Arthur Middleton on continuity in the episcopal office

Jeremy Taylor, in Episcopacy Asserted, is dogmatic in his assertions, and definite and clear- cut in his conclusions. He defends the episcopal office, when episcopacy had become controversial. For Taylor, ‘episcopacy relies, not upon the authority of fathers and councils, but upon scripture, upon the institution of Christ or the institution of the apostles, upon an universal tradition and an universal practice, not upon the words and opinions of the doctors’.

Backbone of the Church

Following Cyprian, whom he frequently quotes, the episcopal office is the surest guarantee of the solidarity and unity of the Church. There was an historical parallel for him here. As in the Decian per secution the bishops of the great sees were first attacked, so it was in the national upheaval Taylor feared that ‘The adversary of Christ and enemy of His spouse therefore persecutes the bishop, that having taken him away he may without check pride himself in the ruins of the church’. His main thesis is that the episcopal office is by divine institution, apostolical tradition, and Catholic practice.

Christ himself established this form of government and epis copacy that is ‘in immediate order to the good and benison of souls.’ This means that the sacraments receive their validity from the operation of the Holy Spirit through the ministers of Christ. He insists that it was a part of Christ’s plan that the merits of his own life and death should be mediated through the channels of his own appointment. He saw quite clearly that, humanly speaking, the backbone of the Church is the historic episcopate. Continuity of the body is not sufficient; there must be too a continuity in the episcopal office. Such continuity will be broken if women become bishops.

Jeremy Taylor establishes by an appeal to Scripture, in the well-known passages of the Gospels in which Christ is represented as setting up a jurisdiction and a government for his Church (Matt. 18.18, 16.18–19; John 20.22–3). The commission ‘to feed’ and’ to govern’ – the latter he says is ‘all one with the former’ – was delegated to the Apostles by ‘immediate substitution’; and the Aposto late was to be transmitted to others by the imposition of hands. Only ‘Apostolic men’ had the right of conferring ordination by the laying on of hands, which is a duty and office necessary for the perpetuating of a church.

So we find the bishops of the Restoration confident in the divine institution of their office, and their determination to maintain without compromise the episcopal character of the Church of England. In 1660, the immediate concern was to define the principles that separated the bishops from the Presbyterians.

Confident in their commission

The Presbyterian incumbents maintained that they were legally members of the Church of England, and wanted to accommodate the Prayer Book to their principles, as the protagonists of women bishops today. The Episco palians insisted that ordination by a bishop was the sine qua non of all holders of ecclesiastical office in the Church of England.

The settlement of the Church was effected when the political tide was flowing strongly against any kind of compromise with non-Episcopal communities. At the Savoy Conference, the bishops were able to assume the position of judges, hearing the Presbyterian proposals for alterations in the Prayer Book, and reject ing them on the ground that they would justify past Non-conformity.’ The Act of Uniformity made it unlawful for one not episcopally ordained to hold any form of ecclesiastical preferment.

While the support of the Sovereign enabled episcopacy to triumph at the Restoration it is also evident that the high view of his calling char acteristic of the Restoration bishop was due to considerations other than political. These bishops were men of wide learning, whose conception of the episcopal office was derived not from the Scriptures interpreted by some private or self-chosen standard, but from the Scriptures as interpreted by the whole Christian tradition. They believed in their own apostolic commission, in the office of bishop as a charge and trust in the Church of God and, with few exceptions, they struggled to live worthily of this high dignity. ND