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The Order of the Episcopate: A Sermon preached at the Consecration of Geoffrey Francis Fisher, Bishop of Chester, on St Matthew’s Day, 1932, in York Minster.

By N. P. Williams.

No place: no publisher, 1932.

And they truly were many priests, because they were not suffered to continue by reason of death: but this man, because he continueth ever, hath an unchangeable priesthood.—Heb. 7. 23, 34.


THE consecration of a bishop is an event which for Christian people is full of solemnity and joy. Not merely is the beginning of a new episcopate, like the beginnings of all new epochs in the history of Church or State, fraught with hopes for the future and eager anticipations of progress and fresh victories for the cause of our most holy Faith: but the august rite itself, which it is now our privilege to behold, seems to gather up into one splendid and awe-inspiring manifestation those hidden forces of the Body of Christ which normally work unperceived, in latent and diffusive form, through the humdrum round of everyday ecclesiastical life. What English Churchman can look upon this majestic scene and this vast assembly without feeling himself thrilled by a heightened sense of the greatness of the Catholic and Apostolic Church, and of his own pride and happiness in belonging to its Yet with such lofty thoughts there must needs mingle a certain undertone, I will not say of sadness but of seriousness, when we reflect that every beginning must sooner or later be succeeded by an ending, that change and flux are the governing conditions of all things mortal, that the time-process never stands still, but with silent and viewless motion is steadily bearing us and all our works nearer and nearer to that unexplored night in which no man can work, and of which all that we know is that on its further side God is all in all. When the Gospel was first preached by Paulinus in this city of York, thirteen hundred years ago, one of the pagan nobles who heard him compared the life of man to the flight of a bird which, coming out of the dark cold night through an open window, skims in a flash across the warmth and light of a banqueting hall and, passing out of another window, is lost again in the surrounding blackness;) and this vivid parable applies as truly to the reigns of prelates as to the lives of humbler mortals:

“The glories of our blood and state
Are shadows, not substantial things.”

This stately temple has in the past witnessed many consecrations of bishops, who have long since gone to their account; it will, doubtless, witness many more in the future, when he who is this day to assume the vast burdens of the episcopate will long since have laid them down. Whatever theological interpretation we place upon the great fact of the episcopal succession, which binds together as with a golden chain the earliest and the latest ages of the Church’s history, it is none the less a succession, deeply bound up with the forms of time and of change—a moving chain, in which each link must disappear to make room for the next. Like all the shows of sense, the slow kaleidoscopic movement of the life of the visible Church points us beyond itself to some unchanging background, some unity underlying its restless multiplicity, some Absolute and Eternal Reality from which its multiform life has proceeded and to which it will eventually return.


“The One remains, the many change and pass;
Heaven’s light forever shines, Earth’s shadows fly;
Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass,
Stains the white radiance of Eternity,
Until Death tramples it to fragments.” [Shelley, Adonais, LII]

