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The Historic Episcopate: An Episcopalian Viewpoint
by J. Robert Wright

This article appeared in March / April 1999 Volume 15, Number 2

J. Robert Wright, an Episcopalian and one of the authors of the Concordat, defines the historic episcopacy, and provides insights into cultural, theological, and missional issues which Lutherans are raising.

Editor: In July 1998, the author presented a longer version of this paper at a Kairos continuing education event at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota. The author, who is St. Mark's Professor of Ecclesiastical History, General Theological Seminary, New York, New York, presented a three-part lecture. The Rev. Canon Wright is also one of the authors of the Concordat.

Part One concerns the definition of the historic episcopacy. Part Two explores the history of the American Episcopal Church and how it struggled to free itself from some of the "pomposity and bureaucracy of the temporal and political connections" to the British establishment, as especially experienced in the Revolutionary era. Part Three comments on cultural, theological, and missional issues which have been concerns expressed by voices within the ELCA.

Due to the length of the article, Lutheran Partners can only publish Parts One and Three. These sections, as abbreviated here, get to the core issues surrounding the historic episcopacy and its relation to full communion between our two church bodies, as described in the revised document Called to Common Mission (CCM). The ELCA Church Council voted to send the revised CCM to the 1999 Denver Churchwide Assembly in action taken at their Nov. 13-16, 1998 meeting. Full communion with the Episcopal Church USA, as proposed by the revised CCM, will be voted on at the Denver Churchwide Assembly in August.

Three ELCA persons, Richard Koenig, Allan Johnson, and Gracia Grindal, respond to Wright's article.

To read Part Two, you may want to locate a copy of Dialog (Winter 1999) which has published Wright's entire article, also with a variety of responses from ELCA writers.

Let me offer a definition of the historic episcopate, which I think will resonate with what the Episcopal Church believes, although I am sure that Lutherans who understand it will, and should, explain it in their own ways. (After all, there are probably as many different definitions of the historic episcopate among Episcopalians as I have encountered definitions of justification among Lutherans!)

The historic episcopate is a succession of bishops or church leaders whose roots are planted in the time of the early church, pointing back to the centrality of Christ and the teaching of the apostles, pointing to the biblical canon, the creeds, and the councils, while at the same time pointing forward in order to oversee, or superintend, or give leadership to, the mission of the church today.

In the words of the 1982 Lima statement on Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry from the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches, representative of widespread international agreement and whose director at that time was an American Lutheran, the historic episcopate is "a sign though not a guarantee," in personal terms, of the unity and continuity of the church's faith throughout time and space.

It points towards a unity of the church, a communion of churches, that is greater than any one denomination or local judicature, at the same time that it points toward the spiritual, missiological, and doctrinal continuity of the church of today with the church of the ages. It is still accepted and practiced by some three-fourths of the world's Christians and is the only ministerial institution that exists to promote the unity and mutual responsibility of the worldwide church.

The Episcopal Church believes that this sign this teaching about the historic episcopate which has ancient roots and finds global expression, is (in the words of our 1982 General Convention, which I shall unpack in a few moments) "essential to the reunion of the church" even though we do not believe it is necessary to salvation nor a condition for recognizing the churchly character of other churches.

It is the sign conveyed by installing or ordaining a new bishop by prayer for the gift of the Holy Spirit with the laying on of hands by at least three other bishops already sharing in the historic episcopate as testimony that something more than local interest is involved in the ministry of oversight within the church.

This belief, which was early expressed in the first ecumenical council of Nicaea (in the year 325), we share with other churches of the "catholic" family, such as the Eastern Orthodox and the Roman Catholics. Unlike them, Episcopalians do not connect the historic episcopate to a mandate of celibacy or an exclusion of the ordination of women.

And although we agree with them (the churches of the "catholic" family) that we would not enter full communion with a church that does not have it, we do not insist that churches with whom we enter full communion must require it of others.

All this, we believe, is a reasonable ecumenical interpretation or adaptation of an institution that has stood the test of time but also, we respectfully believe, has become somewhat ossified in some other churches that have it (perhaps also in some ways in our own).

We understand the bishop in this way to be a visible and symbolic sign, although human and imperfect, of the presence of the Good Shepherd among us, of the Lord of the gospel. The bishop is also a personal means of connecting the synod or diocese, that he or she serves, to the wider church, of representing more than local interest groups, effecting communication and pointing beyond the narrow boundaries of parochialism even to other countries and continents and cultures.

