With the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference’s proposal to disaffiliate from one part of The United Methodist Church and join with another part in a different geographical area, we have more evidence that the denomination as we know it is kaput. It is but one of several such indications. Many in our denomination are talking about what’s next. I have run across the opinion several times, recently, that future Methodism must rid itself of bishops. I disagree. Here are some initial thoughts. I welcome your feedback.
I’ll frame my task by reference to the classic marks of the church: one, holy, catholic and apostolic. I know that a variety of emphases may be given to these terms, so I’ll clarify how I understand them and then move to a few particulars.
- “One” entails a unity of belief and practice summarized in the classic creeds. It requires visible, concrete communities of shared doctrine and practice, who recognize other communities as fellow travelers, joint heirs. It does not require institutional unity.
- “Holy” refers to both the mission undertaken to proclaim Christ as Lord and King and to embody, by his grace, his character. External focus plus internal integration in light of Christ’s holiness. “Holiness of heart and life” to use a Wesleyan phrase, goes with “set apart for mission” to serve the oikonomian of God under Christ’s rule and authority (a la Ephesians 1).
- “Catholic” refers to the whole church. A Wesleyan/Methodist expression must consciously pursue catholicity, recognizing and joining with other Christian communions in common witness, even if we are not part of the same ecclesial organization. The church catholic stretches around the world and through time and across many denominational expressions.
- “Apostolic” means rooted in and bearing witness to the message of the Apostles and, by extension, the whole Gospel as found in Holy Scripture.
This summary is inadequate, but I move on. The point is that, assuming these marks as a framework, as well as scriptural grounding in the function of ecclesial oversight, bishops are critical to a new Methodist instantiation. Why?
To answer, let me point you to the first chapter of Kevin Madigan’s (Harvard Divinity School) book, Medieval Christianity: A New History. It gives a very helpful summary of the earliest centuries before getting to the book’s main interest, which deals with the church after 600 and up through the 1400s. One section of the opening chapter is called “Normative Christianity: Creed, Council, Clergy.”
“Normative Christianity” sounds troubling to some. I commend the chapter to you. It gives a sense of why “normative” is inevitable and, speaking practically, necessary. In this context, bishops played a pivotal role. The church was dealing with a major challenge from – using an umbrella term for several movements – Gnosticism. One of the major Gnostic beliefs was that Jesus had revealed secret knowledge to his apostles that only the select, initiated few could have and that this knowledge was the source of salvation. Here’s what Madigan says, “Arguing against the Gnostic idea that revelation was secret knowledge passed down by charismatic teachers, the proto-orthodox argued that, to the contrary, it had been transmitted by the apostles to their successors, duly-appointed bishops” (p. 14).
I’m convinced, therefore, that, for two major categorical reasons, the next Methodism needs bishops. One is practical and one is, for lack of a better term, “spiritual.”
Practical – As the Madigan quote shows, there has to be someone ultimately responsible for guarding the faith. Bishop Ignatius of Antioch (died a martyr in 107 CE) argued that the ministry of oversight needs finally to reside in one person, a mono-episcopate. This view goes against our democratic sensibilities, but let’s face it. In every group of leaders, one with noticeable authority and wisdom emerges as the go-to person in a dispute. If you don’t have a recognized leader of this sort, then disagreements become interminable and corrosive to the body. We need a “buck stops here” leader. The bishop fills the bill…
…as long as this other quality is firmly in place.
“Spiritual” – I put quotation marks around “spiritual” to gesture away from conventional notions and point to something much deeper. For help I turn to Claudia Rapp’s book, Holy Bishops in Late Antiquity. She discerns three types of authority embodied, not just in the office, but in the person of bishop and in persons who became bishops. They were exemplary Christians. Many of them were monks and had practiced the highly disciplined life of the monk. Though like any human being they had quirks and infirmities (and some apostatized under extreme imperial pressures), they were holy, godly people, and the wider public knew them as such. They literally embodied the Gospel and holy living. They had the wisdom of experience in dealing with challenges, including demonic attack. They had the character, the gifts, and the wisdom, to lead.
These bishops could stand up to worldly powers. They commanded the respect of the people. They led with their lives.
We need godly leaders, both clergy and lay. We also need “buck stops here” leaders who have the spiritual chops to lead. They know God. They are filled with the Spirit and demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit as well as the requisite spiritual gifts. They know and can effectively convey the faith once delivered to the saints. They firmly uphold ecclesial life according to the marks of the church. Along with other leaders, they guard and defend the faith and keep the church aimed at apostolic mission. As leaders, they serve.
For practical and spiritual reasons, we need bishops. May God meet this need in the new Methodism that, by God’s grace, will emerge.