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The Gift of Bishopric: Being the Full Text of a Sermon Preached in Part before the University of Cambridge on Sunday, 10 May 1953.

By G. L. Prestige.

London: The Talbot Press, 1953.

Psalm 133. 1. "Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity."

Six and a half years ago a notable sermon was delivered before this University by the present Archbishop of Canterbury on the subject of Church Relations in Great Britain. In the course of his sermon the preacher put forward a novel suggestion. Since it appeared probable that a deadlock had been reached in the negotiations conducted between various Christian communities in Britain over the preceding twenty-five years, he boldly proposed an entirely fresh line of enquiry; if that could be pursued to a successful outcome there might, he thought, be hope of breaking the deadlock and taking a new step forward in interdenominational relations. His suggestion commanded instant and widespread attention, but was not received at the time with any very marked signs of enthusiasm; no doubt its very novelty caused most leaders of religious opinion to qualify their welcome with a natural circumspection. It is a mark of statesmanship in religious, as in other, leaders not to rush too far in advance of their followers.

Since then, however, conversations have been held between representatives, respectively, of the Archbishop and of the Evangelical Free Churches in England, in the course of which, without committing anybody to any definite plan, an attempt has been made to think out the implications of the Archbishop's proposals. Herein surely is wisdom. The whole Christian revelation involves not only historical events or acts of God, but the meanings and purposes which God has associated with those events. Just so, in all our efforts to promote the desired event of Christian reunion, we have to bear constantly in mind the true objects of our acts and the significance of our decisions, both to ourselves and to others, in the sight of God. We are dealing with ideas and convictions as well as with bare facts. Circumspection and self-knowledge are therefore dictated not only by prudence but by duty; otherwise our intellectual honesty may be called in question. So much must be said in praise of caution, if we are not to leap into the fire of subsequent religious [5/6] controversy. But with this caution must go determination to prosecute active, rigorous, and sustained enquiry. It is for this reason that I have been emboldened to offer to-day some contribution of my own to the subject raised in the Archbishop's "Cambridge sermon.”

Let me say quite plainly that in this matter I make no claim to address you from the detached platform of an independent ecclesiastical planner. I speak as a convinced Anglican; any conceivable value which my words may possess will proceed from the fact that they are Anglican words, spoken as utterance is given to me, an Anglican, to express the truth of God as it is given to me, an Anglican, to see it., In the first place, then, as one surveys the ecclesiastical scene, one observes a wide area of agreement in essential truths of which no responsible person ought to speak without profound respect. The tragedy of religious disunity is precisely that it is created and maintained by disagreements which, by comparison with the great doctrines held in common reverence, are secondary in importance. By this I do not mean to suggest for a moment that such a thing as the doctrine of the Church and sacraments, for instance, is a matter of no consequence; on the contrary, I perceive clearly enough that the problem really involved in such doctrine is the answer to the question, "What are the will and the ordinance of God for the corporate life of the whole Christian people whose true citizenship is in heaven?" What I do mean is this: that all who rightly claim the title of Christian are agreed in belief about the existence, nature, and supreme kingship of the one true God and his revelation of himself in the divine Trinity, and about the facts of man's creation and redemption, and further that these, are the matters for the unfolding of which all other doctrine, and indeed all religion, exists. Moreover, even in what may be called comparatively secondary things, Christians are for the most part substantially agreed about the duty of prayer through Christ, and other means of grace, about the truth of the Christian faith expressed in ' the classical creeds, about the broad principles of Christian morality, about the value of the holy scriptures, and about the light to be obtained from studying the historical records of Christian thought. Such an area of agreement is not indeed complete; but it is nevertheless enormous, and must not be minimized. It is the ground and pledge of the understanding and of the charity which ought to exist between Christians, even in their present state of [6/7] division, and of the unity which has to be restored. Within it, if anywhere, must be found the clue which will guide us out of the labyrinth of separation in accordance with the will of God.

Corporate unity is the target at which we direct our aim and effort; let there be no mistake about that. But in the meantime, is it not possible to do something to bring the Anglican Churches and the Free Churches in Britain into such relations of fellowship—without yet trying to merge them into one undifferentiated body—that their members can corporately and publicly share in worship and sacrament without doing violence to the convictions of any? Cannot the barriers to the interchange of Christian graces be thrown down? That is the problem to which the Archbishop addressed himself. In his survey he discerned "the life of Christ visible in every denomination: and its circulation impaired or blocked.” Can nothing be done at once to improve the circulation of the divided body? I put the question in that form, which is paradoxical, partly by way of protest against the all too common habit of pressing metaphorical details further than they rightly apply, but partly in order to emphasize the real magnitude of the problem before us.