Of course, the episcopate is founded upon the mission and ministry of the whole people of God. The only reasons why the Concordat says rather less about the mission and ministry of all the baptized is that our churches have never seriously diverged in understanding on this point and that much of our common ground here was already covered in the joint volume Implications of the Gospel. Our lay people are already reconciled by their baptism; the remaining problem is with the clergy!

It is the conviction of the Episcopal Church, and of the revised Concordat as it stands at present, that the historic episcopate can be freely accepted in a Lutheran way by Lutherans for the sake of the greater unity of the church and affirmed together with us if it is understood to be subject always to the gospel and received for the sake of common mission. We urge you to join the millions of other Lutherans around the world who already accept it as not contradictory to the Augustana.

The historic episcopate of Called to Common Mission (hereafter CCM) is a local adaptation of it for your church, but you must decide whether it is adapted enough for you to accept it. If you cannot, then vote against full communion with us, and we shall respect but regret your decision.

Culture, Theology, Mission
Now I want to turn to offer some comments upon three questions, or areas of discourse, that some have said made the original Concordat complicated for some Lutherans, traces of which may still linger in the document's subsequent revisions. These three areas of discourse are concerns about cultural adaptation, theological questions, and missional imperatives.

First, cultural adaptation. In the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, our insistence upon the historic episcopate is nuanced by the phrase "locally adapted in the methods of its administration."1 This I take to be our late 19th-century Anglican way of saying something like "adapted for the sake of the gospel's inculturation in every particular time and place."

This, in turn, I take to be an Anglican equivalent of your Lutheran confessional insistence in Augustana 28 that the bishops must always serve the gospel, a point proposed by the Lutherans of the dialogue team and agreed in paragraph 17 of the current revised Concordat which adds that their ministry will be subject to periodic review.

Some of you can probably think of one or two Episcopal bishops that need periodic review under the gospel, even in the American cultural context, and I have my own short list of a few of yours. But rather than go into the question of which church has more less-faithful clergy, I would refer you to the full text of article 26 of the Thirty-Nine Articles at the back of our Prayer Book and will be glad to discuss it later over coffee!

(In Part Two, not published here due to space considerations) I have also shown how hard we Episcopalians have had to struggle in this country to retain the historic episcopate, as a doctrinal concept enfleshed in particular ordained persons, but free of the cultural baggage of established English Anglicanism.

We choose our own bishops. They are elected by both clergy and laity of a given diocese. They are not appointed by the crown or English government, nor, as in the Roman Catholic church, by the Pope, nor, as in most Orthodox churches, by other bishops acting alone. Almost every other church of the worldwide Anglican Communion of Churches could tell a similar tale, of striving to be free of secondary inheritances from the Church of England.

Even recently, we have had to insist and remind English Anglicans that we are free to reach an agreement for full communion with you, if it be God's will, that both our churches can endorse and live with in this country, and without dictation from our mother church abroad.

For example, we have been criticized by some in our mother church for our willingness to enact a temporary suspension of the ancient restriction in the preface to the Anglican Ordinal (which comes from 17th century England) in order to embrace the authenticity of presently ordained Lutheran ministries.

We have also been criticized by them for our willingness to seek "full communion" with you, rather than to chart a plan for a complete merger, like the "full visible unity" which the Church of England believes it has charted in the Porvoo Agreement with the Nordic and Baltic Lutheran Churches.

Our English parents have looked askance at us for proposing, still in the revised text (para. 2), that our two churches would remain "autonomous" even though becoming interdependent, neither seeking "to remake the other in its own image" but each "open to the gifts of the other as it seeks to be faithful to Christ and his mission."

Of course, the fact is that neither of our churches in America wants merger (you don't want another one, and we don't want any!). But, ironically, it is the Porvoo Agreement that has been accepted by both Anglicans and Lutherans abroad, while the Concordat still awaits its future.

(The Porvoo Agreement, I would observe, represents less of a doctrinal agreement than does the Concordat, and is formulated more on a basis of the rights of ancient historic state churches to do whatever they agree to do. It also does not claim to reach "full communion," a term absent from it but the ecumenical goal to which both our churches in this country are officially committed.)

The many years of a dialogue process leading up to the Concordat have also enabled us in the Episcopal Church, even forced us, to consider which aspects of the historic episcopate as we know it in later 20th century America are things of the first order and which aspects we could be content not to see in you if the ELCA were to have bishops in the historic episcopate in full communion with us.

You, as Lutherans, have understandably wanted to know just what you would be taking on in such an arrangement. You understandably have been concerned lest the vitality of the people's church be constrained and your indigenous evangelical imagination be stifled.

