Godly Bishops

I have been nominated for bishop in the Diocese of The Rio Grande. Here are some thoughts about the episcopal office that I wrote some time ago.

Godly Bishops

By

The Rev. Leander S. Harding, Ph.D.


In what follows I am going to take it as established that the historic episcopacy is a continuation of the apostolic ministry which has evolved in the church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and that therefore an episcopacy which has integrity and authenticity will be self-consciously seeking an ever greater conformity with the ministry of the first Apostles. One way of speaking about godliness in the episcopacy would be to enumerate all the virtues that would go into a truly consecrated character. So we would speak of prayerfulness, learning, humility, the spirit of service, zeal for souls and so on. But how might a bishop find a way into these virtues? How can the motivation to grow in real godliness be sustained? I think by dwelling on the originating encounter with the crucified and risen Lord which propels the Apostles into their ministry. Essential to the ministry of the first Apostles is that they are witnesses to the resurrection and it is in the resurrection encounters that we should expect to find the distinctive shape and power of the apostolic ministry

Three locations dominate my thinking, meditation and prayer about the apostolic office. First there is John 20:19-23. The apostles are really cowering behind closed doors and the crucified and risen one appears to them. He shows them his hands and his side. They are glad when they see the Lord and he then says to them, “Peace be with you, As the Father has sent me even so I send you.” Then the Lord breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” To be an Apostle is to be one who is sent. Jesus is the Apostle of the Father and in his turn the crucified and risen one sends out his own apostles whose mission is to create by their witness a community of witness to the crucified and risen Lord and to the presence of his Spirit. At the heart of this witness is the extension of the reconciliation which has been offered to them. That the Apostles are given the authority to proclaim the reality of reconciliation and to distinguish false from true reconciliation is not some arbitrary power but a personal authority and knowledge that comes from their own actual personal redemption and what they have learned from welcoming and embracing the one who comes to breathe into them God’s peace.

The apostolic ministry originates in a personal encounter with the saviour. There is no way for these original witnesses to claim their vocation without looking upon the one whom they have betrayed and abandoned. They cannot be reconciled to him who holds out his wounded and glorified hands without embracing their own faithlessness and sinfulness. This dynamic is portrayed even more starkly in the encounter between Jesus and Peter on the beach in the twenty first chapter of St. John’s Gospel. Peter rushes to the beach where the Lord meets him over a charcoal fire and asks those excruciating questions, “Peter, do you love me?” There by that charcoal fire Peter must think of another interrogation and of his betrayal of the Lord. Peter can only answer the call to go and gather and feed the sheep by embracing the fire of his own sin. The connection between a personal confession of sin and the reception of the call to gather in and feed the flock of Christ that is being driven home to Peter on the beach in Galilee is there as well behind those closed doors in Jerusalem. The reception of the crucified and risen one’s commission to go and tell the nations begins necessarily with a personal sense of sinfulness and failure which is provoked by the sudden breaking in of the undeserved forgiveness of God. I am not speaking so much of a particular type of conversion experience but of the reality of knowing oneself as a betrayer and crucifier of the Lord and knowing oneself as the recipient of an undeserved and costly forgiveness. There is a place where shame and joy grow together, where a growing consciousness of the enormity of human sin and rebellion and a consciousness of the astonishing goodness of the seeking, searching, sacrificial love of God grow together. In this place which is at once a place of deep humiliation and deep peace, the words of the Lord “even so I send you,” can be rightly heard and when heard are an irresistible invitation to return love for love. Here the human race is being remade by a new genesis, a new inspiration of God’s Spirit. From this place the forgiveness of sins can be declared and the lost sheep of the Father gathered in. Here is the wellspring of godliness in the ministry of bishop and shepherd. The way into this place is the way of humility, of lowliness and of deepening repentance.

The third scriptural location I propose is suggested to me by Lesslie Newbigin. It is Paul’s encounter with the crucified and risen Lord on the road to Damascus, recorded in Acts 9. Paul is a persecutor of the church of God and is thrown from his horse by his encounter with the Lord. Lying in the dust he hears the Lord say to him, “Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Here we have the same revelation of sinfulness and of utterly undeserved love and forgiveness which strips Paul of any righteousness of his own. The disciples in Jerusalem, Peter on the beach and Paul on the road all share in the same humiliation which is at once an exaltation, in the same death which is at once life. In Paul’s circumstance an aspect of this originating apostolic encounter is made especially clear. In order to embrace his call to be an apostle, Paul must not only confess himself as God’s enemy but in order to grasp the wounded and glorified hand stretched out to him, Paul must also grasp the hands of those he has persecuted. Paul must recognize the nascent church as the body of Christ. Paul cannot be reconciled to God without being reconciled to God’s people. Paul recognizes that God is building a new people which shall be marked off not by the works of the law but by faith in the crucified and risen Messiah. Paul recognizes that God’s promise to recreate humanity, to reconcile the nations in a renewed Israel is coming true in and through Jesus. In Paul’s call we learn that to be a witness to the resurrection is to be at one and the same time a witness to the reality of the new Israel which is the body of the Christ.

