"then wilt thou not be loath to leave this Paradise, but shalt possess a paradise within thee, happier far. Let us descend now therefore from this top of speculation; for the hour precise exacts our parting hence" Paradise Lost, Book XII, lines585-590

Thursday, September 29, 2011

What is the bishop for?

Episcope is the Greek word for Bishop and apparently people a long time ago thought Episcopal Church sounded more high-minded than Bishop's Church, hence the name. Of course, if you've read much history of the colonial and post-revolutionary origins of the Episcopal Church one might think that picking a fancy name like Episcopal might have been intentional to keep the riff-raff out. We sometimes still get accused of that, but most Episcopal churches I've visited these days are decidedly middling, and not composed of social elites. But I digress. What I really want to talk about is bishops themselves. Given the name and all, they must be important and since we're talking about restructuring the church figuring what they do (or should be doing) seems important.

So, what is the role of bishop? Well, let's start with first principles and look to the Book of Common Prayer itself. If you're not an Episcopalian and you're still reading this, the Book of Common Prayer (or BCP) is really the heart of the matter for all things Episcopal/Anglican. We don't possess a confessional formula and we hold no doctrine developed outside of the first seven church councils. We are church that doesn't look to build windows into people's souls, but we are a church that seeks commonality in prayer and worship. The BCP is the source and pattern of that prayer and worship and so it is what binds us together.

Anyway, back to what is a bishop. Well, the catechism says this (FYI, NOT the same status as the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church)

    Q. What is the ministry of a bishop?

    A. The ministry of a bishop is to represent Christ and his
    Church, particularly as apostle, chief priest, and pastor
    of a diocese; to guard the faith, unity, and discipline of
    the whole Church; to proclaim the Word of God; to act
    in Christ's name for the reconciliation of the world and
    the building up of the Church; and to ordain others to
    continue Christ's ministry.

And the ordination service of a bishop says this:

    You are called to guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the
    Church; to celebrate and to provide for the administration of
    the sacraments of the New Covenant; to ordain priests and
    deacons and to join in ordaining bishops; and to be in all
    things a faithful pastor and wholesome example for the
    entire flock of Christ.

Let's break it down.

    1. The bishop has a specific area which he is responsible for, the diocese.

    2. The Bishop's role is to maintain the integrity of how the faith is shared and communicated within that diocese

    3. At the same time, the bishop is expected to make sure that peer bishops are also maintaining the integrity of the faith in their dioceses

    4. The bishop is to call leaders within the diocese to facilitate the work of Christ in the world.

    5. The bishop is to call people whose primary ministry field is not the world, but service to the church itself (i.e, the ordained)

    6. The bishop is to teach, to strive for reconciliation, to evangelize, to be a caregiver and a good role model


So, the Episcopal church imagines the bishop as someone who is intimately connected with his own area of oversight and care, yet also one who looks out to the wider church in order to be colleague and mentor to peer bishops. I read recently that the Bishop of Virginia has so many congregations that it is a stretch to get to them all once every 3 years or so. How on earth could we expect someone to fulfill such a role to so many places and people? Obviously, it isn't possible, and so as diocese have developed over the years, they have created structures and layers to sorta-kinda make it work. They've created bishop's staffs, diocesan officers, deaneries, convocations even assistant bishops. For some reason, the diocesan structure of the church largely follows the same geography of the secular government. If the US Congress saw fit to create a state of Ohio, then the church also created a diocese of Ohio. Unlike the US, as some as the states filled in, the dioceses split into smaller units to keep the bishop closer to the people. Ohio is a good example, now being split into two dioceses. One might imagine that this splitting would have continued n order to keep bishops closer to the people but that isn't what happened. And largely that is because at one time, the rate of growth of parishes was not as great as the rate of growth of the various layers and structures, so that the cost of diocesan offices became a barrier to right-sizing dioceses.


That's more or less where we are today. But now, the church isn't growing – its declining. But similarly, the layers and structures aren't declining nearly as fast. Thus the cost of maintaining the Episcopal structure, relative to the size of the diocese is effectively going up. Its going up so much, that some dioceses talk of merger because individually, they can't maintain the cost of the layers that separate the bishop from the people. Being a contrarian, it seems to me that if we are to have the episcopy envisioned by the catechism and the consecration service of the bishops themselves then we need to align the layers and structures with the number of people served. I don't think we should have fewer bishops (i.e, dioceses) I think we should have less staff and MORE bishops in smaller dioceses. I think it might also be wise to align our structure around metropolitan areas and not states; the political borders of the US are irrelevant to the spread of the gospel. I don't know what the right size of a diocese should be, but I like the number forty – it's very biblical and manageable. Forty parishes seems about right for one person to deal with.


Bishops aren't princes of the church, they don't need palaces and retinues. They need to be getting out amidst the people for whom they are to serve and lead directly and not by proxy.


  1. One of the reasons ELCA Bishops are glad that they don't serve for life is because instead of doing pastoral work, they do administration work. Churches everywhere have lost the true meaning of Bishop.

    I would like to see Bishops removed from most administrative duties, and would not mind seeing more, smaller synods/dioceses. Even Metro Chicago, which compared to most synods is very tiny geographically, has 204 congregations. I've only met Bishop Miller once, and only because he was at Trinity at the time.

    I know that the ELCA had to do some downsizing and restructuring because of the same reasons you mentioned, but I didn't know that ECUSA was doing something like this. I know that messing with the Episcopacy is a lot more serious for you than it is for us.

  2. Well, we can disagree about the sacramentality of ordination and whether or not it is an ontological change, but I think we're agreed that ways should be found to free up those called to serve in ministries of Word and Sacrament to do that and not spend their time predominantly on managing staff, budgets and buildings. At the synagogue where my wife used to work, they had an executive administrator who did all of that stuff in order to free up the rabbis to focus on doing what they were called to do. Don't see why we can't do something similar.