Most of the things we would consider essential I have already mentioned, and are found in the revised Concordat.

Obviously, we do not consider it essential to the historic episcopate that the bishop be a celibate male, as the Roman Catholics and the Orthodox do, nor that the bishop must be a monk and grow a beard, as do the Orthodox.

We do not consider it essential to the historic episcopate that every bishop or diocese must have a cathedral church, or that the bishop should wear a ring and a cross and a cope and mitre (one of those tall pointed hats) and march last in the procession and sit high upon a throne or carry a crozier or be styled "The Right Reverend" or wear a purple shirt or, for that matter, wear clericals at all, or draw a larger salary than other clergy.

All these things are commonly encountered in the Episcopal Church today, but they are not specified in the CCM nor regarded by us as in any way essential to the historic episcopate. We have at least one living bishop who has never worn a mitre on his head. There was a period a couple of centuries ago when none of them did.

We have some dioceses without cathedrals early on, most did not. We recently had one bishop whose "throne" was a folding stool that he carried in his car, calling his "cathedral" any building in which he set it up. We had one new diocese that decided to begin its life only with a bishop and not with any of these things or with any diocesan offices or administration unless or until it agreed that it needed them for the sake of the church's mission in its own locale and culture.

It would be up to you to adapt the non-essentials of the historic episcopate, beyond what was agreed in the CCM, to your own cultural situations, which for Lutherans in America are probably more diverse by regional differences, than ours. We would be glad to help, of course, if you wished.

I should add that one function of the bishop as we understand it is precisely to call the church beyond its own culture at times, to speak prophetically to other cultures and countries and races, to be cross-cultural as well as encultured, and perhaps, in the name of the gospel, at times to be counter-cultural.

And yet we also support the rights of the laity to speak their considered Christian minds in public as well, even in contradiction of the pronouncements of our bishops, as President Bush did in disagreeing with our Presiding Bishop over the Persian Gulf War, or, as much earlier in England, Thomas Becket did against King Henry II.

Secondly, theological questions. The only theological understanding of the historic episcopate to which our churches jointly would be committed is whatever is voted in the text of CCM, the final revised Concordat. And both our churches, by the Quadrilateral point 4 (see Endnote 1) and the implications of Augustana 28, believe the historic episcopate can be adapted locally, better to serve the gospel. So either individually, we could proceed to theological adaptations we thought desirable, or better, hopefully in consultation with each other.

Whatever implications the CCM would have for changes in practice within your own church, of course, would have to be worked out and determined by your own established procedures within your church.

If acceptance of the historic episcopate be thought of by you as an Episcopalian condition for the Concordat, we must respectfully reply first, that with us it is not a condition added to the gospel but something "essential to the reunion of the church." Both we and many Lutherans believe this is already implicit in article 7 of your Augsburg Confession concerning the teaching of the gospel and the right administration of the sacraments (implicit there and waiting to be re-implemented because of the "deep desire to maintain" the historic order that you profess in Article 14 of the Apology, and therefore something you could freely accept in a movement towards church reunion.

Secondly, we would say that this is no more a "condition" than those Lutheran demands consistently presented in the Lutheran-Episcopal dialogues that there be an agreement in the gospel with some positive acknowledgement of the Augsburg Confession, and that an advance recognition of the authenticity of the presently ordained Lutheran ministries be promised, which we have done. And you would not, as I have already observed and as the words of the revised Concordat guarantee, be obligating yourselves to maintain that the historic episcopate is necessary or essential to full communion with other churches.

You may still ask, though, what more might be implied, behind or beyond the words of what would be agreed in the Concordat text, by the phrase "historic episcopate," especially when it is accompanied, as it usually is, by the definite article "the." Just how is it "historic" and why is it "the?"

William Reed Huntington, our Quadrilateral's founder, was not the one who coined the phrase for us "the historic episcopate," and no one is quite sure who did. The adjective "historic" attached to the noun "episcopate" does not occur in Huntington's early writings. But it is found by the year 1886 when the four points of Huntington's Quadrilateral were adapted and adopted by our House of Bishops in Chicago and has continued in the Lambeth, or the international version of the Quadrilateral.

The phrase has remained our term ever since and is a terminology now very common in ecumenical discussions of all churches. In spite of its use in the Concordat for want of anything better, the verbal term itself is not biblical, patristic, medieval, or reformed, but uniquely American Episcopalian in its origins.