The Archbishop thought that one practical measure might be possible. Let us, he said, for the present leave in abeyance all schemes for negotiating a formal constitution to comprehend us all within a unified system. The difficulties involved in all such schemes are immense and multifarious, and I believe he was right in asking us to forego them for the time being. As he pointed out, artificial constructions may only imperil the life they seek to promote; systems are best left to grow, and in a living union will grow, like the seed sown in the field which springs up while the farmer sleeps (Mark 4. 26, 27). Let us rather concentrate first upon encouraging the growth of unity in spiritual life. Is it not possible to institute a movement of assimilation, working towards the "free and unfettered exchange of life in worship and sacrament"? And since the great obstacle to such an interchange is the fact of episcopacy, or the absence of that fact, and since it appears to be common ground among organized Christian communions that episcopacy must coexist along with other elements' in any future reunited Church, cannot the non-episcopal churches "take episcopacy into their own systems" and try what they can make of it?

I think we should be quite clear that Free Churchmen are not [7/8] being invited to accept episcopacy in its specifically and exclusively Anglican shape; that would be a disaster. We might as reasonably urge them to adopt for universal practice the distinctive forms of Anglican cathedral worship, the attempted imitation of which imposes so intolerable a burden on many of our own parishes. Indeed, one of the great practical advantages which Anglicans may properly hope to gain in the process of Christian reunion is the liberation of the English episcopate from the particular mould into which its own past history has compressed it. For instance, domestic critics have discerned in it a fussy and suspicious paternalism in action, a blend of laxity and prolixity in utterance, an unreformed and inefficient medievalism in administration, and an inclination towards secularity and lordliness, which they would be the last to wish to see reproduced among other bodies of Christians. It is vitally important to assure our brethren of the Free Churches that in proposing their acceptance of episcopacy we are not seeking to impose upon them its accidental defects. We believe that genuine episcopacy is a gift of God to his Church, which has been preserved in the Church of England, though for various historical reasons it has been lost to the Free Churches. It would seem to be a plain act of Christian love to restore such a gift of God to any ordered Christian communion that may lack it, and desire it, and have a genuine use for it.

What is being offered is the thing itself. Episcopacy has clothed itself in very different shapes at various times and places. Sometimes, for instance, churches have been organized in small and numerous city dioceses; sometimes in regional dioceses few in number and vast in extent; sometimes again in tribal areas with monastic bishops who had no diocese to rule at all. At one moment a bishop has been virtually an independent potentate, at another he has enjoyed scarcely any independence whatever. The specialized uses to which different parts of the Church have put this gift within the general Church pattern have varied enormously. What is now being asked of the English Free Churches is whether they appreciate the thing itself sufficiently to be ready to take it into their own particular systems and clothe it anew in fruitful, and it may be novel, shapes. I should like to lay stress on my own conviction that, if they found themselves able to accept that proposal, the benefit which we might hope to see accrue would fall not so much on the Free Churches specifically as upon all Christendom.

[9] “Whether they appreciate the thing itself sufficiently.” Episcopacy is an existing fact: I suppose that is what people mean when they describe it as "the historic episcopate.” The point at issue, if any, is whether it is a good fact or a bad fact; whether it presents a true gift of God or a mere human delusion; whether on the one hand it embodies divine purpose and value, or on the other hand it is a fossil body, an institutional mummy from which Time, the great embalmer, has removed the vital organs of divine grace. We can ask the Free Churches to accept Spirit, but not to accept wind. Which do they think it is? We want no over-hasty answer, but we do beg them to tell us frankly, after due consideration, whether in their conception of episcopacy—the thing itself and not the trappings—wind or Spirit predominates. If wind, then in truth's name let them pray for calm. But if Spirit, then for God's sake let them see whether they cannot take it to themselves to help them fill their canvas to its fullest stretch.

Manifestly, some sort of appreciation of spiritual value in episcopacy is a pre-condition equally of its honest offer or of its honest acceptance. But the Archbishop also spoke of another presupposition, without which the sharing of episcopacy would, I think, be unreal and unjustified. Episcopacy is not to be valued properly in isolation, like a fetish dropped from heaven; it must fit into a context, if it is to be worth anything at all, and conform to a general pattern of the ministration of God's grace. Accordingly, to impart it, on the side of Anglicans, and to receive it, on the part of Free Churchmen, would necessarily imply—and here I quote the Archbishop's own words—"agreement upon the essential principles of the Church, the Scriptures, the Creeds, the Sacraments, and of the Ministry itself.” This five-fold presupposition of agreement on essential principles demands as close an examination, with as strict an integrity of mind, as does the Archbishop's central proposal for sharing the episcopate itself. I will therefore try to make, upon a precise Anglican outlook, some comments on each of these five points. And because I think the subject of the Church presents the greatest difficulty, it will probably be most convenient to take the first last and the last first.

