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The Historic Episcopate as the Guardian of Christian Unity - by Cheryl White

The Historic Episcopate as the Guardian of Christian Unity

Cheryl H. White, Ph.D.

“He that holds not the unity of the Church, does he believe that he holds the faith? He who strives against and resists the Church, is he confident that he is in the Church?” St. Cyprian of Carthage, Third Century

In the above text, St. Cyprian is writing about the episcopal office – the bishop - and his duty to represent the unity of the Body of Christ. I have been reminded of these words repeatedly in the past months, and today, when the latest discussions arising from the divisiveness within the Episcopal Church reverberates again, not surprisingly, with a lack of understanding or appreciation for history.

In addition to those who have attempted to justify the consecration of the first openly gay bishop, we now have among us those who are questioning if the office of bishop is really even necessary. (This new suggestion arises just as we anticipate the report of the Eames Commission this fall.) After all, the office represents an outdated hierarchy, or so a current argument suggests. So here is issued yet another call upon history and tradition to shed light on our present circumstance.

The early Church insisted upon the episcopacy as a means of administering the growing church catholic and preserving a common orthodoxy. St. Ignatius of Antioch, writing at the end of the first century, told the faithful that no Eucharist or Baptism could be performed if the bishop was not present. Therefore, the bishop was constitutive of the Church itself – the visible Body of Christ was represented in that consecrated office, as guardians of the Apostolic teaching. St. Ignatius urged bishops to be “inseparable from Jesus Christ and the ordinance of the Apostles.” Interestingly, St. Ignatius also observed that to impair the unity of the Church by false teaching and separatism was to cut oneself off from the Passion and the sacramental life of the Church.

Is there a modern lesson to be found among the Fathers? We should take note of the emphasis that the early Church placed on the seemingly simple concept of unity. By the second century, there apparently were concerns about the spiritual condition necessary to hold the office, as we find more emphasis among the Fathers on the conduct of bishops. St. Cyprian wrote that the bishop, his sacrifices and prayers, were effectual only as long as “he remains faithful and leads a holy life.” The bishop, according to St. Cyprian, was the successor of the Apostles, and hence a legitimate teacher of that tradition, and he stressed again that the bishops themselves represent the unity to be enjoyed within the whole Body of Christ. Notably, St. Cyprian points out that the unity of the Church rests upon the divine election which bishops have in common as successors of the Apostles, and illuminated that thought by saying this unity was manifested in “united conferences and mutual recognition.”

If the unity of the Church is expressed, as St. Cyprian suggests, in the idea of “united conferences and mutual recognition,” then what of a bishop who stands apart from that? Does that bishop truly embrace his episcopal office in its fullest and most historic sense? A survey of the early Church demonstrates that the office of bishop was never intended to be a forum for the expression of individualism, since unity always logically depends on being in concert with others. In light of these patristic teachings, the communion of bishops, not individual bishops alone, constitute the authority of the whole Church. With this logic in mind, St. Cyprian is clearly saying that there is no place for autonomy among bishops of the church catholic and apostolic, because ignoring the greater need of unity is incongruous with the very essence of the episcopacy.

If the very essence of Christian unity requires the common consent of the greater communion of the faithful, then we indeed face troubles today of historic and epic proportions. Clearly, the Episcopal Church and the greater Anglican Communion has been divided, not united, over recent developments. Our church has grown only more polarized and more sharply defined into camps of “conservatives” or “revisionists.” To end our division requires identifying the issue that precipitated our crisis and resolving that issue in light of the responsibilities of the episcopal office.

Yes, the bishops of Africa, Asia and Australia definitely have a voice in the recent developments within the Episcopal Church of the United States – any provincial political autonomy we might enjoy does not imply independence from other bishops who represent the majority of the worldwide communion. In the broader sense, the argument could be made that not only do Anglican bishops of the world have a voice in our affairs, so do Roman Catholic bishops and Eastern Orthodox bishops, as claimants of the same historic and consecrated office now in question. The question begs: how can one legitimately claim to be a bishop if he pursues a modern agenda that so clearly divides us? Surely any bishop who does not embrace the core belief of the historic episcopal tradition has assumed his authority at the expense of unity.

Whatever form future rhetoric in this debate may take, there is one logical conclusion that surely all can agree upon - what divides us cannot unite us. It is only logical that we now look to the bishops of the greater communion to resolve our crisis – for they are indeed the historic guardians of comprehensive Christian unity.

Dr. Cheryl White is a professor of history at Louisiana State University in Shreveport. Her major fields of study are church history and the history of dogmatic theology. Dr. White's research focuses on the the unique historical aspects of early Anglicanism. She currently serves on the Vestry of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Shreveport.


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