Certainly, the term for us implies some sort of intentional commitment to historical continuity, to be linked with the church of the gospel's origins and history throughout the ages. At the same time for us as Americans, the term frees us from the secondary temporal and political connotations accrued to it in England, even though the adjective "historic" coupled with "episcopate" has been subject to such interpretational extremes as "including the historic papal primacy," on the one hand, and as "excluding the ordination of women" on the other! Neither of them we hold!

If the ELCA felt that it needed to come up with its own agreed substitute term, such as perhaps "the episcopal succession," or "the evangelical episcopate," or "the historical episcopate" or "the historic succession" or "the historic episcopacy," and to introduce it interchangeably with our term in a revised Concordat, I do not see that we could object other than to a proliferation of terminology that might be confusing to some.

What we would seek, of course, would be an agreement on the substance of what is meant, and that would need to be specified in the CCM text. I think, in spite of these limitations, "the historic episcopate" is a term we Episcopalians will want to keep for want of anything better.

Some have asserted that the "historic" episcopate must really comprise the threefold order of bishop, priest, and deacon, and we shall no doubt continue this catholic tradition of the church which increasingly became the norm in the second, third, and fourth centuries.

In the revised Concordat, however, we do not insist that of you because your 1993 Churchwide Assembly voted that you will not have it, because the Quadrilateral specifies only the historic episcopate, because in 1982 we named only the historic episcopate as "essential to the reunion of the church" (and did not specify the diaconate, ordained or otherwise), and because the Church of England has already set the pattern of establishing the Porvoo Agreement with six Nordic and Baltic Lutheran churches of which four or five do not have an "ordained" diaconate.

There may still linger some suspicion on your part, even though the words of the CCM say nothing about the following points, that certain customary Roman Catholic claims, whether official or not, about the historic episcopate are also held officially by the Anglican Communion or the Episcopal Church, even in the face of overwhelming historical evidence and theological reasoning to the contrary. So I want to proceed to name such claims and articulate briefly what I think our response would be.

To the claim that the historic episcopate was founded directly by Christ and the apostles, by dominical or at least apostolic institution, we would respond, and on this point we have even reached agreement in our dialogues with the Roman Catholic church, that we prefer to describe the historic episcopate as a providentially guided development, as the early church came to reflect upon its scriptural origins and its existential needs for mission and survival.

To the claim that the historic episcopate has existed continuously ever since in an unbroken series through tactile transmission, we would agree that this cannot be historically proven.

To the claim that the historic episcopate guarantees the apostolicity of the church's faith, we would admit the possibility that the substance of apostolic faith may sometimes be more fully present in some non-episcopal churches (the ELCA being a good candidate, standing as it does in an apostolic succession of doctrine but without the historic episcopate). We would also agree with the Lima statement from the World Council of Churches that the historic episcopate is "a sign, though not a guarantee," of the church's faith, unity, and continuity.

To the claim that the historic episcopate is of the esse, bene esse, or plene esse of the church, we would admit that we ourselves have been arguing about this for nearly a century. Such discussion is more appropriate when talking about the reunion of the entire church and what that would look like. We do not believe the historic episcopate to be necessary for recognizing the churchly character of some other churches, such as your own, which we have already recognized as "a church in which the gospel is preached" in 1982.

As to whether the historic episcopate is "permanently irreversible" in the fullness of the church's being, an assertion still made even by progressive and ecumenically sensitive Roman Catholic theologians, I think we would respond that there has been very little Anglican theologizing on this point, that we certainly have no formal position about it, and that we would probably tend to agree with the Lutheran caution that such a claim of irreversibility infringes upon God's freedom.

And to the foregoing theological notes, we disagree, obviously, with the restriction of episcopal ordination to men only which has been so prominent in the utterances of Pope John Paul II and which has recently been underscored by Cardinal Ratzinger as "definitively held and infallibly taught."

To those Lutherans who would prefer to wait and receive a "more pure" form of the historic episcopate from the Church of Rome, we would say that you have a long time to wait but we wish you well.

To those who agree with our theological differentiations from Rome on all or most of these points regarding the historic episcopate, we would invite you to clarify wherein you think we still disagree.

Lastly, the missionary imperative. Although the revised Concordat, in response to concerns voiced at your last Churchwide Assembly has been re-named Called to Common Mission, even in the first text of the former Concordat, the joint installation/ordination of bishops was described as being for the sake of common mission and not, as the English Anglicans and the Nordic and Baltic Lutherans chose to describe it in the Porvoo document, for the sake of apostolicity.