About the principle and purpose of the Christian ministry I cannot see that there is much ground for controversy. It seems to be widely agreed that the ministry is "a gift of God through Christ to his Church and is essential to the being and well-being of the [9/10] Church,” and further that it "is perpetually authorized and made effective through Christ and his Spirit": so much was reported as being matter of "substantial accord" in the Lausanne Conference of 1927 (Faith and Order, Lausanne 1927, p. 467). In brief, the Church of Christ necessarily comprises a ministry of Christ in order to do the work of Christ for souls. Probably few would deny that the work of the ministry, in its capacity of speaking and acting on behalf of Christ in virtue of his Holy Spirit, would include preaching the Gospel, taking the responsible lead in the offering of divine worship, administration of the sacraments, ordination of ministers, and all that is meant by pastoral oversight in the function of teacher, shepherd, and governor.

Secondly, with regard to the two great and central sacraments differences of emphasis will undoubtedly be found, together with widespread anxiety to avoid over-precise definition of the spiritual operation of so divine a thing as sacramental grace; such anxiety would by no means be confined to one side of any theological discussion of the sacraments. But it is at least arguable that no fundamental and insuperable difference will be found to exist between those who accept the position that the sacraments are divine ordinances instituted by God as effectual means of grace. One danger alone perhaps requires particular notice, and that, owing to recent movements in Anglican theology, may well be thought to have been greatly reduced—at any rate upon the Anglican side—namely, the danger of thinking about sacraments in terms of one sacrament exclusively. Popular teaching on this subject has long been grossly unbalanced, and the place of Holy Baptism needs to be re-asserted plainly and strongly. Through Holy Baptism, accepted with repentance and faith, men are admitted to the Church of Christ, and so are incorporated with their Lord himself. Anybody can produce evidence for the possibility that a baptized Christian may be an imperfect Christian, or a bad Christian, or even an apostate and ex-Christian. But an "unbaptized Christian,” so far as human judgements apply, though he may be a brother-Christian in potentiality, has not received the covenanted adoption through the water and the blood. He cannot be reckoned in the visible membership of the Church of Christ. This surely is a plain fact of Biblical theology.

Theology has certainly contributed much of late towards a common understanding of the real significance of the creeds and [10/11] the scriptures in Christian teaching. Basically, the creeds are a summary of the instruction given to people under preparation for baptism; the affirmation of Christian faith presented in them took shape by a parallel development to that of the New Testament record and was subsequently expanded and confirmed by reference to the same scriptures. Creeds and scriptures were canonized by the same authorities, and by a similar process of discrimination.

The scriptures themselves, it seems now pretty generally recognized, if they are to be rightly understood must be read in their historical context. No longer do we pick a text here and there—as was an all too common practice from very early days in Christian history—and wring from it such inference as allegory or forced interpretation or the controversial demands of the moment may dictate. The key to the scriptures is God's revelation rather than man's argumentation. They need to be taken not in bits and pieces, but as a spiritual and historical unity. That detailed passages may sometimes need elucidation goes without saying. But two principles of scriptural interpretation seem to have been established by wide consent. First, the scriptures are their own best interpreters, so that the man most deeply and devoutly versed in the whole Bible has the best chance of understanding it aright when any particular difficulty or obscurity arises. Secondly, neither saint nor scholar, delivering his individual verdict, is an infallible guide. The best expositor is the living insight and common sense of corporate Christendom, directed as we may believe it to be, not only by every rational aid of human judgement but also by every power of spiritual perceptiveness inspired by God. Scripture, thus interpreted, will not necessarily deliver us a written oracle on every conceivable problem of belief and conduct, or save us from the trouble of thinking for ourselves. What 't will give us is a body of religious principles, revealed in positiv6 acts of God, illustrated by concrete historical situations and events, and illuminated through the comments of inspired prophets and thinkers. There is the touchstone and control for testing the validity of every development in religious thought. On this conclusion there should be full and whole-hearted agreement.

