Sydney Anglicans VI: An evangelical episcopate

Posted on August 2, 2012 
Filed under Sydney Diocese

In part six of his series on Sydney Anglicans, Mark Thompson looks at the evangelical commitment of the episcopate –

“So when we in Sydney do want to understand and explain what a bishop should be — what an evangelical Anglican bishop should be – where do we go?”

Read it all here –

The diocese of Sydney has been extraordinarily blessed with faithful leaders throughout its history. Many of these have been ordained; many of them have not. The eleven Archbishops (at first merely ‘Bishops’) of Sydney have included some of the most effective evangelical leaders in global Anglicanism. With very few exceptions, the Archbishops and Bishops of Sydney have been determinedly evangelical, theologically motivated and personally engaged in evangelistic mission. We have had much for which to give God thanks. 

Evangelical Anglicans, and not just Sydney evangelical Anglicans, have been much better at saying what a bishop is not than at saying what he is. Recoiling from grandiose views of the episcopate, from their eccentric regalia, grand palaces and autocratic powers, evangelicals have sometimes satisfied themselves with reductionistic summaries of the nature and function of  bishops as ‘mere denominational administrators’  or else pursued alternative models of leadership on analogy with what is seen in business or democratic politics. Even to spend time reflecting theologically on the nature of an evangelical episcopate, some might suggest, runs the risk of attributing to them an importance that is unbiblical and ultimately a danger to evangelical ministry. And yet not to do so leaves the field open for others to redefine the role and responsibility of the evangelical bishop in ways which distort or simply obscure the concerns of the New Testament.

We in Sydney are genuinely grateful for the bishops and archbishops God has given us. We recognise that God has used their prayerful and godly ministry to maintain and strengthen an evangelical witness in this city. We look at Anglican dioceses around the world which once were evangelical and are now far from it and we understand that the decisions of their bishops and archbishops have had a great deal to do with that. None of our bishops did what they did single-handedly, of course. Godly men and women worked alongside them, quietly exercising faithful ministry, sometimes in the face of extraordinary challenges. Nevertheless, our bishops were active too and never mere puppets of powerful political forces or determined ideologues. Frederick Barker and Howard Mowll undoubtedly left their stamp upon the Diocese of Sydney. So too did Marcus Loane and Donald Robinson. Our current Archbishop (Peter Jensen) has been energetic in personal evangelism, in promoting evangelistic engagement with the community (witness the diocesan mission adopted by the Sydney Synod in 2002), and in providing thoughtful, confident evangelical leadership on the world stage. Even in anti-authoritarian, iconoclastic Australia, our bishops have proven difficult to dismiss altogether. Even those who do not believe in any notion of ‘office’ find it impossible to hide the respect they have for men like these.

So when we in Sydney do want to understand and explain what a bishop should be — what an evangelical Anglican bishop should be – where do we go? The expected and yet not unproblematic answer is the Bible. After all, very few would feel comfortable arguing that the Bible anticipates ‘the episcopate’ as it has developed in the West over the past two thousand years. ‘Overseers’ in the New Testament were almost certainly local congregational figures. The decision to order ourselves with an elaborate hierarchy in service came much later and was not mandated in any way by the New Testament. Nevertheless, much was written in the New Testament about the nature of Christian leadership as it is modelled on Christ and as it was exercised within the earliest churches. Mostly this is concerned with the character of those who exercise leadership among God’s people and sometimes about the manner in which they go about their particular form of service. So while these things are most certainly not restricted to a particular ‘office’, they apply to our modern day bishops because they concern all those who are given the responsibility to lead God’s people in one way or another.

And Jesus called them to him and said to them, ‘You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Mark 10:42–45)

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, ‘The scribes and Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so practice and observe whatever they tell you— but not what they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honour at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called ’teacher’ by others. But you are not to be called ‘teacher’, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called ‘instructors’, for you have one instructor, the Christ. The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. (Matthew 23:1–12)

Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure force wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish everyone with tears. And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified. (Acts 20:28–32)

The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil. (1 Timothy 3:1–7)

This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you— if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it. (Titus 1:5–9)

So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker of the in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. (1 Peter 5:1–4)

Putting these passages of Scripture alongside each other is instructive. The common emphasis is plain. Christian leadership in general, but in the Anglican context we might speak of bishops in particular, must give much more than lip-service to the truth that Jesus is Lord and we are all his servants. There is no place for an autocratic, domineering style of leadership or the trappings that come with it. The reason for this is quite simple: any ‘shepherd’ among God’s people serves under a chief shepherd who will call him to account. The church is God’s church, God’s flock and the overseer is God’s steward.

What stands out most of all, of course, is Christian character. It has often been remarked that almost all the qualities listed for those who would lead God’s people are elements of that Christian character which is commended to all who have been redeemed. This can be — and has been sometimes — taken for granted, assumed rather than observed. The lists we make of what we are looking for whenever we are faced with searching for a leader do not often have these things explicitly mentioned — not because we do not think of them as important, but simply because we assume that this starting point is agreed by all. Sadly, one look around the world demonstrates this is not the case.