Common mission has always been the underlying drive behind the dialogue of Lutherans and Episcopalians in this country: churches are more likely to do more and better mission together if they are agreed in the essentials of the Christian faith, have full interchangeability of ordained ministers, have full sharing of the Lord's Supper, and if their leaders understand and recognize each other in sufficiently compatible doctrinal terms so that they are confident in working together. In short, if they are in full communion.

How can our two churches together live and proclaim the gospel in this post-modern, post-Christendom world of North America? How can we say, not just in our own isolated parish churches but in broader terms across the country, that the gospel unites us, rather than giving the impression that it divides us?

This was of course the concern also of our greatest Episcopalian ecumenist William Reed Huntington when he wrote these ringing words in 1870: "If our whole ambition as Anglicans in America be to continue a small but eminently respectable body of Christians,...if we care to be only a countercheck and not a force in society, then let us say as much in plain terms, and frankly renounce any and all claim to Catholicity....Thus may we be a Church in name, and a sect in deed. But if we aim at something nobler than this,...if we would bring the Church of Christ into the closest possible sympathy with the throbbing, sorrowing, sinning, repenting, aspiring heart of this great people..."

These are still our concerns in the Episcopal Church today, even though we don't always live up to them, and we dare to believe that they are your concerns also.

As my own bishop in New York has written so well, echoing his early 19th century predecessor Bishop Hobart, we understand the bishop to be the chief missionary in every diocese, the overseer, and leader in mission, both within that region but also linking it with other bishops in the wider responsibility of mission to the entire country and to other races, peoples, countries, and cultures.

We understand "mission" as being everything that the church properly does, as having a Godward dimension as well as a humanward one, as being both vertical and horizontal, the bishop as being concerned with the worship of God as well as with the proclamation of the gospel and the struggle for social justice and the nurture of Christian education and pastoral care.

The bishop's role in evangelism, including but not limited to the counting of numbers, is certainly part of the mission, but so also is the bishop's role in the right administration of the sacraments and the ordination of clergy as faithful pastors. This is why, for example, in 1982 the Episcopal Church could describe the bishop's mandate as being to "summon the people of God to their mission of worship and service."

Let us consider the historical and theological dimension of the historic episcopate in mission, as we bring it down to the imperative of our own day. It is widely acknowledged by historians in most churches today (for example, I cite the Baptist Glen Hinson), that four institutions emerged early in the history of the church as instruments for the apostolic succession of the gospel, to safeguard and enable the church's mission in proclaiming it and extending that good news to all the world: a fixed canon of Scriptures, the early creeds, the sacraments of baptism and eucharist, and the ancient offices of ministry in historic succession.

The early Christian community clearly believed that it had the authority of Christ and the guidance of the Holy Spirit to develop all these basic instruments of apostolic succession for the sake of the mission and ministry of the whole people of God. The historic episcopate thus became one (but not the only one) significant element in the orderly and orthodox transmission of the gospel in the mission of the church, linking the church to the past and leading it into the future.

In terms as understandable then as now, the historic episcopate declares to us that the gospel is not only an idea or a proposition, but the animating force of the living community of all God's people as the gospel is communicated over and over again from one person to another. Bishops, in such an historic and evangelical succession, became central to the apostolic ministry of promoting, safeguarding, and serving the mission of the whole church, exercising their ministry both collegially by being accountable to brothers and sisters in the same ministry and communally by being accountable to all the baptized through regularly established procedures.

The bishop, in this succession, is thus a living image of the unity of all the faithful under the gospel and joined in obedience to it over time and space, a unity imperfectly existing at present and yet to be fully consummated at the end of chronological time when the mission of the church is completed and God will be all in all.

J. Robert Wright is St. Mark's Professor of Ecclesiastical History, General Theological Seminary, New York, New York. He is also one of the authors of the Concordat. This article was first delivered at a Kairos continuing education event at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota, in July 1998. The entire article, unabbreviated, with introduction and three parts, was printed in Dialog, Winter 1999, vol. 38.

1. In the late 19th century the enduring principles of unity were formulated on which the Episcopal Church, and for that matter the entire Anglican Communion of Churches over all the world in their various local adaptations, still stand. These principles date formally from the years 1886-1888 and are collectively called the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, originating with our House of Bishops meeting at Chicago in 1886 and then endorsed in slightly different form by the worldwide meeting of Anglican bishops at Lambeth, the London residence of the archbishop of Canterbury, in 1888. This Quadrilateral enumerates four points or articles upon which Anglican churches believe agreement is necessary for a basis of an approach to ecumenical reunion with other churches: the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds, the gospel sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist as instituted by Christ and generally necessary to salvation, and the historic episcopate "locally adapted in the methods of its administration."


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