Why do we need bishops?

I suppose that there are times when we ask that about anyone in authority. Why do we need the headteacher? Why do we need the vicar?

Of course this question is all the more important at a time when the Bishops of the Church of England have taken a number of corporate decisions which are clearly unscriptural. But this is to miss the point of the question. There may be bad bishops or misguided bishops or even heretical bishops but that is irrelevant to the main question which might be put like this: Are Bishops a good thing in the Church of Jesus Christ?

Now it is perfectly true that the words ‘bishop (overseer) and elder (presbyter or priest) were used interchangeably in New Testament times as we can see from the Timothy letters. But, at the same time there was a general and apparently pastoral oversight exercised by people like St Paul. Further there is no doubt that, at a very early time in the history or the church a system of oversight did evolve. Whereas there had been one church with one overseer/elder, new churches were planted and they had their own minister who was under the supervision of the original overseer/elder. This is all a fact of history but what is not clear is exactly how this oversight was exercised. Was it a formal and authoritarian structure or was it the helping hand of an older or more experienced minister? There is no doubt that it developed into a very authoritarian pattern but how did it begin?

Now, whatever may be the historical evidence, there seems to me to be little doubt that any organisation needs a structure and that the church is no exception. The churches are meant to be in fellowship one with another and that means some kind of personal link through a designated person. If that person can also be an adviser and helper, perhaps sharing in the appointment of the leader of the satellite church, that seems wise and indeed essential. Therefore it seems to me that every association of churches needs someone to be the link, the centre of unity and the wise guide and humble helper of the leaders of the churches. Ideally, he should be the presbyter of a church himself and the current practice of the Church of England in which the bishop has no parish seems unwise. Even more unwise is our current practice that so many bishops have little or no experience as a parish clergyman.

But we do need bishops even though our current form of oversight may be less that satisfactory.

John Pearce, Bury St Edmunds

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