So we arrive at the problem of the Church. I suppose that most English Christians nowadays would allow that a Church wholly invisible is a functionally inoperative Church; and that Christ designedly founded a visible community to serve both as the assemblage of the redeemed and as the agent of his redeeming [11/12] progress in this world. The questions which divide them are the questions "Where is the true Church of Christ?,” or, granting that through human frailty we must speak of Churches rather than of Church, "Which Churches are in the true sense Churches of Christ?,” or, "What are the real relations between one Church and another in the light of the divine purpose, so far as we are given to understand it?" This is the point where misconception and suspicion breed. This therefore is the point where antiseptic charity must sterilize from evil infection the sharp edge of truth as we are given to see it.

In trying to answer these questions we are involved in two distinct problems or sets of problems. The first arises from the double sense of the word "Church,” which sometimes means a local congregation of Christian people, and sometimes the total body of such congregations in organic association, and in full communion, with one another. Which of these two is to be regarded as the primary unit in the ecclesiastical pattern? Or to put the problem in a purely personal way, is a man to be reckoned a Christian because he is accepted as a member of a local congregation, or has he a right to membership in the local congregation because he has been already made a Christian? Some would answer that the authoritative unit is the local congregation, gathered out of the world by the power of God in order to become a community of saints; those who hold this view would regard a Church in the more comprehensive sense as a mere convenience, and the manner of its organization as indifferent. But others—Anglicans among them—would give the opposite answer. They would say that Christ founded one Church to go forth into the whole world and make disciples of all nations, and that the ultimate responsibility for what is to be taught and done must reside in the great corporate body which embraces, and gives recognition to, the local congregations.

I do not propose to do more than call attention to this radical divergence. It is quite clear that the corporate Church of England has authority to make decisions on Church policy and if, in other quarters, difficulties are experienced, it is surely best to leave them to be settled by those who actually experience them. In any case, I am not sure that the problem is not, at this stage, somewhat academic. It would plainly be impracticable to negotiate for Christian reunion with every congregation separately. It is equally plain that, whatever rights and functions must be claimed for the body corporate, [12/13] other rights and functions have to be reserved to the separate congregations who are the organized local representatives of Christ's Church in their own place. If the body corporate is free to exercise its discretion in giving or withholding recognition, the local congregation cannot be deprived of the choice whether to give or to withhold its acquiescence in corporate decisions. I believe that the doctrinal difficulty is real, and might well create serious obstacles when formal negotiations came to be opened between Churches. But the practical difficulty, as between the authority of the Church and that of the congregation, does not affect Anglicans, and for the moment Anglicans may perhaps do most good by keeping off other people's grass-plots.

But the fundamental problem in discussing steps towards Christian reunion is to make a true estimate of the relative standing of the comprehensive organized Churches towards one another. In what sense are they all Churches? It is hardly possible to deny that they are all Churches in some sense; here we may perhaps agree with Hooker who states that "we must acknowledge even heretics themselves to be, though a maimed part, yet a part of the visible Church" (Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity 3.1.11). But the question which haunts many Anglican minds is whether they are all Churches in the same sense—in a sense, in fact, which comprehends everything which is essential to full Churchmanship. As I venture to touch upon this problem, let me repeat that I speak as a convinced Anglican. I shall hope to display the same degree of candour and sincerity as I myself would wish to experience from others.

My first observation under this head is that in talking of the Church, in the aspect of an institution, with membership and rules of order and the like, we are very far indeed from taking into consideration everything which ought to be included in the idea of Christian Churchmanship. The constitution of the Church should doubtless minister to holiness and promote evangelism, but it is a means and not an end in itself. Nevertheless, when God wills the end we may very probably conclude that he wills the means also; and it is wrong to despise or depreciate means of grace which God himself has ordained. Grant then that we are now discussing means: can we say that there is a pattern of right order for the Church, as the apostolic writer said there is a "pattern of sound words" (2 Timothy 1. 13)? The typical Anglican answer would, I think, be in the affirmative. Admitting the rightness—not merely the [13/14] desirability—that in a reunited Church should be conserved elements of a congregational and of a presbyteral character, the convinced Anglican would go on to claim the rightness—not merely the desirability; much more perhaps the rightness than the desirability—of maintaining an episcopal element also. If he believes that episcopacy is a gift of God to the Church, he could not claim less. He is therefore apt to measure all the Churches on a kind of constitutional scale. Some he would regard as being, in this sense, fully constituted. Others he would think less completely constituted. Others, conceivably, he might find difficulty in treating as constituted Churches in any real sense at all. So he would tend to grade the Churches, for this special purpose only, either as belonging to the hard core or nucleus of fully constituted Churchmanship, or alternatively as forming part of a lengthening and progressively rarified penumbra.