Yet alongside these aspects of Christian character emerges the importance of a firm hold on the trustworthy word as taught. Clearly in such contexts this means exemplifying what is taught in the leader’s manner of life, but just as clearly it also means passing that teaching on, faithfully, clearly and effectively. Most importantly, because it is mentioned so explicitly several times in this cantena of quotations, it means remaining alert for those who will most certainly come seeking to undermine it in one way or another and having the courage to rebuke them. The Christian leader is, in this important sense, a guardian of the apostolic gospel, knowing that it is only that gospel which truly nourishes faith and unmasks the deceitful yet alluring alternatives seeded in human minds and hearts by the evil one. Whatever else we might think we need in a leader, this stands above them all. A visionary, an able administrator, an astute manager of people, a statesman, an inspiring public speaker or a successful church planter — all of these may well be desirable and good, but if this person does not doggedly and courageously ‘guard the good deposit entrusted to you’ (2 Tim 1:14) he fails the test of the Scriptures.

The grateful testimony of God’s people in Sydney over the past two hundred years is that God has provided us with leaders just like that. Our bishops and archbishops have almost without exception been preoccupied with proclaiming and defending the evangelical faith. They have borne ridicule and scorn from the liberals and the secularists. They have from time to time been publicly misrepresented and ostracised. And yet they have not budged from their determined witness to the Lord Jesus Christ. They have taken their stand upon the teaching of the Scriptures and been willing to be unpopular for doing so. Above all they have constantly brought us all back again and again to the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ as it was preached by the apostles and passed on to us in the Bible. I remember Archbishop Robinson once describing his job to a group of students as ‘going throughout the diocese asking “How is the apostolic gospel faring here”’. Such a guarding of the good deposit has never been a matter of simply standing still and adopting a defensive posture. It has always meant bending every effort towards an ever wider publication of that gospel and clearing away the obstacles to people hearing it, believing it and being established in it. It is characterised by the same boldness and confidence in God’s great power to save through the preaching of the gospel that was long ago found in the apostle Paul (Rom. 1:16) and in many since.

Unsurprisingly, the same chief concerns emerge in the statements and promises made in the context of the consecration of a bishop according to the Book of Common Prayer. Against the wishes of the Puritans and others, the Elizabethan Settlement retained the office of bishop, which had been radically redrawn in Thomas Cranmer’s Ordinal. In that ordinal, after making statements about his convictions concerning being called to the office and concerning the authority and sufficiency of the Scriptures, a series of promises are made by the one being consecrated (the answer given is almost universally, ‘I will, the Lord being my helper’):

And will you instruct the people committed to your care from the Scriptures, and teach nothing (as required of necessity for eternal salvation) except what you are convinced may be proved by the Scriptures?

Will you then study the Scriptures and pray for a true understanding of them so that you may be able to teach and exhort with sound doctrine, and be able to withstand and convince those who speak against them?

Are you ready to drive away all false and strange doctrine which is contrary to God’s word; and privately and publicly to call upon and encourage others to do likewise?

Will you forsake ungodliness and worldliness, and live moderately, righteously, and in a godly manner; so that by your example and good works you may show forth the love of God to others?

Will you maintain and promote (as much as lies in your power) quietness, peace, and love among all men; and will you correct and discipline, according to the authority you have by God’s word, the disorderly and disobedient and those guilty of offence within your jurisdiction?

Will you be faithful in ordaining, commissioning, and laying hands upon others?

Will you be gentle, and merciful for Christ’s sake, to the poor and needy, and all strangers who need your help?

To these promises is added the charge given by the chief consecrating bishop:

Give your attention to reading, exhortation, and teaching. Think upon the things contained in this book. Practise them that what you learn may be evident to all men. Apply these things to yourself, teach them, and practice them diligently, for in so doing you will save yourself and those who hear you. Be to the flock of Christ a shepherd, and not a wolf; feed them, devour them not. Support the weak, heal the sick, bind up the broken, restore the outcasts, seek the lost. Be merciful, without being remiss; administer discipline with mercy. When the Chief Shepherd appears may you receive the never-fading crown of glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord. [Taken from ‘The Consecrating of a Bishop’ in An Australian Prayer Book (1978)]

Currently around the world there are a number of evangelical Anglican bishops who are courageously fulfilling these promises and guarding the gospel. The Sydney bishops are by no stretch ‘on their own’. But it remains true that the evangelical character of the diocese of Sydney owes a great deal to a series of faithful and godly leaders, not least among its bishops, and though we would never want to ‘put our trust in princes’ (Psalm 118:9; 146:3) we thank God for them.

– First published at Theological Theology, 01 August 2012.
Dr Mark Thompson is Head of Department of Theology, Philosophy and Ethics at Moore Theological College.