Michael Fisher reflects on the proper relationship between bishops and their priests

Writing to the Christian community established by St Paul at Ephesus, St Ignatius of Antioch (35–109) said that the clergy ‘are attuned to their bishop like the strings of a harp, and the result is a hymn of praise to Jesus Christ from minds that are in unison.’ In those early days of Christian expansion episcopal areas were relatively small, consisting of a single city or town, like Ephesus or Antioch, in which there would have been several congregations meeting for worship. As it became impossible for the bishop to preside at every one, he would appoint priests to deputise for him at the celebration of the Eucharist, The word ‘vicar,’ we should remember, means a deputy, i.e. a person who quite literally acts ‘vicariously’ on behalf of someone else, and in this case standing in the bishop’s place at the altar. I’ve occasionally made this point on Sunday mornings by telling the congregation ‘I’m here this morning only because my bishop can’t be.’ Every Eucharist is therefore the bishop’s Eucharist, whether he’s physically present or not, and so he is usually remembered by name in the Eucharistic Prayer. This notion was given practical expression in the days of city-bishoprics when fragments of the bishop’s Host were taken by deacons to the other churches, to be placed in the chalice during their own Mass, signifying the union of the bishop with all of his people.

Today, those words of St Ignatius become a visible reality in the annual Chrism Mass as the priests gather around their bishop to concelebrate the Mass with him—‘attuned to their bishop as the strings of a harp’—having renewed their vows, along with the deacons who have traditionally had a close relationship with the bishop ‘to serve the bishop and to fulfil the bishop’s command… and to acquaint the bishop with such matters as are needful.’ (Hippolytus, The Apostolic Constitution, 215ad) If the priests act vicariously as the bishop’s hands, the deacons are his eyes and ears—a practical outworking of the essential integrity of Holy Order.

Although the Chrism Mass was not unknown within the Anglican church prior to 1994, I think it is true to say that since the establishment of the PEV system it has become more widely celebrated and understood as an essential part of the observance of Holy Week, with ever-increasing numbers of laity in attendance to support their clergy and to witness the renewal of priestly and diaconal vows. The Anglican position on holy orders is stated plainly and concisely in the preface to the Ordinal of 1550, later encapsulated in the Book of Common Prayer where it still remains. ‘It is evident unto all men diligently reading holy Scriptures and ancient authors, that from the Apostles’ time there have been these Orders of Minister in Christ’s Church; Bishops Priests, and Deacons…’ What then of the controversial questions of ‘Form, Matter and Intention,’ so critical in the late-nineteenth century debate about the validity of Anglican orders? The statement of intention contained in the preface ‘that these orders may be continued, and reverently used and esteemed, in the Church of England’ makes it clear that this was no innovation or break with the past, but a natural continuation of catholic orders as understood by the universal Church, in direct line of succession reaching back (at least) to the time of St Augustine of Canterbury. As to the essential form and matter of the rite itself, the laying-on of hands with prayer was deemed sufficient, as is now formally recognized in the Church of Rome too. However, in the Prayer Book Ordinal, apostolic succession, catholicity of orders and delegation of authority are further emphasized and underlined in the words spoken by the bishop at the laying-on of hands, and immediately afterwards: ‘Receive the Holy Ghost for the office and work of a Priest in the Church of God, now committed unto thee by the imposition of our hands…’ and ‘Take thou authority…’ It is arguable that the omission of these imperatives from the ASB and Common Worship ordinals has blurred the sharp edges of what was once an explicit and clearly defined rite.

Unequivocal though the Ordinal may be in its statements about catholic authority and apostolic succession, these concepts were progressively obscured and ignored following the so-called ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688 and the subsequent politicization of the Anglican episcopate. In many of our cathedrals, those massive marble monuments to eighteenth century prelates tell their own story: a plinth bearing a lengthy eulogizing inscription surmounted by a life-size figure lolling siesta-like upon a couch, his elbow-propped head sporting a mitre that he would never have worn in life—contrasting sharply with the recumbent effigy of a medieval predecessor clad in full pontificals, hands clasped in prayer, and with a simple inscription inviting prayers for his soul.