Such was the fundamental thought which had deeply stamped itself upon the mind of the unknown author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, and which finds expression in the words of my text. A ‘ Jew of the Dispersion, not improbably of Alexandria, he had, before the light of the Gospel dawned upon him, been passionately attached to the traditional institutions and glories of the elder Church. Chief amongst these glories, in respect of the power which it exerted over our author’s imagination, was the venerable office of the Jewish High Priest; and from the Ghetto of some Mediterranean town, with all that it implied of Israel’s present subjection to the Gentiles, his thoughts would often turn in wistful devotion to that far-off spiritual ruler, who, though stripped by the Romans of the temporal power which his Hasmonaean predecessors had wielded, still seemed, to the eye of enthusiastic patriotism, to be invested with the ensigns and the aura of his vanished royalty. Yet, as he meditated upon the living glory which dwelt at Jerusalem, it seemed to him to be vitiated by one fatal flaw—by the canker of mortality, the impermanence of each individual pontiff’s tenure. How was he to relate the pomp and magnificence which attended the hierarch as he stood at the altar to the disconcerting fact that its individual wearer must one day lay it all aside, and submit to the apparently irremediable collapse and -defeat of death? The Platonic philosophy, in which his mind, like the minds of many educated Jews of the Dispersion, was saturated, seemed to give him the answer, in its doctrine of the eternal Forms or Ideas laid up in heaven, the changeless Essences underlying the fleeting multiplicity of the world of sense. Surely, he thought, there must be an eternal Form of High Priesthood, existing timelessly on the supersensible plane, yet immanent in the temporal succession of mortal priests—a heavenly, archetypal Priest-King of whom the successive earthly pontiffs were so many imperfect copies. He may well have learnt from his elder contemporary Philo, the Jewish Platonist of Alexandria, to see this eternal form of priestliness allegorized in the mysterious figure of Melchizedek, King of Salem, without father, mother, or beginning of days, and to identify it with an even vaster conception, that of the Divine Logos, the Cosmic Reason or Wisdom, which later Jewish theology had endowed with a quasipersonal existence as the intermediary between God and the world. Thus, whilst yet the name of Jesus of Nazareth was unknown to him, we may surmise that his mind had already furnished itself with an idea of surpassing amplitude and magnificence, not unworthy of the sublime purpose for which it was destined to be used—the concept of the personified Divine Reason as the Universal Priest, uniting the prerogatives of Aaron and of Melchizedek—a concept which, when borrowed by Christian thought and experience, gives luminous content and meaning to the glorious doctrine of the Heavenly Session of the Son of God.


Let us stay for a moment, my brethren, upon the exalted heights to which this wonderful Epistle so swiftly bears us up from the graves and corruptions of our mortal state, and rest in adoring contemplation of this great mystery of our Lord’s heavenly Priesthood, as the blessed contemplate it even now, behind the veil of sense. It is the true, the supernatural background, as of all the Church’s life, ‘so also of this great service. Could our eyes but be opened, like those of Elisha’s young man in Dothan, the walls and windows of this Minster would seem to roll asunder like a parted curtain, and we should see, not “horses and chariots of fire” but the dazzling vistas of the heavenly Temple, “dark with excessive bright,” converging upon the glorious figure of the immortal Priest-King himself, sitting as a King at the right hand of power, yet ceaselessly spreading out his pierced hands in priestly intercession for the sins of mankind. Though the Ritschlian theology may tell us that “the exalted Christ is hidden from us,” and may bid us concentrate our thoughts exclusively upon the human life portrayed in the Synoptic record, yet Catholic Christians know better: for they are dead and their life is hid with Christ in God; they can even now ascend whither their Saviour Christ is gone before, and watch their glorious Head at his priestly work within the recesses of the heavenly shrine.


According to the Epistle to the Hebrews, the eternal Priest is “the mediator of a new covenant,” a Mediator who represents man to God, and God to man. There can be no question as to what is the highest, the specific and characteristic activity of priesthood in its orientation towards God: it is the mysterious, function, coeval with religion itself, of sacrifice. “Every high priest, being taken from among men, is appointed for men in things pertaining to God, that he may offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins.” And the oblation which our heavenly High Priest offers in the supersensible sanctuary is his own Blood, “the blood of sprinkling, that speaketh better things than that of Abel,” the fulness of his dedicated life poured out in boundless generosity for the sins of the whole world. This sacrifice, like the priesthood of him who offers it, is eternal, in the strict and philosophical sense of the term; that is to say, it is neither a mere event of past history, over and done with, nor yet a process continually prolonged in time, but a timeless fact, rooted in the infinite Now which is the measure of the Divine consciousness, yet overflowing in streams of plenteous redemption at every point of the time-series. Thus the Apostolic writer is able to exhibit the solemn ritual of the Day of Atonement, the supreme operation of the Aaronic priesthood, in its true light as an imperfect copy, a pale and transitory reflex of that glorious, absolute, and supratemporal fact which is portrayed by the Apocalyptist under the image of “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.”

