As a sure-to-be-contentious General Convention approaches in just under two months, and as some foreign bishops seek to "guide" the Episcopal Church, we're starting to see some debate about a fundamental question: Just what is the proper role of bishops in the church?
The Monarchical-Bishop Model. Some traditionalists view bishops as ecclesiastical monarchs, successors to the Apostles whose spiritual authority trumps that of the lesser clergy and laity. This is the model found in the Roman and Orthodox churches. Watered-down versions of the monarchical-bishop model can also be found in the Church of England and most of its Anglican-church offshoots.
The Ministry-of-the-Baptized Model. The Episcopal Church of the United States ("TEC") is a notable exception to the monarchical-bishop model. TEC had no bishops of its own until several years after it had severed its connection to the CofE as a consequence of the American Revolution. During the 150 or so years between the first English settlements and the Revolution, American parishes tended to be largely self-governed by their (lay) vestries and by their priests. To this day, constitutionally the supreme authority in TEC is the General Convention, in which the House of Bishops is one of two equal components of a bicameral legislature, the other being the House of Delegates comprising both non-episcopal clergy and laity.
Influenced by this history, some TEC liberals take the view that *the* fundamental ministry in the church is that of the baptized. In this view, once you've been baptized, you're "in" as far as the church goes. Sure, some baptized people go on to be ordained as deacons, priests, and bishops. But, in this view, that doesn't make them materially different ("ontologically different") than the rest of us; it merely means they've been designated to serve in specific capacities as servant leaders, and so have been delegated certain limited, specific powers and authority to help them carry out their assigned duties.
Personally I tend to favor the ministry-of-the-baptized view. (For example, I don't think Scripture supports the notion that only priests can celebrate the Eucharist.) I'm no expert on the history of the early church by any means. But I've read translations of the surviving writings of some of the earliest church fathers. I was struck by the distinct impression that the first bishops essentially bootstrapped themselves into authority — they peremptorily announced that they were successors of the Apostles; they claimed that their apostolic succession entitled them to be in charge; and they convinced their flocks to acknowledge their authority. Eventually, what started out as an arguable heresy became carved in stone as a core principle of church governance.
I'm clearly not alone in being skeptical about the episcopacy: For example, eighteenth-century Anglican priest John Wesley (whose Methodist movement separated from the Church of England only after his death), under practical pressure to ordain ministers for the movement's work in America, concluded (perhaps conveniently) that the apostolic succession was a fiction, that bishops were not the only ones entitled to ordain men for ministry, and that as a priest he could himself do so.
The Rev. Blogger Mark Harris has some related thoughts in his Windsor Nosh #2, concerning the noises being made by some foreign bishops about the Diocese of California's upcoming election of a bishop, in which three of the seven candidates are openly gay:
... Given the ways in which bishops elsewhere in the Communion find themselves elected or appointed, the Bishop of Exeter has little room to talk about election reform. One bishop remarked that Exeter’s comments were a deliberate effort to effect the content of legislation at General Convention, dissuade electors in San Francisco and interject a model of confirmation of Episcopal elections no where else in effect, all with the implied threat that the bishops must guide the process in this direction or else.
That was a month ago, and still the strange taste lingers: will there be no end to these meddlesome priests? It appears not. [Emphasis added.]
And see the so-called Consultation Platform, offered by a group of eleven different groups within the Episcopal Church. Some points of the platform are pretty left-wing and not at all to my liking, but it's worth noting their view on the episcopacy (informed largely by the aforementioned interference of anti-gay foreign bishops in U.S. church affairs):
We have allowed our governance to be distorted.
• We believe that all the baptized are called to share in the governance and mission of the Church at all levels.
• We see the increase of power claimed by the episcopate as an imbalance in the Body.
It should be interesting to see how all this plays out.