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Episcopal Means Governed by Bishops

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bishop headshot

Jesus is the focus of the Episcopal Church, so why not call us just Christian? Well, with a lot of Christian churches, we need qualifiers, usually theological: the Catholic Church is catholic, for all; the Presbyterian Church is governed by elders, or presbyters; and the Episcopal Church follows the Anglican tradition.

Wait, what? Well, Anglican is just a funny word for English, taken from a Latin phrase in the Magna Carta meaning The Church of England. But after the American Revolution, we wanted a church that retained the theology we believed in, but was independent from England, leading to the Episcopal Church.

Anglicanism has three key features. The most important theologically is the “three-legged stool” principle: the idea that decisions about the faith must be discerned using the three sources of Scripture (the Bible), Tradition (history and decisions of the Church) and Reason (an honest inquiry into the actual facts).

The most important pastorally is the Book of Common Prayer. The Anglican Church united Protestants (“low church”, light on ritual) and ex-Catholics (“high church”, very sacramental) using worship from the same book. You don’t have to agree on doctrine if you can agree to pray together out of the same book.

The most important spiritually is the Apostolic Succession. When lay people think of bishops, we typically think of big league church people with funny hats – like Vice Presidents in Charge of Worship in Religion Incorporated. But bishops have their origin in Jesus’s time: they’re the successors of the Apostles.

Jesus picked twelve Apostles to fulfill his mission, and handpicked Peter to lead the Church after He was gone. But almost immediately after Jesus’s death, the Apostles lost one of their own to betrayal: Judas. Saint Matthias was the first new Apostle, picked to fill Judas’s role in the leadership of the Church.

This process continued with Paul, who was selected to be the Apostle to the Gentiles by Jesus himself during his conversion experience on the road to Damascus, and Barnabas, Paul’s apprentice. After Paul and Barnabas, the term apostle starts to get fuzzy, starting to evolve into the term overseer, or bishop.

Bishops, as I mentioned earlier in the series, were intended to be upstanding: “A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach; Not given to wine, no striker, not greedy of filthy lucre; but patient, not a brawler, not covetous …”

This was important because bishops guided the Church. Since the Church lived under the Roman Empire, the Bishop of Rome was centrally important. Three early Church leaders – Peter, Linus and Clement – are mentioned in the Bible, and early Church tradition names them as Bishops of Rome.

Which, of course, we now call the Pope. From a historical perspective – that is, what we can justify based on written documents – the evidence for the early Popes is a bit thin, but from a realistic, scientific perspective – that is, making a best guess based on the evidence – they very probably existed.

Peter may have written at least one letter which is genuine; Clement also wrote a letter which is very likely genuine. Linus left us nothing, but as early as the mid-100’s, Saint Irenaeus’s writings identified Linus as the first Bishop of Rome.

Irenaeus, who also helped us define the early books of the Bible, was a bishop himself, so it’s likely he knew what he was talking about. Sometimes skeptical people get confused about this, so it’s important to distinguish between what we can historically and scientifically prove and what is actually true.

There are oak trees on the grounds of Saint Stephens in-the-Field, the Episcopal Church I attend in San Jose. Some are clearly very old, but others are newer. To my knowledge, there is no written record of how those trees got planted on the property.

But if you attend the Saint Stephen’s Vestry meetings or coffee hours, you may hear the story of how Dan, one of the founding members of the parish. He and his wife had a very prolific oak tree, and for years they sowed the property with acorns, eventually leading to the trees we have decades later.

I heard this story from Dan himself in a Zoom “coffee hour” celebrating the “visit” of our bishop, Lucinda. After a few more decades, Dan may likely be gone, but the people who attended that Zoom meeting can continue to tell that story, until the oral tradition that “Dan planted the trees” one day finally disintegrates.

If, fifty years from now, someone connects the dots and says that “Dan the Acorn Man” is likely “Dan Name Withheld for Privacy” among the Church founders and writes it down, that statement isn’t wrong just because it wasn’t documented in primary source materials contemporary to the event.

We have to be aware that oral traditions are tentative, but that doesn’t mean oral traditions aren’t real. Scientists not engaged in active religious skepticism are comfortable suggesting that a 37,000 year old volcanic eruption is preserved in oral tradition, so we can trust a very early bishop to get the story right.

What’s the point here? There almost certainly weren’t monarchial bishops in Rome on the mold of the current Popes, but what we can say is that there are a number of Apostles mentioned in the Bible – some in letters we believe to be authentic – who anointed bishops, who anointed other bishops, and so on.

This process continued, and by a very early stage, bishops anointing bishops became formalized. By the time the Episcopal Church rolled around, each bishop is consecrated by three other bishops. The rationale behind this is even if one bishop isn’t valid, the action of the others is likely to be.

This unbroken chain – from the bishops of today, through the early church bishops, to the Apostles being called by Jesus Himself – is called the Apostolic Succession. Churches governed by bishops believe this “episcopate” spiritually inherits the authority Jesus invested in Peter and the Apostles.

Because the Christian Church isn’t a self-help scheme that’s good for you, or an ethical teaching which is good for other people. Christians believe our faith is a true deposit of revealed information about the world, prompted by the actions of Jesus and guided by the Holy Spirit.

And if the important part of that teaching is to learn about, to come to believe in, and to choose to follow Jesus, it’s important to know that the people overseeing the organization which teaches us about Him aren’t simply spiritually inspired by a 2,000 year old compilation of books and letters.

The contemporary Christian Church is literally the same organization that Jesus founded. Our leaders, the bishops, are the successors of His Apostles. Our religious texts, the Bible, was written and collated and curated by the group of people Jesus entrusted to lead His Church – them, and their successors.

If you want to follow Jesus, you can’t do much better than read the Bible that His followers and their successors assembled, to attend worship at one of the churches He founded, and to inquire what the leaders of those churches think about what it means to follow Him.

-the Centaur

Pictured: Lucinda Ashby, Bishop of El Camino Real.

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