Do not misunderstand me. There are other scales by which Churches can be measured. There is the scale of loyalty to apostolic faith: that is not merely important but vital to Churchmanship. There is the scale of evangelistic, zeal; the scale of witness to Christian truth in personal and social life; the scale of spirituality and saintliness; the scale of veneration for the Holy Scriptures; the scale of readiness to be all things to all peoples; the scale of sacrifice and resolute independence of the world. Others might be added to the list. God forbid that any Christian should presume to rank as number one in all these several regards the single body to which he himself may belong. All that I am now concerned to point out is that when you turn to deal with Churches as institutions you must necessarily, for that purpose, employ institutional categories. These may not be the highest categories. But if you believe that Christ intends his Church to be an institution, they are essential categories, if only because they are essential to the particular matter in hand. I am suggesting that episcopacy is a gift of God essential to the full constitution of a Church, which some others do not now possess, although the Church of England has it. But I am not bold enough to deny that other gifts of God, gifts perhaps of fundamental value, may have been placed largely in the keeping of other Christian communions. And the point to which my argument is tending is that the release of gifts for interchange between the Churches must not be conceived as conferring merely one-way benefits. If only the Churches could be so closely drawn together that a free circulation [14/15] were restored to the divided body, what fresh access of strength and energy and insight might not be imparted to the Church of England, my spiritual mother. It has much to receive. And in the matter of episcopacy it has something in return to give.

Episcopacy, then, can be presented as an element essential to the full constitution of the Christian Church without either depreciating other essential elements or claiming for it any higher values than properly belong to it. I believe it holds a key position in the divine pattern of organized Churchmanship. That, and not any overwhelming conviction of its practical utility in its specifically Anglican shape, is the reason why I stand before you as an urgent advocate of the Archbishop's proposal that the Free Churches should consider taking it into their own systems. One of my most distinguished predecessors at St Paul's Cathedral, Dr Liddon, is said to have observed that, though episcopacy is certainly of the esse of the Church, it is by no means of its bene esse. That was no doubt intended as an epigrammatic over-statement of the facts, but its general sense would be endorsed by many on the Anglican side. The real question is whether episcopacy forms part of the divine plan. I suggest that this question needs to be considered dispassionately—that is a matter of course—but also in no excessively narrow a spirit of ecclesiastical antiquarianism.

On any showing, episcopacy was the norm in every part of Christendom from the second century to the sixteenth. In so far as any Christian communion now existing claims ministerial continuity with the apostles, it is through the episcopally constituted ministry of all those centuries that the derivation of its ministry has to be asserted. And it seems plain that if in the future any general interchange of ministries is to be made possible between separated Churches, that event can only be brought about through the recovery and re-adjustment of the episcopal principle by those communities which, for one reason or another, have discarded it. These considerations are factual rather than theological. They deserve to have consequence assigned them just in so far as it is conceded that "in the history of the Church the divine life creates"—the words are the Archbishop's—and that theology, before it can rightly control the Church's life, must supply a reasonable interpretation of the evidences of that life. Moreover, in this connection there is something to be said for the value of episcopacy as a factor of stability. Where little significance has been attached to the institutional life [15/16] of the Church, tendencies have developed more than once in Christian history for the deepest and most spiritual realities of Christianity to dissolve into some contemporary form of humanism which is neither truly Christian nor capable of indefinite survival. In rather marked contrast, a fully constituted Churchmanship has shown, from time to time, extraordinary powers of self-reformation, in the exercise of which it cannot be fanciful to detect the working of the Spirit of God, steadily lifting a sunken and debased Church from the abyss of moral or doctrinal degradation. It does not seem impossible to associate episcopacy historically with this kind of stabilizing quality.

Quite certainly, it promotes stability of another kind. Christian communities without a spiritual hierarchy lie at the mercy of their aristocrats. An outstanding preacher, or an eminent thinker, or a gifted leader is apt to carry all before him in a tide of unmodulated enthusiasm. This cannot happen easily in an episcopally governed Church, where every decision has to win acceptance from a general body of capable and responsible but by no means personally distinguished men, whose minds revolve in a constant plane and like a gyroscopic compass serve to keep the community upon a level course. It needs a strong convulsion to make them revise their prejudices, as even St Paul found when he attempted to introduce what the apostles and elders thought were innovations. How many of the first apostles of the Lord were men of powerful individuality? In sober fact, most of them are virtually unknown except by name. So it has been throughout the ages in the Church. And better so. "My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness" (2 Corinthians 12. 9). The less we can attribute to human greatness, the more apparent is the power of God, to whom be ascribed, as is most justly due, the glory, the wisdom, and the majesty, throughout all ages, world without end. Amen.

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