A bishop should have a role as a spokesman (of the Word of God) for the Christian community in relation to the wider world. If the structures of the Christian community are adaptable to the natural units in which society itself is operating then there will be natural opportunities to speak biblical truth into the public square. This shows how a bishop can genuinely lead the Christian community in mission.

These points help us see what we should be looking for in bishops today and the sort of priorities they should be encouraged to have. More specific points can be made which relate to the reform of the episcopate and its practice today, although these would require a radical shake up of the institution that may be impossible for many to countenance:
• It is best to have the bishop exercising a proportion of his ministry from a base within a local congregation. In this way the basic preaching/teaching role of a bishop cannot be avoided.
• Synodical and chapter meetings of godly clergy and lay people exist to serve as a check on sinfulness and folly in bishops. Although synods (and bishops) must not be allowed to contradict biblical teaching, they can provide godly wisdom when the Christian community and its leaders are faced with major issues. Bishops must not be allowed to be tyrants and there must be effective means of
holding them accountable to Scripture.
• The spheres of bishops’ ministries should be adapted to the natural networks of society wherever these are to be found – counties, towns, cities, London boroughs. Non-geographical networks and communities should not be ignored (it is right that we have a bishop to the armed forces for example). This probably means that the number of bishops should be greatly multiplied. If administration and organisation are not seen as key to their ministry then this need not be alarming.
• The role of bishops in relation to local and national government needs to be reexamined. Prelatical elements need to be dispensed with, while effective channels of communication to various levels of government must be encouraged.
• The system of appointing bishops needs to be reformed so as to produce candidates who will meet the biblical criteria for episcopal ministry. However no particular form of appointment, whether by election or consultation, can guarantee this.

In seeking reform of the practice of episcopacy today therefore two principles need to be borne in mind:
(a) Bishops are to minister in their own sphere in conformity to New Testament principles of pastoring through the preaching and teaching of the Word of God. Their spheres of ministry should be designed to conform to natural social networks.
(b) Bishops are not to be viewed as essential to the existence of the Christian community, whereas biblical teaching is. Bishops can only maintain the unity of the Christian community if they are willing to set a godly example and teach and exercise discipline in accordance with the Word of God. When they do that they will soon find that they are accorded real respect from Christian ministers and
their congregations.

If there is not the will for current church leadership to reform the practice of episcopacy along the lines of these two principles, then it may be that congregations will have to develop it from the ground up.

The whole booklet from which this is extracted can be downloaded from the Reform Archive page here on the Church Society website.

Mark Burkill is vicar of Christ Church Leyton and Chair of the Church Society Council

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