The Historic Episcopate: A Trip Down Memory Cul-de-Sac

by Kim on January 24, 2008

Having connived with its author for the job, I was recently sent Alan Sell’s Nonconformist Theology in the Twentieth Century (2006) to review for the URC’s national magazine Reform. Due to a cockup in the office, the book had aleady been sent to the Cambridge church historian Dr. David Thompson, whose review arrived on the editor’s desk just about the time my copy of the book arrived in the post. As Dr. Thompson has forgotten more about the history of Nonconformity than I will ever know, I was quite happy to take the freebee and get on with an excellent read.

Professor Sell is learned, sharp, and very amusing. Several years ago we worked together on the BEM (Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry) Committee of the Covenanted Churches in Wales - Anglican, Reformed, Methodist, and a few Baptists too (a committee which, to drop another name, included a Bishop of Monmouth named Rowan Williams). At the time we were engaged in the Sisyphean task of trying to get an “ecumenical bishop” up and running in the Cardiff area, a man who would be recognised and “owned” by all the Covenanted Churches (and it was a major concession for the Free Churches to concede to our weaker Anglican brethren that the first bishop would have tackle). Our work took a couple of years to complete - and then, to huge disappointment but no great surprise, it all came a cropper in the House of Cards - sorry, Clergy - of the Church in Wales.

I thought of these events as I was reading Professor Sell’s rehearsal of the unity discussions between the Church of England and the Methodist Church in the 1960s. And though far be it from me to sour this penultimate day of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, I thought that I would remind the Methodist mafia that patrols this blog (at the risk that I may soon be sleeping with the denizens of Swansea Bay) of what a few of their godfathers had to say about the so-called historic episcopate in the prehistoric days of institutional ecumenical optimism. (You will find the passages cited in Nonconformist Theology in the Twentieth Century, pp. 117f.)

First, the great New Testament theologian C.K. Barrett, referring to the proposed C of E/Methodist unity scheme:

“It must be clearly understood that what is involved in the proposals … is not merely the relabelling of Methodist chairmen of districts, but the full acceptance of the historic episcopate, which includes the belief that the Church of the present day is linked with the Church of the apostles and that the sign of this is a continuing succesion of bishops. This idea is very bad history and worse theology …”

Second, the equally great New Testament scholar I. Howard Marshall:

“If the historic episcopate is not a necessity for unity according to Scripture, if indeed it is a doctrine which has been frequently associated with and productive of false doctrines of sacrifice and priesthood, it cannot be assumed that Methodist dissentients are likely to take the historic episcopate into their system. They may accept episcopacy, indeed they already have it, but they cannot accept the historic episcopate, and they cannot go through a ceremony which is designed to make some (not all) Anglicans believe that they will then possess something which they themselves would repudiate.”

Finally, pulling no punches, the Old Testament scholar Norman Snaith:

“… the Anglican exclusive claim is definitely wrong … Modern Anglicanism is a sect, and I believe it is wrong for a Christian to become a member of a sect.”

Well roared, or what!

Not, of course, that I am up to mischief.


{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }


Richard 01.24.08 at 9:00 pm

Good stuff. The whole notion of the historic episcopate, in the sense of an unbroken line which goes back to Peter is clearly a pile of foetid dingos kidneys.

There was recently a consultation around British Methodism about whether we should have bishops or not. I was particularly irritated by a phrase in the consultation booklet that said something like “There will be a need to find an ecumenical partner who could share with us the gift of the historic episcopate”. (I paraphrase of course)
The proposals were given very short shrift in the Circuits…


AJ 01.25.08 at 3:06 pm

Great use of the phrase “short shrift” - (short shrift was a brief penance given to a person condemned to death so that absolution could be granted before execution.)



Mitch Lewis 01.27.08 at 8:19 am

Finally, a post of Kim’s with which I can agree. In the US, we are developing a regal episcopacy, complete witht the wearing of purple and the carrying of croziers. What’s next? Mitres?

Leave a Comment

You can use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>