Continues a series on Episcopacy
Anglican Diocesan Bishops are, formally, the pastors of the congregation which meets in the building where they have their cathedra. But that congregation will in fact only see them on major occasions and at the main festivals. Otherwise, the congregation will be pastored ... not even by the Dean or Provost, who is himself a grand functionary running a large and expensive piece of heritage ... but by a priest sometimes called a Precentor. However, in the case of diocesans, at least the technical proprieties of episkopos, ekklesia, kathedra, are, on paper, maintained.
With suffragan bishops and 'area bishops', even this fictitious memory, this pretence, is absent. A suffragan bishop does not even formally have a congregation of which he is pastor; nor does he have a building in which you can go and look at a piece of furniture which - even if he never sits in it - is his cathedra. I do not find it easy to think of a more corrupt perversion of Episkope than this. No wonder the Free Churches are (except for some of their aspiring bureaucrats) so resistant to it. Unless one believes that, underneath the prelacy, the pompous dysfunctionality, the unreformed medievalisms, the sheer corruption, we Anglicans still do, in Episcopacy, really possess that Apostolic Ministry with which the Lord wished to endow His Church, only a fool would put up with it all. What it amounts to is episkope conceived purely as management; as our own Patrimonial Dom Gregory Dix put it with his characteristically lapidary accuracy, "the business-man in gaiters" [perhaps this could be translated into RC-speak as "the Tesco Area Boss in a zucchetto"]. For the Modern Church, there are senior managers; there are junior managers; there are the managed; and from time to time we ask the question 'How shall we make this management system work better?'
Why is such a corrupt system not reformable? Let me tell you a story ... or is it a myth?
The First Vatican Council gave expression to the ambitions of a centralising papacy; power, both in terms of government and of teaching, was concentrated in the hands of the Roman Pontiff and his collaborators. This needed to be balanced. In fact, it needed to be balanced by the Ordo Episcoporum. So we had Vatican II, which recovered the truth that bishops are themselves successors of the Apostles and not merely Vicars of the Roman Pontiff. Thank the Lord! So we moved into Broad Sunlit Uplands. The bishops returned from Vatican II, their faces wreathed in broad, sunlit, complacent smiles of self-satisfaction. Propriety ... balance ... embodied in themselves and their own perception of their own corporate importance ... had been restored.
Nowhere, as far as I am aware, did the conciliar documents of Vatican II, while they were busily and cheerfully 'balancing' the papacy, show the least awareness that the current expression of Episcopacy, at least in the Western Church, was itself arguably in need of reform. Nor, in the decades since, has there been any substantial movement for rethinking this episcopal system. In fact, matters have in some respects become worse. The aggrandisement of Episcopal Conferences has brought in its wake - people say - bureaucratic structures of Advisers and Committees, vast enough - so I am told - even to rival the bloated bureaucracies of Anglicanism. The old dream of the Bishop as the Man of, the Father of, his own Church ... what has become of that? Indeed, I can't help feeling that it may have been easier - especially before the advent of modern instantaneous electronic communications - to ignore the diktats of a pleasantly, gloriously, remotely, distant and ineffectual Roman Curia, than it is to be one's own man (or rather, the Man of One's Church) when enmeshed today in the structures of an Episcopal Conference. But, as a mere Anglican, I know I ought not to express views on this.
As far as I can see, not many people have any sort of inkling of any endemic weaknesses in the structures of modern Western Christianity. One man does; the man who shared responsibility for John Paul II's document (1998, Apostolos suos) reminding Episcopal Conferences of their very limited nature and status: and, my goodness, how the pair of them were vilified for that overdue and very necessary reform. Curiously, or perhaps not curiously, it is that same Bavarian gentleman who has legislated that the Ordinariates should, in 'episcopal' vacancies, submit their own ternas directly to the Holy See ... rather than going through the Nuncios.
There is a paradox in all this. Undoubtedly - in my view - Churches should choose their own bishops. But is this the historical moment to effect such a change? Perhaps this Pontiff's aim is gradually to move back to a system of local choice, starting with those ecclesial bodies whom he knows he can most confidently rely on to possess and perpetuate a holistic and orthopractic Church life ... such as Ordinariates.
There can rarely have been a more intellectually exciting time than the pontificate of Benedict XVI. The exhilaration I felt on hearing of his election has in no way abated.