Just these few encounters we have considered point us to elements that are at the heart of the ministry of episcopacy and which if they are held fast set a person on the same road toward holiness and godliness trod by the first Apostles. We learn that the apostolic ministry begins with a deep and personal apprehension of the forgiveness of sins by the crucified and risen Lord. That included in this forgiveness and reconciliation with God is the fact of the church and the body of Christ and that the new human life that comes in this encounter by the gift of the Spirit propels one into the life of mission, evangelization and witness.

The witness and authority of the original Apostles is intensely personal. They stand before the world as men personally convicted and personally redeemed by their encounters with the crucified and risen Lord. It is possible for us to distinguish between the evangelical concern for personal faith and the catholic concern for the body of Christ and for the apostolic ministry as a vital organ in the body of Christ, but these elements are encountered in the Bible always simultaneously as inextricably intertwined. The first Apostles are living proof and a sacramental sign of the forgiveness of sins, the reconciliation with God and the reality of the one body dependent on its one head, by their very presence. The message authenticates the person and the person authenticates the message.( It is of course possible for those who succeed in this office for this relationship between person and message to be impaired and this is perhaps the source of ungodliness in episcopal ministry.)

We come to our encounter with the crucified and risen one through the testimony of these original witnesses as that testimony is transmitted to us through the Word of God and through the succession of apostolic teaching and witness. The challenge for the contemporary bishop who wishes to stand in the shoes of the original Apostles is to dwell in and upon the Word of God in such a way that this originating apostolic encounter becomes real and personal and having once found this originating moment of encounter to return to it again and again and let it be the engine of the bishop’s teaching, preaching and witness. This call to return again and again to epicenter of the apostolic earthquake is a call to prayer and contemplation. It is a call to a life of study of the Bible and of the faithful teachers who by God’s grace make a faithful succession to the Apostles possible. It is call to mission, to evangelization, to invite others into this encounter (which is bound to come in different ways for different people) with the crucified and risen Lord.

This call is also a call to guarding the unity of the church. The new life with God which the saviour comes to bring us at so great a price is a new life with each other no less than with God. It is the restoration of God’s plan that he should be our Father and we should be his children and loving brothers and sisters of each other. At the center of the apostolic experience of forgiveness is the reality of the one people of God and the body of Christ. The Apostles witness to the reality of the forgiveness of sins not just as an idea, as a teaching of the master, but as something which he has accomplished by his costly work and which has now through the power of the resurrection and the gift of the Spirit appeared. The unity of the college of the apostles in witness and in love is part of the Gospel which they proclaim. The Bible already tells the sad story that this testimony can be marred by a lack of unity and by attempts to find the center of the church in anything other than the forgiveness of sins brought by the death and resurrection of the Lord. If the secret of godliness in the episcopacy is dwelling upon the personal invitation to confession and the personal offer of redemption given by the outstretched, wounded and glorified hand of the risen one, then the bishop seeking godliness will want to lead the whole church back to this one cornerstone that it might be built up in unity and by the Spirit of love which is breathed by Christ into his church at just this point. There must be an impatience with anything which would seek to define the church on any other basis and there must be a resolute resistance to any attempt to draw the church away from utter dependence on the actual death and resurrection of her Lord. A godly bishop is one who stands in the center of the church as an authentic and personal sign of the reality of forgiveness and new life with God and among people which comes through the utter dependence of the whole church upon its one head and upon the actual events of the death and resurrection of the Lord.



9 thoughts on “Godly Bishops

  1. Dr. Harding,
    Very timely. Again.
    Might I only add the constant need for overseers to be receptors of the charism of Wisdom. And if that is not how the Holy Spirit has gifted them, then to be people who take to heart the counsel of James, and ask God for it, who will. By the evidence of the current House of Bishops (in amalgam), this Church cannot currently rely upon a sense of “collective” wisdom that comes from length and depth of pastoral experience prior to consecration, and the length of episcopates following consecration.

    This current season of decision making and lack of decision making from the House of Bishops betrays this problem of Wisdom, in along with the other issues that you have identified as essential to the Godly Bishop.

    How do you see the nature of Wisdom in relation to your article?

    And I add my prayers to those looking to God’s will for the diocese of Dallas.

  2. What a very good question. The Benedictine’s allow everyone in the community to have a say from the most junior to the most senior and then the Abbot decides. I think that the decision making process that has taken hold in our church has often been a non-consultative process which relies on finesse and fait de compli and is lacking in the patience required if the church is to know its own mind. This is a critique that I would apply to both sides of the aisle, so to speak.

  3. I learned about that communal process when I spent 6 months at the SSJE House in Bracebridge, Ontario (77-78). It was my understanding then, and augmented since, that the reason for all in the community to speak is because Benedict himself (the rumor has it as a tongue-speaker himself, as sign of his heightened awareness of the charismata) did not want the gifts of the Spirit to be missed simply because only “the elders” had anything worth saying.

  4. Rob, your question about Wisdom is one to ponder. Wisdom involves at least a sober appraisal of one’s own limits and a conviction that real insight may come from unexpected places. In any event I have come to be very curious about hearing from each and all. There are still times when the leader has to make tough calls. But it works better when the head is in touch with the body instead of out of touch.

  5. Dr. H,
    I’d like to quote a part of your first comment to me on Surrounded if that is OK with you.
    (sorry to leave this here – you could remove the comment)

  6. Congratulations, Leander, on the nomination. You are already in my regular prayers, but I will pray about this with some specificity now! And may the House of Bishops become ever more Benedictine in its approach to these difficult times.

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