I recently, but obliquely, participated in a conversation on the subject of whether bishops are prophets. The bishop in question pointed out that the Ordinal says a bishop is a prophet. Someone had denied the prophetic role of the episcopate. Well the Ordinal does, sort of in the prayer before the act of consecration, but does not specifically state that the bishop in question is to be personally and specially gifted in that area. In fact there’s hardly a job description in the Old or New Testament –except perhaps Virgin – that isn’t evoked by the prose of the Ordinal when it comes to job possibilities for bishops.

One of the great Anglican Reformation controversies was whether a bishop was an apostle. As if often the case, the real argument was not really about succession at all, but about power and the way power is perceived to have been exercised and the authority claimed for the exercise of such power. Rome’s sin, at least at first, was not so much theological, as moral. It was scandal that shocked the first English Reformers, like the sensitive Thomas Bilney or the convulsive Robert Barnes. When prelates like Wolsey lived in splendor, and monasteries cashed in on the vulnerable, the poor grew poorer. Superstition was marketed rather like fear is today. Money and power.

In extreme response the Protestant leaders claimed that the office of Apostle died out with the Apostles. True there might be an historic succession of bishops, but there was nothing unique about them, except in those areas entrusted to them by the authority and commissioning of the Church. The same applied to priests and deacons. Everyone was a priest, except a priest? Odd that we have shades of all this in the current chatter about mutual ministry, although I’ve yet to see the theory applied to bishops!

As in so many areas, the climate, the passions raised, the context obscured a sensible exegesis. As an aside, I think it high time that someone began the job of doing what Tom Wright is doing for biblical context to our theological, ecclesiological, and pastoral methodologies.

The root of the problem is individualism. Unless the doctrine of the relationship between the Trinity and its Persons with the Church and its mission and ministry are firmly grasped, what happens is that individual Christians, even bishops, start by looking at such titles as prophet, priest, king, evangelist, whatever as alternative job descriptions or terms of empowerment.

In a real sense the Reformers were right. There is only one prophet, there is only one bishop, there is only one priest, there is only one deacon, there is only one “Lay” person. That Person is Christ. Take that truth away, and almost all the job descriptions available to Christians are open to personal misuse and corruption. They stand open to be manipulated by secular corporate and political models. Look at the history of the episcopate as it has presented itself as Roman magistrate, feudal Lord, Stuart courtier, Whig landowner, upper crust patrician, through to modern corporate manager and CEO.

The key is Baptism. In baptism, God anticipates in love, claims us, adopts us, forgives us, and draws us together into Christ. It is “in” Christ” that we move together into the society in which, as God pleases, gifts and talents are offered to us. They are not our possessions. They are trusts. In all things these tasks are offered to us in our weakness and not in our strength. Jesus offered power to servants and not to bosses. Servants know who they work for! A servant, in her or his self, isn’t “royal”! Yet we are a Royal Priesthood, not by nature or ability but because the King-Priest lets us wear His colors.

So what’s all this about bishops being prophets? What is a prophet? In the Old Testament, most were fakes! I love Amos, the non-prophet, who strides onto the scene and roundly denounces profession prophets and priests. Why is Amos a prophet? Because he draws women and men back to the authentic voice and witness of God and God’s purpose. Part of that work is restoring and strengthening community by reminding it of its first love.

The coming of Christ in a real sense alters the prophetic task. No longer is the kingdom something to be anticipated. The kingdom is among us. Its fruition is to be anticipated, but the kingdom is now. The prophetic voice of the Church is the Word of God, Jesus. This voice is mediated to us first and foremost in Scripture, in its grand theme of redemption and restoration and not in liberal or conservative proof texting! Thus the genuine voice of the prophet among us remains, “Thus saith the Lord.”

The task of the prophet is therefore to draw the community into its genuine nature and mission, and to speak truth to the Church and to the powers that be without partiality or bias. The voice of the prophet must be ultimately the voice of Christ.

Bishops, by their very job description may not make obvious candidates for the job. For the heart of the Episcopal office is pastoral, unifying, evangelizing, caring love: Jesus IS the bishop and shepherd of our souls. A bishop is his stand in. In a Church which claims to be comprehensive, this aspect of the episcopate is the more difficult and the more vital. A diocesan bishop in the Anglican tradition, without suppressing real conviction, must be able to step into the shoes and enter the minds of men and women who may have widely different approaches to the almost everything. A diocesan bishop in our tradition is called to live in collegial relationships with colleagues whose inner faith, outward expressions of faith, theological groundings and cultural and social backgrounds, let alone positions on Causes and controversies are often in extraordinary tension with his or her views. A diocesan bishop’s responsibility to the wider Communion and to the Church at large in its many manifestations only compounds the matter.

Now I would suggest that these principles need to be aimed sharply at not only the practice of episcopacy among us, but to our institutions, forms of government, styles of leadership, from parish and mission level upwards. For sure, our contemporary church prophets, single and collective, while often shocking parts of their own community and giving copy to hungry journalists have not been and are not generally heard or noticed by most people.

When Jesus was prophetic about the poor, he didn’t form a commission or write a best-seller. Jesus told off the powerful and he touched, physically touched, and healed and fed.

When I first came over here, nearly forty years ago, I was shocked to drive in the rural south and see people living in utter poverty. That hasn’t changed. Millions haven’t health insurance. Discrimination abounds. Witness the scandal of Native Americans. Where is our voice as a Church? Yes we have committees and commissions, soup kitchens, emergency medical health clinics and all sorts of in touch projects, but I am convinced that we still are distanced from the poor and the disadvantaged. We are distanced by our structure, by our class, by our prevailing culture, by our often pseudo intellectualism. Our prophets often sound more like Kerry or Cheney than like Jesus. We refuse to be self-critical and we use power to run over those we have deemed unworthy of our fellowship.

One of Thomas Bilney’s first converts was Hugh Latimer. Bilney’s first act was to take Latimer to the Oxford city jail to feed the prisoners. Years later Bishop Latimer famously attacked the ruling junta for its land-grabbing dispossession of the poor. They threw him in the Tower. Now there’s a prophetic bishop.

One Response

  1. Two comments, Tony. The first is a quote from an essay by Bernard McGinn in the current issue of _Spiritus_. The quote is tangentially related to your discussion, I think, and has the virtue of clearly defining the role of the prophet-bishop:
    “The common understanding of prophet as a person who foretells the future reveals only one aspect of the biblical notion of prophecy. Taking prophet in the fuller sense of someone who speaks for God to his people helps us to understand how in late antiquity and the early Middle Ages bishops came to he described as prophets, especially in their official role as scriptural expositors and preachers. But the charismatic notion of the prophet as an individual called by God to a specific task, even one involving foretelling what is to come, did not die out, especially among monks. Perhaps the most remarkable female monastic in medieval history, Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), exemplifies this prophetic charism.”

    My second comment is a remark that I heard from Walter Brueggemann to the effect that he works very hard with 3rd year seminarians to get them to understand that prophetic ministry does not mean you go out and defecate (he used a colloquialism!) all over your congregation until they fire you!

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