Fr Jonathan Munn has now provoked me into a reflection about the Episcopate by writing Vaccinations for Purple Fever. In his turn, he found inspiration in my article about the less edifying aspects of our Church’s history. The Episcopate has been discussed throughout the history of the Church, and St Ignatius of Antioch is the first Church Father to have explicitly expressed the existence of the three-fold ministry of bishops, priests and deacons. In those days, churches were few and far between, and the “parish priest” was the Bishop. The Bishop was assisted by priests, deacons and those in the subdiaconate and minor orders. As the Gospel was preached and more communities came into being, the Bishop would send some of his clergy out to serve them. There, we have the origin of the diocese, cloned from the notion in Roman law of the local region like the county in England or the département in France. With the 1801 Concordat between Napoleon and Pius VII the diocese would henceforth correspond with the secular département. Thus in the Seine Maritime, there is the Archdiocese of Rouen and the suffragan Diocese of Le Havre. In the first century, these principles and the Episcopate itself were only implicit in the faith and order of the Church.
From a certain time, the Episcopate was assimilated to the aristocracy (dealt with in my previous article in a different way) and the Bishop became someone important like the local Lord or even a prince. Thus, anyone could become an aristocrat: you didn’t have to be born into the right family. However, in practice, most bishops were selected from among the aristocracy. Most monks were the youngest sons of noble families, and endowed with enough money to interest the Abbot. How this transformation occurred would have to be studied by historians from the available evidence in records and written narratives. The Bishop is someone imposing and important, and people of some traits of personality seek this aura of power and respect due to them by their “inferiors” or subjects.
For some time, I have studied personality disorders in psychological terms. Modern studies and psychiatric manuals attribute nine traits to someone who is diagnosed with a narcissistic personality disorder:
- Has a grandiose sense of self-importance.
- Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power and brilliance.
- Believes that he “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions).
- Requires excessive admiration [regularly fishes for compliments, and is highly susceptible to flattery].
- Has a sense of entitlement.
- Is interpersonally exploitative.
- Lacks empathy: is unwilling [or, I would add, unable] to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.
- Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her.
- Shows arrogant, haughty [rude and abusive] behaviours or attitudes.
This description would perfectly match a number of ecclesiastics I have known, whether they were in a “mainstream” Church or a smaller entity. As Peter Anson and Henry Brandreth described in their well-known books, many bishops sought the Episcopate in marginal circumstances because they did not have this opportunity in Roman Catholicism or the Anglican Communion. There were some exceptions in the historical examples. Anson gave the example of the theologian Friedrich Heiler who was consecrated by the French adventurer René Vilatte (1854-1929). I also believe that Arnold Harris Mathew (1852-1919), though highly eccentric and fickle, did not fit the criteria of such a personality disorder. Much of the world of episcopi vagantes is quite grotesque, though there are some who genuinely minister to small communities and / or are involved in humanitarian work. It is a very mixed bag, and has evolved beyond Anson and Brandreth. Any of them can set up a website or a blog, and give an impressive appearance.
Since I joined the TAC in 2005 and the ACC in 2013, I have largely lost touch with this ecclesiastical underworld. There is everything between clones of the “liberal” mainstream to very extreme traditionalists, sedevacantists, embodiments of Anglicanism inculturated into Latin America, esoterism and neo-gnosticism, everything. Similarly, we see Churches where the Bishop is everything, and other Churches where the Bishops run everything as a college and have a healthier view of their service of ecclesial communion. I occasionally hear on the Internet or via private e-mail of someone being consecrated, or some old fraud selling up in France to get rich pickings in the USA.
Continuing Anglicanism has had its problems, but the notion of the Episcopate is healthier, especially over the past ten to fifteen years. They are not pompous aristocrats and they give more importance to their parishes and the priests running them. Nowadays, someone seeking to join the ACC in order to become a bishop doesn’t get anywhere. We also have a rule that no priest can become a bishop unless he has been a priest in our Church for a number of years. Thus, after the Hamlett débâcle in England and the Vicar General returning to the Churchof England, the Diocese was placed under the protection of Bishop Cahoon and run for several years by the new Vicar General Fr Damien Mead. Such a way of doing things protects us from the ambitious and unscrupulous, that we might find stability in slow growth and trust those who have authority over us priests, deacons and lay folk.
I occasionally get correspondence from marginal clerics in Europe looking for a label of legitimacy. They ask me for a certificate attesting that they are ACC. I always reply that I have no authority to do such a thing, but that they would be welcome to contact my Bishop and that their candidacy would be more convincing were they to visit England, have contact with one of our parishes and decide whether they think they would feel happy. I explain to them that we have a selection procedure and interviews – I was not exempt from them myself.
Like Fr Jonathan, I am totally unambitious. The lower I can be as a priest brings me closer to the spirit of Christ and the Gospel. I am not a good pastor since I suffer from too much social awkwardness to be a leader. I don’t have natural authority, so that is the reality. Don’t ask me to accept the Episcopate because I would be a walking disaster! My Bishop is a father in God and a friend. By friend, I don’t mean a “buddy” or an equal, but a friend as described in the famous treatise of St Aelred of Rievaulx. This is something precious in my life. Under a haughty and arrogant bishop, I don’t know how I would do. The most heroic thing would be to obey him because he is the Bishop, but I fear that my my attachment to the Church would die. This being said, the condition of being a legitimate priest is being under the jurisdiction of a Bishop – otherwise one may not celebrate the Eucharist or continue to minister in any way. Without the Bishop, the priesthood continues to subsist in the priest’s soul, but it becomes moot and dormant. In some circumstances, a vagus priest might be justified in coming to the aid of an abandoned community of faithful, but it is a subject of conscience and discernment case by case. A precedent for this in canon law is the possibility of a laicised priest to administer the Sacraments to a dying person if no regular priest is available. This is called the principle of epikeia (ἐπιείκεια) in canon law: a law can be broken for the sake of a higher good.
The Episcopate is essential to the Catholic Church, but it isn’t the preoccupation. The ACC has learned a lot from the Hamlett débâcle and the so-called Bishops’ Brawl when it was alleged that one American bishop drew his gun (I’m not sure that this was true). A bishop with a firearm seems a little surreal!
There have been many confessor and martyr bishops in the history of the Church. Their lives can be read for our edification, and this can be a great antidote for the indigestion we can sometimes feel brought on by the jerks and jokers of this world. One of my favourites is Saint Francis de Sales. We have had many fine servants of God in the Anglican Church over the centuries, from the great theologians of the seventeenth century to the time of the Oxford Movement and Anglo-Catholicism. Bishop Robert Mercer went to the Ordinariate, but I knew him as a saintly and gentle bishop, distinguished by his humility and piety.
A Church can actually manage very well with very few bishops. In the Anglican continuum, bishops run parishes and minister directly to their faithful. In most parishes, the real shire horses are the priests and parishioners who help with the administration and practical aspects to be looked after.
But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister (Matthew xx.26).