What is Essential to the Office of Bishop?

 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.

My Passion for Ministry

The Heart of Jesus Christ

The Diocese of Dallas asked in their questionnaire, “What is your passion for ministry?” This picture which was originally purchased in the bazaar in Tehran by a member of my last parish, figured prominently in my answer which is below. The man who left me this in his will was a Liberian diplomat who was exiled by the famous Sargent Doe coup. He was a profound Christian man. When I first saw this image I did not imagine it would become so important to me. 

I was given a rug with a picture of Jesus woven somewhat in the style of the velvet paintings you can buy at a county fair. Jesus stands looking out with very big eyes that seem to follow you, and he has his cloak pulled open with one hand and with an in-turned finger of that hand is pointing to his heart. His heart is on fire, on fire with love for God and with love for his brothers and sisters. There is a cross over his heart, for whenever this heart on fire with love of God and neighbor appears in this world it is a crucified heart. His heart is circled with thorns, a tourniquet of our thorny resistance to the love of God. He is pointing to his heart with one finger and with the index finger of an outstretched hand he is pointing at us. He says, I think, “I have come to give you this heart which is on fire with love for God and love for your brothers and sisters and which is crucified and which nevertheless beats against all resistance so that you might give it to others.” My passion for mission and ministry is that people might fall in love with God, and have formed in them the heart of Jesus Christ.

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


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.

Ordination Sermon on The Good Shepherd

Ordination of William Starke to the Priesthood Dec. 14, 2007
A Sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Leander S. Harding

I have been a shepherd of both the four-legged and the two-legged sorts of sheep. My wife and I helped to support the ministry in the first parish I served in rural Maine by raising sheep. Bill has asked me to speak on the figure of the Good Shepherd. This figure of Jesus as shepherd — as pastor — is the oldest representation which we have: a picture in the Roman catacombs of a young shepherd with a lamb draped about His neck. The crucified Christ is the most widely shared representation of Jesus, and second to it and closely related to it is the figure of Jesus the Good shepherd. Closely related because at once we think of the biblical Good Shepherd, we must think of the one who lays down His life for the sheep — who is irrevocably committed to the sheep and flees not when the wolf approaches — who is faithful even unto death. This utterly unique Shepherd who is also the Lamb that taketh away the sins of the world and who is truly our peace with God and with each other — who is truly Life, Life eternal — the life of the Resurrection and of the world to come.

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Priesthood And Doctrine

This is the third in the series of meditations given to the clergy of the Diocese of Albany.


In many of our churches there are more people in the basement attending 12 Step meetings during the week than there are attending the worship of the church on Sunday. If you attend these meetings you discern a feeling, a sense of things that is absent from many of our churches. People come to the 12 Step meetings because they are in a life or death struggle with what they call “a crippling disease.” Sometimes this disease is given a personality. It is referred to as a “canny disease.” “You can’t outsmart it.” Hope lies in attending the meetings and sharing in the faith, hope and encouragement that is there. Hope lies in attending to a teaching, a doctrine, the 12 Steps which are a matter of life and death and the only practical means of salvation from certain, sure and complete destruction. (The seriousness with which this teaching is taken is shown in the prohibition against the discussion of literature which is not “conference approved.”) But if destruction apart from the “program” is sure, inevitable and complete, with the “program” there is a confident promise of recovery, healing and new life. Meetings regularly include testimonies by people who have been saved by following the Steps and returned to sobriety and sanity. The contrast between the old life and the new life is dramatic and affecting. Often people express their gratitude for the disease which propelled them on a search which has led to a far better life than they would have otherwise had.

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The Priesthood And Glory

This is the second in a series of meditations given to the clergy of the Diocese of Albany. As I read these over I am aware of how easily some of things I say about the priesthood could be misinterpreted. I use words like mediator and intercessor but I mean these things in what I would call a John The Baptist sense, that is that there is a legitmate ministry which must proclaim His coming and then must disappear. This is a work in progress.

The Glory Of The Lord
Glory, kabod in Hebrew, doxa in Greek, here is one of the most important words in all of scripture. The lexicons tell us that the word has to do with weight, heft and also with shimmering light. The word has the sense of power and majesty and even danger and threat. When the lookout put his hand over his forehead and searched the horizon and there saw the shimmering reflection of the desert sun on the spear points and chariot wheels of an approaching army, he would say that he had seen the glory of an army. If it were an enemy army it meant threat and danger, if it were an ally, it meant rescue and salvation. When the people of Israel were encamped before the Red Sea, the lookouts sounded the alarm, “Behold, here comes Pharaoh and all his glory.” Moses stretched out his hand and said, “Behold, the glory of the Lord.”

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The Priesthood And Revelation

This started out as one of a series of meditations on the priesthood given to the clergy of the Diocese Of Albany. I am rewriting and collecting them as a little book tenatively entitled “To Persevere In Love.” I just gave this as a lecture at Trinity Episcopal School For Ministry. Thanks to the dean, faculty and students for the chance to speak with them about a topic that is important to me.

To Persevere In Love
Meditations On the Priesthood

Our talk about ministry and priesthood is oddly imageless, abstract and generic. We speak of ministry, the ministering community, of facilitating gifts, of empowerment, of spirituality for ministry, of the baptismal covenant, of circles rather than pyramids, of mutuality and mutual ministry, of the Roland Allen model, of mission and the missionary church, of reconciliation, inclusion, justice and peace. Less often we talk about the Body of Christ and very seldom or so it seems to me do we hear of Jesus hanging on the cross, appearing after the Resurrection, breathing upon the disciples, Ascending into heaven and there interceding for us as the Great High Priest. What could it mean for the church and all its ministers, lay and ordained, if this image of the Jesus, The Great High Priest were more clearly before us and more carefully developed in our imaginations. So I invite you in what follows to an exercise in imagination.

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