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"That it may please thee to rule and govern thy holy Church universal in the right way". -- The Litany

By Roger Salter
Special to Virtueonline
January 21, 2014

An astounding comment was once overheard, in an Anglican place of worship, to the effect that John Bunyan ought not to be read as he was "outside the [true] Church". Such a shocking statement begs the question as to what is the Church?

Ecclesiology is perhaps the weakest point in most Christian theologies, academic and personal, and the majority of Evangelicals today probably disparage too much attention being given to the Church as an entity. The general trend is toward an individualism that owes no real loyalty to the visible community of faith in any serious sense. One may church-hop willy-nilly according to the slightest whim or grievance without any awareness of rending the body. Serial church-hopping is tantamount to a casual form of schism which divides, wounds, and impedes the Church in its local expression.

The case for the Church in terms of rigid institutionalism is vastly overstated and an episcopal regime, such as developed approximately 200 years after the demise of the apostles, is unimaginable in the simple and normal reading of Holy Scripture, and was subsequently imposed upon the Pastoral Epistles as a response to the threat of Gnosticism in an attempt to conserve apostolic truth and acquired Christian tradition.

There is no early recorded lineage of bishops and such a list only began to be compiled after the influence of Irenaeus who saw "apostolic succession" as a means of protecting Christian identity as a community in an alien society. It is most likely that early church governance was pragmatically, as opposed to ideologically, presbyterial, as Rupert Davies, former president of the Methodist Conference in England, suggested in his comments on early church administration.

Certainly Jerome limited the prerogatives of bishops in his time and declared the virtual equality of presbyters and bishops, even claiming that the former were empowered to ordain candidates to the ministry as much as the latter, for both "ranks" were in the "apostolic succession" together. This is close to averring that "apostolic succession" inheres in the accurate presentation of the word and the right ministration of the sacraments as adjuncts to the word. And it is very hard to imagine the early church operating or functioning in the manner of developed Episcopalianism, in any denominational form, as in our day.

The congregations of the first two centuries scarcely resembled or envisaged anything future like St. Peter's Basilica in Rome or All Saints Church of England in Margaret Street, London (where Laurence Olivier's sense of drama was captured as a student at the choir school). This is not to deny that All Saints has had good incumbents such as Michael Marshall and David Hope, both in essence Bible men. Modern congregations familiar with certain Sunday norms can easily overlook the fact of historical evolution in matters doctrinal and devotional and can be anachronistically minded in defending cherished positions.

The early Church was flexible, discerning spiritual gifts among believers and guiding them to practical use. Those mature disciples displaying requisite holiness and sobriety and displaying the Spirit's donation of talents for preaching, teaching, and leadership were set aside as elders for the edification and discipline of the flock in various local congregations. The monarchical bishop (for good or ill) was a creation of later times. The noted German New Testament scholar, formerly of the University of Zurich, Eduard Schweitzer (1913-2006) in his book The Spirit of God (Holy Spirit in English translation) noted the mood of flexibility in the church of the immediate post-apostolic period and alleged that in the true sense of the word its officers were appointed by charismatic selection, recognition of gifts, and not by formal arrangement and succession.

"So if we consider that the office of bishop, as understood in modern times, is a good institution which has stood the test of centuries, then it as at least worth discussing. Only then we must be quite clear that it belongs, at the most, to the Church's bene esse, not to its esse. Where institution is regarded as an unconditional necessity, the same situation exists as in Gal 2:3ff. For the church that does not possess the apostolic succession it would mean, not the renunciation of cherished ideals for other people's sake, but a declaration that something for which it can see no basis in the New Testament is necessary for salvation. Here the concern of the Church to which the apostolic succession is important must certainly be heard, for continuity is essential to the church of Jesus. But it is the succession of believers in which the message that is handed on from generation to generation. A person will hardly attain to faith unless a living witness of the message mediates it to him by his words or by his whole existence. The only way to guarantee that this handing on does not wander away from the original gospel is. indeed, to go back constantly under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and ask what is the witness of the apostles themselves in the New Testament" (Eduard Schweizer, Church Order in the New Testament, Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR, 2006, page 2190.

The Church, like Israel, has its visible and invisible aspects, but the biblical emphasis is on the spiritual nature of the true people of God (For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel: Romans 9:6, So too, at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace: Romans 11:5, What Israel sought so earnestly it did not obtain, but the elect did: Romans 11:7, A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly . . . . No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly: Romans 2:28-29). The simplest and best definition of the Church comes from John Wycliffe - the whole company of the elect.

