On the historic episcopate

I recently read something–doesn’t matter what; it wasn’t really worth a reference–suggesting that we Baptists cannot have an adequate view of tradition because we don’t believe in the historic episcopate, and nothing is more traditional than that.

So, let me say it: I believe in the historic episcopate.

It seems abundantly clear to me that the universal practice of the sub-apostolic church, and the practice which every patristic theology of ministry of which I am aware bears witness to, is that in each place there should be one bishop, celebrating one Eucharist, for one congregation. In conversation a few years back I discovered John Zizioulas had come to the same conclusion. This is the historic episcopate: bishop, people and Eucharist tied together.

The early Baptists, better scholars than their grandchildren, knew this. Some called their pastors ‘bishops’. In adopting congregational models of ministry, they were consciously and deliberately returning to the historic practice of the early church: one eucharistic minister, in one place, with one table, for one gathered congregation.

I have great respect for people who exercise translocal ministries of oversight and pastoral care. I would argue that their role is useful and even necessary. But let’s not pretend it has anything to do with the episcopal ministry as witnessed to by Ignatius of Antioch. A minister who does not celebrate a single weekly Eucharist for his/her whole flock is not a bishop. And although practice–shamefully–rapidly changed for pragmatic reasons, the theological accounts of the episcopal ministry for centuries seem to assume the older picture.

A few years ago I had the privilege of serving on a series of Anglican-Baptist ecumenical conversations. It was creative, courageous and exhilarating, and the published result of our work, Pushing the Bounds of Unity, was something that in all humility I believe bordered on the prophetic at times, in its calls for aggressive acts of charity on the part of both communions. In the course of those conversations I presented some work on the episcopal ministry of oversight; I concluded my comments with the phrase ‘We Baptists would find unity with our Anglican sisters and brothers much easier to attain if they were prepared to accept the historic episcopate.’

My Anglican friends laughed–but they offered no answer.


  1. Andy Goodliff
    Nov 15, 2008

    Steve, Paul Fiddes was lamenting at Council this week (as he does not a few occasions) the sad (and shameful?) response from Council to that report in only accepting it and not welcoming it …

  2. Steve H
    Nov 15, 2008

    Actually, I think Council stuck its collective neck out in even accepting it. The stuff on baptism, in particular, was pretty daring.

  3. Neil B
    Nov 15, 2008

    The sad part is that the BUGB council discussion focused on the issue of baptism and never even began to get to grips with the reports suggestions about episkope.

    As Andy points out in his blog there are questions of leadership in the Union. It seems to me that this debate is impoverished by our inability to corporately engage with questions of the nature and role of episcopal ministry.

    I’ve some ideas on this theme and might try to find time next week to blog them myself

  4. Steve H
    Nov 17, 2008

    Hi Neil, a belated welcome to the blogosphere.

    Again, as (now) an outsider (I’m with the BUS…), I find it difficult to blame BUGB Council for that. We were conscious that we were asking BUGB to think something radical on baptism, and the CoE to think something radical on episkope. BUGB Council’s focus at least spotted where the real challenge lay.

    I’m prepared to believe that BUGB ought to sort its idea of episkope out, but I wonder whether a report on bilateral ecumenical conversations would have been the right place for that? Surely, when we Baptists try to understand the nature and role of episcopal ministry, we need to think our own thoughts in conversation with the whole of Christ’s Church, not just the Anglicans?

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