Yet the eternal Priest fulfils in himself the characteristic prerogatives not merely of the Aaronic but of the Melchizedekian priesthood, in a far higher sense than the Hasmonaean pontiffs for whom the latter glory was first claimed—not ruling a petty Syrian city, but enthroned at the right hand of the Majesty on high, not wielding a precarious authority over a handful of subjects and a few square miles of barren mountain, but the Master of the Ages, ruling with the will of the Most High in the kingdoms of men, exalting peoples and destroying empires, and from henceforth expecting until his enemies be made the footstool of his feet. And, to complete our picture of the eternal work of Christ in the heavenly places, we must add to these grand and awe-inspiring prerogatives of expiatory priesthood and sovereign empire a third, most tender and most human character, which is that which distinguishes the Christian priest from all others, whether pagan or Jew, who have ever claimed the title—an aspect of his Being which is indicated by the Apostolic writer in the beautiful phrase “that great Shepherd of the sheep”—the pastoral character. Still, though abiding in the sanctuary and on the throne of the universe, he goes forth through his Spirit into the highways and hedges of this mortal life, seeking the sheep which was lost, and compelling the sinner to come into the feast of the Divine mercies by the sweet compulsion of love. It is, surely, with special reference to this pastoral aspect of our Lord’s priesthood that the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews emphasizes so strongly the human sympathy with which his sacred heart is still aflame, even upon the throne of heaven. “For in that he himself hath suffered being tempted, he is able to succour them that are tempted”; “for we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities, but one that hath been in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin”; “every high priest, being taken from among men” must be one “who can bear gently with the ignorant and erring.” Sacerdotal devotion, regal power, and pastoral tenderness—these are the three prismatic colours which, looking through the eyes of the Apostolic writer, we can discern within the white splendour of the life of Jesus Christ in glory.


Yet we shall misconceive the scope of this sublime office of universal or cosmic priesthood, if we limit the sphere of its exercise to the heavenly sanctuary, and confine the means of its operation to the powers of our Lord’s own transcendent and glorified state. For he is “Head over all things to the Church, which is his Body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all.” So close and intimate is the mystical union between Christ and his Church, which is the completion and continuation of his sacred humanity, that in her fundamental being the Church must needs participate—albeit after a secondary, derivative, and relative manner—in the attributes and prerogatives of her Spouse and Lord. It is true that, if we follow out the Platonic vein of thought which lies everywhere beneath the surface of the Epistle to the Hebrews, we must regard the idea or archetype of priesthood as numerically one, and must consequently affirm that in the full and absolute sense of the term the Christian dispensation has room for no more than one priest, even the Lord Christ himself. Yet the light of the moon is real, though it is derived by reflection from the sun; and the priestly character of the visible Church is real, with that subordinate degree of reality which is all that the world of sense can claim. Hence it is that, according to our author, the Heavenly Priest is not ashamed to call Christians his brethren, “saying, I will declare thy name unto my brethren, in the midst of the Church will I sing praise unto thee”; hence it is that St Peter can declare the Christian society to be not merely a “peculiar people” but also “a royal priesthood,” and St John the Divine can declare that the members of the Church are “priests unto God.” If Christ, as the absolute Priest, is the one mediator between God and man, it is none the less true to say that the Christian Church is set in this world to be, in its measure, a collective priest, mediating between Christ and the aimless, restless, wayward world of non-Christian humanity. But, though this priestly character, reflected and derived from the eternal Priesthood of the Son of God, is the common possession of the whole Body, the exigencies of human life forbid its public and official exercise by the greater number of baptized Christians, and necessitate its being concentrated or focused, as it were, in the persons of those who have received the divine call to devote their whole lives and all their powers to the immediate service of Christ and of the Church—that is, to the ordained ministry. And within that ministry one order stands out as original and archetypal, the source to other ranks of the ministry of what they are and can do; and that is the order of bishops, to whom alone, during the first five centuries of the Church’s history, the Greek title hiereus and its equivalent sacerdos were normally applied. In this illustrious Order, then, stretching across the centuries, and adorned with many a venerable figure of heroic mould, from Ignatius and Cyprian and Augustine down to Laud and Benson and Lightfoot, we see the image and copy, imperfect as all things human must be, yet even in the periods of its degradation never quite stripped of a unique and reverend dignity, of the eternal High Priesthood of our Lord.

