These are some thoughts on the office of bishop that I developed some time ago.
There is a standard form of the argument about the significance of episcopacy for the order of the church. Is episcopacy of the esse, bene esse, or plene esse of the church? That is, is episcopacy of the essence of the order of the church, so that without bishops in apostolic succession there is no church, or is episcopacy essential for the good order of the church but not absolutely necessary, or is episcopacy for the fullness of the order of the church, meaning that a church can be a valid church without bishops but that to be the fullness of the apostolic church demands the fullness of the apostolic order. The center of Anglican witness has been in the last two positions with a minority Anglo-Catholic report holding out for the first position. The great book about all of this is Michael Ramsey’s The Gospel and the Catholic Church. Ramsey’s argument fits perhaps best into the category of plene esse. Churches without bishops are certainly valid members of the body of Christ, but there is something about the fullness of the apostolic witness and unity that is lacking and toward which the churches should press with full vigor for the sake of a fuller and more adequate witness to the crucified and risen Lord. Ramsey’s book convinced the Reformed pastor and missionary in India, Lesslie Newbigin, of the significance of the catholic order of the church for the sake of Gospel mission, and made it possible for Newbigin to embrace a call to be one of the first bishops of the Church of South India. Ramsey’s book remains a classic and breaks open stale arguments by arguing for the evangelical and missionary significance of the catholic order of the church. It is a travesty that the book is out of print. If you ever see a used copy, buy it.
The moment of foment and crisis that we are enduring in the Anglican world brings to the fore the significance of the office of bishop. All the old questions about how or whether bishops are of the esse of the church are bound to arise anew. But at the same time let us pause to ask what is of the esse of this order? What is essential to the office and ministry of the bishop? Ramsey argued that the bishop had an evangelical significance, for the bishop like the apostles from which the office derived was a living witness to the dependence of the whole body upon its one head and therefore upon the actual historical events of the crucifixion and resurrection of the Lord. The bishop was to hand on the tradition of the Apostles which was a witness to the life, death and resurrection of the Lord.
A full answer to the question of what is of the esse of the episcopacy would take many pages. But a quick answer can be given here. Two things at least, that are completely interrelated and interdependent, are essential to the office of the bishop, one is the stewardship of apostolic doctrine. John Spong has written somewhere of the bishop as an “apostolic pioneer.” Such a phrase is an oxymoron. Paul is quintessentially apostolic and laying out the essence of the apostolic order which the episcopacy must maintain if it is indeed to be an apostolic succession, when he says to the Corinthians, “ I pass on to you that which I received, that the Lord Jesus on the night in which he was betrayed took bread. . .” To be a successor to the apostles is to hand on a witness which is primarily a report of things which God has done. To be a bishop is to be a sacred historian and the teller of a true witness and a true story. My word for this is to say that the bishop must be a faithful steward of apostolic doctrine. It is this witness which creates the one body utterly dependent on its one head and on the actual death and resurrection of the Lord.
Related to the stewardship of apostolic doctrine is the ministry of guarding the unity of the church. This is a unity in faith which is a response to the one witness, now mediated by the succession of teachers, to the one saviour. The bishop is a visible link with the college of apostolic witnesses. The original twelve have a common witness, and witness to each other and the church and the waiting world that their witness is authentic and true just because it is a common witness. The apostles and their successors in the apostolic ministry of bishops are to build up the one church in unity for the sake of its mission of bringing all the nations to the worship of the one true and living God within the body of Christ. It is of the essence of the episcopal office that the bishop cultivates and guards the unity of the church. This places a heavy responsibility on those in episcopal office to keep faith with the apostolic teachers that have preceded them and to be servants of ecumenical solidarity. Thus the bishops are to be living sacraments of the unity of the body of Christ.