On the historic episcopate

Posted on November 14, 2008

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I recently read something–doesn’t matter what; it wasn’t really worth a reference–suggesting that we Baptists cannot have an adequate view of tradition because we don’t believe in the historic episcopate, and nothing is more traditional than that.

So, let me say it: I believe in the historic episcopate.

It seems abundantly clear to me that the universal practice of the sub-apostolic church, and the practice which every patristic theology of ministry of which I am aware bears witness to, is that in each place there should be one bishop, celebrating one Eucharist, for one congregation. In conversation a few years back I discovered John Zizioulas had come to the same conclusion. This is the historic episcopate: bishop, people and Eucharist tied together.

The early Baptists, better scholars than their grandchildren, knew this. Some called their pastors ‘bishops’. In adopting congregational models of ministry, they were consciously and deliberately returning to the historic practice of the early church: one eucharistic minister, in one place, with one table, for one gathered congregation.

I have great respect for people who exercise translocal ministries of oversight and pastoral care. I would argue that their role is useful and even necessary. But let’s not pretend it has anything to do with the episcopal ministry as witnessed to by Ignatius of Antioch. A minister who does not celebrate a single weekly Eucharist for his/her whole flock is not a bishop. And although practice–shamefully–rapidly changed for pragmatic reasons, the theological accounts of the episcopal ministry for centuries seem to assume the older picture.

A few years ago I had the privilege of serving on a series of Anglican-Baptist ecumenical conversations. It was creative, courageous and exhilarating, and the published result of our work, Pushing the Bounds of Unity, was something that in all humility I believe bordered on the prophetic at times, in its calls for aggressive acts of charity on the part of both communions. In the course of those conversations I presented some work on the episcopal ministry of oversight; I concluded my comments with the phrase ‘We Baptists would find unity with our Anglican sisters and brothers much easier to attain if they were prepared to accept the historic episcopate.’

My Anglican friends laughed–but they offered no answer.

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