Does this claim, made on behalf of a succession of men of flesh and blood, who, like ourselves, are “compassed about with infirmity” and “not suffered to continue by reason of death,” seem to some of you exaggerated or overstrained? It is assuredly pitched no higher than the exalted functions, the awful responsibilities, and the exacting demands of the great office itself. If we consider the duties and functions of the Christian bishop, as conceived in the immemorial tradition of the historic Church, do we not find that they are identical with the essential functions which the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews has taught us to see in the ideal priesthood of the Son of God—the function of offering sacrifice and interceding, the function of ruling and judging, the function of pastoral care for the souls of men? God works in the same way in small things as in great, in the microcosm as in the macrocosm; even as the majestic sweep of the solar system is mirrored, on an infinitesimal scale, in the whirling dance of the electrons within the tiny circuit of the atom, so the type or form of priesthood, eternal in the heavens, reproduces itself with exactness, upon the lower plane of human interests and activities, in the office which God’s providence has instituted for the edifying and well-governing of his Church.


How awful is that function which is still in theory chief among the duties of the bishop, and was originally his exclusive privilege—the function of leading his people in worship, and going before them into the sanctuary, in the power of the atoning Blood of Christ! Hear the words in which St John Chrysostom draws out this very parallel between the Christian bishop and the Jewish High Priest, in order to justify his own refusal, in his youth, of episcopal consecration: “Fearful indeed and full of shuddering awe were the ordinances which preceded the dispensation of grace, such as were the bells and the pomegranates which fringed the High Priest’s garment, the twelve stones upon his breastplate and the gems upon his shoulder, the sweeping robe, the mitre with its golden plate inscribed ‘Holiness unto the Lord,’ the Holy of Holies, and the deep silence of the inmost sanctuary; but if a man will search out the mysteries of grace, he shall find those fearful and awe-inspiring things but little in comparison with them. . . . For when thou seest the [Christian] High Priest standing in the sanctuary and offering up prayer, dost thou still think that thou art with men and standest upon the earth? Art thou not immediately rapt into the heavenly sphere, and, putting off every carnal disposition of mind, dost thou not contemplate heavenly things with disembodied spirit and unclouded intellect?” [de sacerd. iv. 176.] The reference in the context is to the bishop’s prerogative of celebrating the Eucharist, the perpetual memory of the Lord’s precious death, of which, in the early days of the monarchical episcopate, he was the sole minister. Owing to the changed conditions of modern times, this great function is rarely exercised, in any public and conspicuous manner, by the bishop in person, and the normal round of eucharistic and liturgical worship is carried out by the presbyters to whom so much of his authority is locally delegated. Yet, the fewer the occasions on which the bishop can personally lead his diocese in some great corporate act of prayer and adoration, the more solemn is the obligation which lies upon him to be much in the heavenly sanctuary, interceding for his people, bearing their names before God as the High Priest of old bore the names of the twelve tribes of Israel upon the mystic breastplate. It is said that Bishop Andrewes habitually spent at least five hours of every day in prayer. Perhaps a devotion so intense requires times of spacious leisure, like those of the early seventeenth century, for its full development; yet the secularizing tendencies of the present day, which if left to themselves would make the bishop into a mere administrator or director of organization, can only be held in check by the realization on the part of clergy and laity alike that the altar and the temple, whether on earth or in the heavenly places, are the primary sphere of the bishop’s activity, the centre and the home of his true life.