Both the evangelical and catholic revivals of the nineteenth century resulted in the reinvigorating of the episcopate, and a return to the classic Anglican position as to its nature and function. There was, for example, the energetic Henry Ryder (1777–1836), the first evangelical to be raised to the episcopate, and in 1824 translated from Gloucester to Lichfield, where he established a church building association to provide new churches in neglected industrial parts of the diocese, and did much to invigorate the parish system of spiritual and pastoral care of souls. His monument in Lichfield cathedral shows him kneeling humbly and devoutly in prayer, while his current successor’s attendance at the Ebbsfleet Chrism Mass at the cathedral reflects an unprecedented degree of support for the clergy of the Traditional Integrity, and commitment to the Five Guiding Principles.

In the mid-1800s, the ‘Oxford Men’ were recalling the church to its catholic and apostolic roots through their Tracts for the Times, which were to have dramatic effects right across the country. Realization that the mere possession of an Oxbridge degree was no longer sufficient preparation for Holy Orders led to the establishment of theological colleges (one of the first of these being Cuddesdon in 1854) to promote priestly formation, provide a thorough grounding in theology and a proper understanding of the Anglican patrimony, all under the watchful eye of the diocesan bishop and often in the shadow of the cathedral. These matters are no less relevant today. One hears stories of ordination courses in which priestly formation, Anglican identity, liturgy and the proper conduct of worship play second fiddle to the ‘liberal agenda.’ This is particularly true (so I am told by some who have taken part in them) of certain non-stipendiary minister and ordained lay minister courses. Much therefore depends on the calibre of training incumbents to offset the deficiencies.

Anyone who watched the recent BBC2 series ‘A Vicar’s Life’ will know that it gave an honest and refreshing insight into the life and work of clergy in a variety of parishes in the diocese of Hereford, showing them to be hardworking, prayerful, with ‘troops-on-the-ground’ committed to communicating the Gospel and the love of Christ for all his people. No Society parish was featured, but this didn’t seem to matter. All of the churches were Eucharist-centred, and the clergy went about their business appropriately dressed and so readily identifiable. One of them, Fr Matthew Cashmore, had made a bold decision to wear his cassock at all times—good for him! The series provided a most welcome antidote to the ways in which Anglican clergy are often portrayed in TV ‘soaps’ as sitting lightly to their vows, with a good deal of spare time on their hands, and extending the bounds of charity by hopping into bed (or the back of a van) with the local villain, while on their rare appearances their bishops come over as weak and indecisive, with chocolate mitres ready to melt at the first hot blast of popular opinion.

A former principal of Cuddesdon, Bishop Edward King (1829–1910), is remembered chiefly as one of the ‘martyrs of ritualism.’ More importantly, however, in his years as Bishop of Lincoln he lived out the Tractarian ideal of episcopal ministry in terms of accessibility to his clergy and concern for the poor. ‘A bishop,’ he wrote, ‘is not somebody who is separated from clergy by a whole load of administrative responsibilities. A bishop is a priest who has a certain number of extra, symbolic, coordinating functions, but remaining fundamentally a pastor in the Church.’

The growth in the later twentieth century of diocesan administration, synods, boards, committees and officialdom has had the opposite effect, distancing bishops—however dedicated, visionary, and ably supported by their suffragans—from parishes and parish clergy. This may be seen, for example, in the current system of appointments. Long gone are the days when a diocesan bishop summoned a senior curate and told him, ‘Mr X, I have a living for you. I expect you to be in by the end of next month.’ Instead we now have a quasi-presbyterian system of advertisements, parish profiles, job-descriptions, patronage boards and competitive interviews which foster a view of the parish priest’s job as being much like any other profession, open to competition, with the bishop seeming to have little direct role in the appointment of his local representative which is what, by definition, he is supposed to be. Lengthy vacancies are another, almost inevitable, consequence of this.

Whatever may be thought of the principle of alternative episcopal oversight by those who are not of our integrity, the fact remains that, untrammelled by the sheer weight of administrative duties, the PEVs have been able to provide a model of sacramental and pastoral care that is closer to the ‘Lincoln’ model. The gathering of clergy around their bishop at the Chrism Mass is no mere piece of window-dressing; it is a demonstration of how things really are. One of my last memories of Bishop Michael Houghton, second Bishop of Ebbsfleet, shortly before he died in 1999, is when he turned up early for a College of Readers’ meeting at my church, having mistaken the time. I was just about to say my evening Office. Though he had already said his, he offered to join me, so there we were in the side-chapel, a priest and his bishop at prayer together before the Blessed Sacrament, ‘attuned like the strings of a harp.’


Fr Michael Fisher writes from the Diocese of Lichfield.