Christopher Smith on ministries presbyteral and episcopal

I can’t imagine many of our readers follow terribly closely the comings and goings among the group of seventy-odd holders of the office of suffragan bishop in the Church of England; I certainly don’t. But there was one who caught my eye recently, because he is about to do something rather admirable: he is going to be a parish priest again. His name is Mark Rylands. He was an incumbent for eleven years before taking a cathedral job and being made a suffragan bishop at 48. Now he’s going to be a parish priest in Exeter diocese, and he says: ‘For the last 16 years, as both diocesan missioner and area bishop, much of my ministry has been to encourage, challenge and help churches and church leaders. I have heard God calling me now to “go and walk the talk.”’

Good for him, I say, for not sitting around hoping to be promoted from the suffragans’ bench to the diocesans’: a smaller pool of 42, but large enough to keep the 72 interested! Even so, I can’t help thinking he’s done it the wrong way around, and that it would have been better if he’d served for 25 years as a parish priest, and then been raised to the episcopate now, in his late 50s. After all, clergy like it when they feel that their bishops have done proper duty at the coal face. It adds to their credibility.

Perhaps the heart of the problem lies in what seems to me to be an unhealthy modern understanding of hierarchical ‘careers.’ If you really want to be a bishop, you’d better not stay too long in parish ministry. We all collude in this in our different ways, Anglo-Catholics having spent a generation telling bishops that they ought to be more like princes, and then being surprised when they behave like managers. We ought really to have been telling them to be more like apostles, and then we would have a much healthier perspective on it all.

Perhaps Fr Michael Fisher would allow me respectfully to take issue with part of what he wrote in his column last month on ‘the proper relationship between bishops and their priests.’ With, I think, Dom Gregory Dix and Fr Arthur Couratin on my side, I’d like to invert that sense that bishops have ‘their’ priests, and suggest that the priests have their bishop, their apostle, called out from the presbyterium because he is experienced and wise. And that also means letting go of the current obsession with every mass being ‘the bishop’s Eucharist whether he’s physically present or not,’ which the inferior cleric, the parish priest, only celebrates because the bishop can’t be everywhere. Whose Eucharist is it really? Jesus’s, innit?

Dix takes as his starting point the texts of some early ordination prayers, comparing the prayers for the ordination of a bishop with those for the ordination of a priest. Both call on the Father to send the same Spirit which Jesus ‘imparted to thy holy Apostles who established the Church.’ The bishop is to ‘feed thy holy flock,’ to ‘serve thee as thy high-priest blamelessly liturgising by night and day,’ to forgive sins, to ordain, and to exorcise. The priest is to be filled with ‘the spirit of grace and counsel that he may share in the presbyterate and govern thy people in a pure heart.’ Both orders, then, share in the succession of the apostles, but, says Dix, ‘from the modern standpoint it is almost as though the two prayers had been mixed up,’ with the sacramental functions residing in the bishop alone, and the government of the Church residing in the presbyterium—the body of priests of which the bishop is one member. Elsewhere, we read that the presbyters are to have the care of the church and punish wrongdoers, while the bishop does the liturgical stuff and interprets the scriptures—‘but [even] if he be unlettered, let him be meek and abounding in charity to all.’

So according to Dix, the sphere of the pre-Nicene bishop was the ‘other-worldly Godward activity of worship in all its aspects. But the day-to-day administration of the Church’s life in this world, the sphere with which “jurisdiction” is concerned, this is not the affair of the bishop as such, but of the presbyterate.’ And he attributes this to the context of the earliest days of the Church, when Jewish Christians still worshipped in Jewish communities governed by ‘a Sanhedrin of “presbyters” [elders] elected for life by the whole community.’ It was that body which had authority to cast someone out of the synagogue, which caused the great anxiety of the parents of the man born blind in John 9 and which soon afflicted more and more Christians, who in time developed their parallel structure. Hence it was to the presbyterium that heretics like Marcion and Noetus appealed against their excommunication.

Meanwhile, the bishop paralleled the high priest of the temple, having unique, sacrificial, liturgical functions, but referring back to the Jerusalem Sanhedrin for decision-making, as in the Lord’s trial—‘What think ye?’ So, the bishop had no governmental authority of his own, but earned moral authority through his holiness and his willingness to die for Christ. It is the presbyterium which must vote on the deposition of clerics and which can veto an ordination against the bishop’s wishes, and even before the bishop recites the eucharistic prayer, ‘he must turn to the Church and say, “Let us make eucharist.” Only with the assent of the Church—“It is meet and right”—can he pronounce the prayer… He is the Church’s minister, not its ruler.’

Now, of course, even if Dix is right, all this changes pretty quickly once Christianity is tolerated within the Roman Empire. Even so, bishops as branch managers and parish clergy as check-out staff is not a healthy model for our ecclesial life. The best and wisest bishop governs by consent, and so quickly earns the respect of the presbyterium. ‘He is the Church’s minister, not its ruler.’