And then, the Christian High Priest, as the earthly reflex and image of him who wears not merely the mitre of Aaron but the diadem of Melchizedek, has to rule and judge as well as to offer and intercede. What searching demands are made by the governing functions of the Christian episcopate upon the mind and character of its bearer! “Ars est artium regimen animarum,” said the great Pope, Gregory I, himself one of the mightiest rulers that Christendom has ever known; and what a rare combination of qualities that supreme art of government requires—dignity without arrogance, gentleness without weakness, firmness without obstinacy, decision and courage without foolhardy rashness, the magnetism of the born leader, the insight of the trained psychologist, the patience which suffers fools gladly, the heaven-sent humour which can tolerate cranks and bores, the charity which beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. It is said that anyone can govern in a state of siege—that is, if he has martial law at his back and a cast-iron code to administer; but not everyone is qualified to exercise the functions of spiritual government under the present conditions of the Church in England, with a system of laws of which some are admittedly obsolete and others uncertain, their import depending upon the arbitrary constructions of individual commentators; not everyone can wield an authority which is paternal rather than military in its nature, and rests more upon moral influence than upon legal coercion. Such an authority, exercised normally by advice and exhortation and only in the last resort by command, is the exact analogy of that providential empire with which the eternal Priest-King controls the course of human history as a whole, guiding it to its predestined end by subtle touches of interior inspiration and suggestion, and rarely intervening with a catastrophic act of God.

Lastly, the earthly High Priest, like his celestial prototype, is, and feels himself in every fibre of his being to be, the Good Shepherd, commissioned to seek for Christ’s sheep that are dispersed abroad, and prepared, if called upon, to lay down his life for his flock. This aspect of the episcopal office was, perhaps, more obvious to the eyes of men in the early days of monarchical episcopacy, as depicted in the Epistles of St Ignatius, when the bishop’s jurisdiction extended to no more than a single city-congregation, with a few outlying missions—when, in short, his position bore an external resemblance rather to that of a rural dean with no superior than to that of the modern territorial Ordinary, presiding over hundreds of parishes and including whole counties in his sway. None could fail to recognize the pastoral character of the primitive bishop in the days when he was the sole minister, not merely of the Eucharist but of baptism and of penitential discipline, when in person he instructed every catechumen and gave judgment upon every postbaptismal sinner. The vast extent of modern dioceses, which is the legacy of the Middle Ages in Northern Europe, inevitably tends, in some measure, to withdraw the bishop from immediate personal contact with particular souls, and to confine his pastoral activities to what may be called large-scale operations, dealing with areas and masses of men rather than with individuals—such operations, I mean, as the planning of church-building schemes to meet the needs of new populations, the reorganization of Church schools in accordance with modern educational requirements, the promotion of campaigns for the diffusion of temperance and purity. Yet important spheres remain in which the divine tenderness of the Good Shepherd may express itself in the words and acts of his earthly representatives—the touching duty of admitting the lambs of Christ’s flock to the final stage of Christian initiation and of conferring upon them the gifts of the Holy Spirit through confirmation, the bestowal of fatherly help and solicitude upon the presbyters who are his sons and colleagues, in all their trials and difficulties, both temporal and spiritual. And, even though the discipline of “reserved cases” may no longer be in force amongst ourselves, it should always be possible for sick souls, torn by some moral conflict or haunted by some subtle temptation beyond the art of the ordinary spiritual physician, to be referred to the Chief Pastor, in the sure confidence that his wise, sympathetic, and penetrating counsel will unravel their tangled emotions and rebuild the moral fibre of their wills.


Such is the exalted ideal which is the translation into earthly terms of the functions of that heavenly High Priesthood, to a share in which a servant of God is this day to be admitted. “And who is sufficient for these things?” what mortal man dare offer himself for such a ministry, and stretch forth his hand to touch the ark of the Lord and the consecrated vessels of the altar? Let the Apostle answer his own question: “Such trust have we through Christ to Godward; not that we are sufficient of ourselves, to account anything as from ourselves; but our sufficiency is from God, who also made us sufficient, as ministers of a new covenant.” No other grounds of confidence can be found save in the grace and the call of God; and, whatever the machinery of selection on the earthly plane, no one who believes in that Divine Providence which governs all things both in heaven and earth can doubt that the summons to such a work, howsoever conveyed, if pondered over with humility and in the presence of him from whom no secrets are hid, and if not inhibited by the consciousness of grave hidden weakness, is in very truth the voice of that Spirit who said of old, “Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them.”