That is why the believers of Bedfordshire and neighboring counties could refer affectionately to John Bunyan as "Bishop" Bunyan, their trusted pastor who so manifestly bore all the marks of a godly man and a shepherd in Christ. He was an elect servant of God ministering to God's chosen and bidding others into the flock. As Charles Spurgeon commented, "Prick him anywhere and the blood of John Bunyan is bibline'. Bibline is to be the blood type of every bearer of the true "apostolic succession". Clearly that is not the case with so many, countless many, who have received the magical touch on the clerical cranium.

The ordination that matters in the Church, in all its branches, is the touch of the Holy Spirit and a tongue to tell forth the truth of the Gospel.

Bishop Bunyan will be able to attend a convocation of true bishops on "cloud nine" in the celestial gathering of non-episcopally ordained ministers of the Lord Jesus who individually and collectively probably brought more converts to the Saviour than any bishop or number of bishops you care to mention, wrapped in their ecclesiastical costume and answering to the title "your Grace". For grace is not a mere appellation but the announcement and action of divine mercy, and it is also the origin of the gracious attitude and demeanor of the servants who proclaim the saving goodness of God.

Grace is not administered in mechanical fashion but through the gift of faith consequent upon regeneration as the work of the Spirit, who freely works when and where he will, upon whom he will. "You must be born again. The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit" (John 3: 8). We might also add, that so it is with anyone called of the Spirit to any mode of Gospel service, for the Christ whom we are quoting distributes spiritual abilities among his people, and so many of these ministerial gifts are evident in abundance among those who never befriended a bishop or sipped a sherry in the garden of Bishop's House.

It is the personal conviction of this writer that given the various options in church polity, and cognizant of the fact that human sinfulness mars any form of ecclesiastical government however ideally conceived, that Episcopal order is preferable, though not prescribed as mandatory. As with so many things not bearing on our salvation, Holy Scripture permits freedom. Each variety of administration within Christendom has its advantages and disadvantages. Each style of oversight and leadership requires "good men" for it to work.

But think of the good men, by grace, who never received episcopal authorization, or any official authorization, but ministered according to the consent of their congregants and public supporters. Certainly, there is a fair share of uncertified renegades who bring a shameful reputation to the Gospel, just as there are priests and bishops who do so. However, there is a cloud of witnesses who so aptly declared the grace and glory of God to the eternal welfare of lost sinners.

Most famous among them are such persons as Billy Bray the Cornish tin miner, William Jay the Wiltshire stone cutter, Thomas Olivers the working man hymnist, and John Stittle the Cambridge preacher who could read but not write, and was sometimes ridiculed by pompous university students. This is the man whom Charles Simeon called the shepherd of the strays from his parish and whose ministry he supported financially. Men of this humble stamp stood with John Bunyan the tinker as true bishops of the flock of the Lord Jesus. Add to these worthies John Gill, William Carey, Andrew Fuller, Charles Spurgeon, and Gypsy Smith all of whom had no formal preparation for their immensely valuable and effective outreach for the Redeemer. Each of these men was not distinguished by doctorates and official documents of ordination, but they were amply possessed of demonstrable ability. The universally highly esteemed Primate of All Ireland James Ussher did not see the necessity to re-ordain Presbyterian ministers he received into the Anglican system and even waived academic qualifications for one candidate whom he deemed eminently suitable for ministry in the Irish Church. As Eduard Schweizer noted in one of his works, where the Spirit is there is flexibility.

The Church is more than any denomination or organization. It overlaps formal institutional entity and exists in fellowship and community groups that meet regularly for worship and biblical edification. It consists of every soul united to Jesus Christ. "Almighty God, who hast knit together thine elect in one communion and fellowship, in the mystical body of they Son Christ our Lord" (The Collect for All Saints' Day). The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ's ordinance, in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same" (Article 19).

The pure word governs the genuine ministration of the sacraments. Authentic Anglicanism with its loving adherence to Scripture and deep devotion to worthy worship of Almighty God is well-suited to a generous ecumenism. While it cherishes its own Reformed Catholic heritage it can rejoice in any people or place where Christ is adored and commended. It maintains its Confessional standpoint faithfully but willingly holds hands with any who truly confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour. That spiritual oneness does not deny diversity or insist on institutional conformity.

The Rev. Roger Salter is an ordained Church of England minister where he had parishes in the dioceses of Bristol and Portsmouth before coming to Birmingham, Alabama to serve as Rector of St. Matthew's Anglican Church

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