The disasterous effect of bishops as the focal point of unity.

West Bromwich deanery agreed on the submission of papers of one side of A4 before we vote on the motion on women in the episcopate and CEEC following motion.  This is my paper:

What happens when Bishops take the place of Christ as the focal point of unity?

One month after I was ordained in 2005 my father died from cancer. It was a very painful time for my family and me. The sequence of events which led to his death started in 1999 when he had skin cancer removed from his neck. Five years later the cancer was spreading in his lungs. In the beginning, the doctors had removed the problem at the surface but underneath was something which was to prove fatal. As the Church of England debates the issue of women in the episcopacy there are two presenting issues; first the gender debate and second, beneath the surface, the nature of episcopacy. This short paper seeks to increase our understanding of the episcopacy and where we might benefit from a shift of focus with respect to our unity as a church.

The doctrine of the bishop as a focal point of unity.

The website for the Archbishop of Canterbury states that:

In the years since [1968] the Archbishop has been described as ‘the focal point of our communion’, and as the bishop who is ‘freely recognised as the focus of unity’. The Archbishop of Canterbury is the only individual common to all the instruments of unity as currently configured in the Anglican Communion.”1

This doctrine of the Archbishop (and his bishops) as the focal point of unity was developed by John Henry Newman (died 1890) and Newman was building upon his reading of the theology of Cyprian of Carthage (died 258). This doctrine is now common parlance in the Church of England, as Canon Barry Naylor of Leicester Cathedral writes:

Cathedrals gain their very name from the Latin for “Chair” – the Cathedral has a unique and particular relation to the ministry of the Bishop – the focal point of unity in the diocese, the teacher, the prophet, the pastor.2

It is in this theological atmosphere that the debate on women in the episcopacy takes place. It is presumed that all clergy must be united to a diocesan bishop for there to be true unity. The result is that anyone who cannot in conscience accept the oversight of a woman diocesan bishop will be forced out of the church because by not being united to that bishop the individual has become separated from the church. In effect, he or she will be treated as a “heretic” (in the true sense of the word, that is someone who holds a belief which is different to the established system of beliefs or dogma).

This role of the bishop as a focal point of unity encapsulates two contradictory realities. First, the bishop is the representative of the dogmatic view of the majority in the synod of the church at any point in history. Second, the bishop is an individual with his or her own gender, morality and personal theological opinions. The personal theological opinions of the individual makes this particular understanding of the role of the bishop nonsensical. In today’s climate, few if any bishops agree on everything the majority of the synod agrees on. If the mind of a bishop differs from the majority then he would be a “heretic” so why then should the “heretics” who cannot accept the oversight of a woman bishop be forced to leave the church while all other “heretics” remain? This is unjust. The problem lies with the doctrine of episcopacy. The bishop cannot be the focal point of unity.

Scope for generosity over secondary issues when Christ is the focal point of unity.
The church in Ephesus was in danger of splitting as the Church of England is today. Paul wrote to the church and told them that it was God’s plan to “bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.” (Ephesians 1:10). God gathers, collects, unites people in Christ.

On our part, how are we to be practically united? Paul goes on in Ephesians to command Christians to “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” (Eph 4:2-3) Christians are to maintain unity in one Lord Jesus, one faith in his death for our sins, one baptism into him (Eph 4:4-6) and then we are to attain to unity in the knowledge of Jesus Christ (Eph 4:11-13).

When the person and work of Christ is the focal point of unity then bishops do not need to draw attention to themselves as the agents of unity but to Christ as our unifying, crucified Saviour and risen King. The church will also be free to allow alternative episcopal oversight, and should make legislative provision for this to happen, because having different bishops does not break the unity of the church. Different churches can have different bishops and still be generous towards one another because we are united to Christ. Otherwise, churches who are equally focused on Christ in worship and faith but who differ on the secondary issue of women in episcopacy will be driven apart and this is against the will of God. (5th Sept 2011) (5th Sept 2011)

About neilrobbie

I am a 6'6" formerly ginger Scot, in a cross cultural marriage to my lovely Londoner wife. We've lived in SE Asia and since 2005, I have served as an Anglican minister in Wolverhampton and West Bromwich.
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