Such a call, though the recipient only becomes aware of it at a given moment of time, has usually been operative in his life for many years past, years of unconscious preparation in which the personality of the man of God is being shaped and moulded for the work which lies before him. In the vastly greater number of cases, these years of preparation are spent, partly or wholly, in the ordinary work of the parochial ministry; and it is right that it should be so. Great and manifold, yea, inexhaustible is the debt which the Christian society owes to the parochial clergy, who are the infantry of the Church militant, without whom, speaking humanly, it could not even exist, who are ever in the front line of the Christian warfare against the world, the flesh, and the devil. Yet it would not conduce to the efficiency of an army if a regulation were enacted that its General Staff should be exclusively chosen from amongst infantry officers, and that technical specialists should be incapable of appointment thereto. Certainly, there has never been any corresponding rule in the Catholic Church: if there had been, it would have deprived the Church of many of her very greatest and holiest bishops, from Cyprian and Ambrose down to Lightfoot and Westcott. The counsels of the whole Church are enriched by the presence on the episcopal bench of those who can supplement the knowledge of men and affairs, which is won through the normal cure of souls, by specialized gifts of theological learning or administrative skill, gained in one of those technical vocations (if such they may be called) to which the full development of the Church’s life requires that some, at least, of the priesthood should devote themselves. Chief amongst these non-parochial training-grounds for the episcopate has in the past been the “religious” or monastic state: and we may well remember that Anselm of Canterbury and Hugh of Lincoln ascended their thrones with no experience whatsoever save such as had come to them in the silence of their Benedictine and Carthusian cloisters. But there are other such training-grounds; and amongst these the circumstances of modern times have assigned a place of special distinction to the rule (when held by a priest) of one of those great residential schools which, whatever the criticisms to which particular details of their system may be liable, constitute a deeply characteristic element in the structure of this Church and realm. It is difficult to imagine a more searching education in the art of government than is provided by the headship of a famous school, involving as it foes the control of high-spirited adolescents and the presidency over colleagues of strong wills and brilliant attainments; or an office more calculated to develop the fulness of pastoral sympathy than one which is charged with the moral and spiritual care of the young, including their preparation for Confirmation, at the most impressionable period of their lives.


It is from such valuable and fruitful labours that the elect Bishop of Chester has been summoned to the vast ‘responsibilities and burdens of episcopal office. He has not, perhaps, been widely known hitherto amongst the general body of Churchmen, but that is due to a reason wholly admirable: for the schoolmaster, living and working for the future well-being of the Church and realm, and not for his own present reputation, concentrates his interests upon his boys, and is careless of publicity in proportion as he is faithful to his vocation. Yet those who, like myself, have enjoyed the friendship of the new bishop since his undergraduate days, know well the sterling character, the lofty sense of duty, and the self-forgetting devotion which have marked his path through life, and which he will bring in fullest measure to the duties of his exalted and exacting station. Arche deixei andra—"office will reveal the man:” and those who know him best are most confident that the revelation will amply justify the choice of his Sovereign and the election of the Church over which he will preside.

Nevertheless, all confidence in such matters must be “through Christ to Godward”; only the eternal High Priest can by his personal indwelling vitalize the ministry of his mortal representatives, and clothe what’ would otherwise be merely formal and official acts with the unction of the Holy Spirit. Let us, therefore, now unite ourselves with the mystical action of this great service, interceding through the merits of Christ’s death and passion for all our fathers in God, and for him who is now to be admitted to their Order: and let us adapt to this solemn occasion the words of that profound and perfect prayer which the genius of Liddon bequeathed to Cuddesdon, and which has been the inspiration of many hundreds of priestly lives: “O merciful Jesus, who when thou tookest upon thee to deliver man didst not abhor the Virgin’s womb, vouchsafe evermore to dwell in the hearts of all thy servants whom thou hast called to the order of the episcopate, and especially of him who is now to be admitted thereto. Strengthen him with thy might; make him perfect in thy ways; guide him into thy truth; and unite him to thyself and to thy whole Church by thy holy mysteries; that he may conquer every adverse power, and be wholly devoted to thy service and conformed to thy will: to the glory of God the Father. Amen.”

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