“If bishops were no more, would we miss them?”

That is the headline of a Times story. And it is a good question and a good little piece. Some highlights are below, but be sure to read it all. Of course this goes straight to the earlier conversation with Kevin Wilson of Blue Cord about polity.

The episcopal extravaganza at Lambeth illustrates how outdated the Church of England hierarchy is

View a graphic representation of episcopal inflation in the Church of England

The problems of the Anglican Communion are being sorted out by its leaders, the bishops – well, those bishops who have decided not to boycott the Lambeth Conference. There are still quite a few of them at the Anglican pow-wow: 650 out of a possible 800 worldwide. They are currently enjoying a retreat in Canterbury Cathedral, a sort of holy lock-in. Forgive the heretical thought, but how much would it matter if that ancient edifice suddenly collapsed on the lot of them? Might Christian culture actually be a bit better off?

… The English have a funny relationship with bishops. We almost got rid of them in the 16th century, we briefly abolished them in the 17th century (and cut the Archbishop of Canterbury’s head off). There’s no denying their historical importance: it was antipathy to bishops that galvanised the parliamentary party in the civil war, and the same antipathy subsequently launched England’s Nonconformist tradition that played such a key role in Liberal politics. We have certainly been shaped by our episcopal tradition – but as much in the breach as the observance.

Anglicanism is the only form of Protestantism to take bishops so seriously. And this has been a cause of huge internal division. The Anglo-Catholic wing has a tendency to idolise them, as a spiritual elite descended from the Apostles, and the evangelicals are wary of the office – but of course they see it as their humble duty to occupy it rather than cede power to the Anglo-Catholics.

…The godfather of our anti-episcopal tradition is Milton. Four hundred years after his birth, we should stop to think what he would have made of the international episcopal palaver at Canterbury. “Why are you still clinging to this feudal relic, this tired dream of holy authority?” he might ask. “Why can’t you see that the gospel spurns hierarchy, and calls us to freedom?”

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