The Orientation of Episcopacy

George Crowder


Productive ministry as a reformed Anglican presbyter seems to be like green shoots on a dying tree. For so many years we have toughed it out despite the dead wood, feeling comfort only from a shared conviction about the integrity of our roots. The seed-death of English martyrs hallows the ground out of which the Church of England grew, and the principles of theology they framed in beautiful cadences and elegant dogma have borne sweet fruits. They continue to inspire our deep commitment to the Great Commission of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.

As we take stock of the current crisis it seems our tree has been severed and moved away from its roots. Many of us are left wondering what to do when so much that is wrong and contrary to scripture and the reformed tradition has been allowed, even encouraged, by those in authority over us. A very important consideration now is how we who are reformed Anglican presbyters think of and relate to our Bishops in the light of recent events. A brief summary of a reformed Anglican view of episcopacy may thus be helpful.

Much of what follows is inspired by the work of Richard Baxter, a man who sought to be a truly reformed Anglican in a time of national ecclesiastical crisis.

Whether Episcopacy?

Great minds, brave hearts and historical pedigree have graced episcopacy as a most noble, orderly and robust form of church government. It is not merely an unfortunate appendage to our evangelical legacy or just a convenient boat to fish from. It is apostolic in the right sense. Indeed, episcopacy followed hot on the heels of the apostolic era.[1]

Apostolicity, however, must be defined correctly. True apostolicity does not identify Bishops as apostolic successors and presbyters as their subordinates; that is a post-Tractarian view. Richard Baxter explains that the apostles ordained others to “the same office as their own and to the common works of preaching and teaching the gospel, worshipping and guiding the churches by Holy discipline which are common elements of the sacred ministry: but not all in that same respect of extraordinary endowments and works… as eye and ear witnesses, infallibly delivering the will of Christ.[2]

True apostolicity identifies the gospel as the apostolic word. It is the apostolic word which forms the church, and the existence of the church in significant gatherings which creates the need for presbyters to shepherd the flock.[3] The growth and spread of churches and corresponding proliferation of presbyters meant some general oversight was necessary from the more able and experienced among them. The title, ‘Bishop,’ has been adopted for that role in particular. Lightfoot surmises, “the episcopate was formed not out of the apostolic order by localization, but out of the presbyteral by elevation: and the title, which was originally common to all, came at length to be appropriated to the chief among them.”[4]

The key point is that Bishops are of the same class as presbyters, but have a wider brief to promote good order. Baxter says of presbyters, “though all have ministerial power, not all are called equally to exercise all of it.”[5] We need to re-assert that true episcopacy is not a ‘top-down’ order; it is a ‘bottom-up’ order.

What kind of Episcopacy?

Baxter gives an insightful clarification, “That the church should be governed by Bishops is commonly granted: but the controversy is about the Species of Episcopacy: Not whether Bishops but what sort of Bishops should be ordinary governors of the church of Christ?”[6]

Being the man he was, Baxter defined twelve different kinds of bishop and assessed their relative merits. They are as follows (with Baxter’s assessment):

1. The overseer or ruler of the people of one particular church, and not of church rulers, “that ruleth the flock and not the shepherds” (approved)

2. Joint rulers with others of a particular church. (approved)

3. President in such eldership, who withal takes a negative voice in the government, so that nothing shall be done without them in such affairs’ (admissible but not desirable)

4. Sole Pastor of particular church with many curates under him, who only teach and otherwise officiate in obedience to him. (problematic unless curates are regarded as true governors of flock)

5. Fixed presidents of a Classis of the Pastors of many Particular Churches… in use only while the Classis sitteth, and have only a power of moderating and ordering things… but no Negative voice, which maketh a Power equal with all the rest.’ (‘easily consent to these for order and peace’)

6. Heads of such Classes, having a negative voice, so that the rest can do nothing without them (not agreeable, but acceptable for the peace of the church)

7. Presidents of Provinces of Dioceses containing many Classes, which have only a Moderating power…’ etc. (orderly and convenient)

8. Bishops of cities with all rural parts near it, who assume power of governing the diocese to themselves alone without the Presbyters of the particular churches (intolerable and destructive)

9. City Bishops who don’t take rule of the people, but only of the Pastors. (“…consequently taking to himself the sole or chief Power of Ordination, but leaving Censures and Absolution to them, except in the case of Appeal to himself; I must say that this sort of Episcopacy is very ancient, and hath been for many ages of very common reception… but I must also say that I can see as yet no Divine institution of such a Bishop taken for a fixed limited officer… yet I think it incomparably more tolerable than the eighth sort…”)

10. Archbishops, Metropolitans. Primates and Patriarchs – “who assume the power of governing all below them… who assume no governing power over other bishops…” etc. (against them in proportion to their jurisdiction)

11. Fixed general Pastors – itinerant, such as the Apostles were (satisfied that the Apostles could have such successors)

12. The one who claims power of governing the whole universal church as its head. “the Judas that goes under the name of St Peter’s Successor…”[7]

He believed it was right that a Bishop should have power to moderate and order things among the pastorate, for example in ordination and synods. Baxter was particularly keen on the right administration of church discipline, and supported James Usher’s Reduction of Episcopacy.[8] This work promoted a form of deanery synod, in which a suffragan bishop was president (Baxter’s number 5). The deanery synod, a far cry from what we experience, had a collaborative, consultative and advisory function which included disciplinary appeals and clergy discipline. Difficult or unresolved matters of discipline, doctrine or dispute could be referred to a twice-yearly diocesan synod and then a triennial national synod (Bishop Number 7).[9] We should note the correct orientation of the process of communication; from the bottom up.

He believed it was profoundly wrong, therefore, for all responsibility for church discipline to be given to the Bishop, which was, “putting into one man’s hand that which cannot be done but by many.”[10] Simply put, Baxter upheld that the local church minister should have power to excommunicate. Without this, he did not possess the full biblically ordained ‘power of the keys,’ and could not fulfil his office.

Baxter is most emphatic that “spiritual governance should not be moulded into the shape of civil government.”[11] Despite his best efforts in the Savoy Conference of 1661, we have inherited just that. Baxter’s proposals were portrayed as an implicit criticism of the present civil government, and so Charles II rejected them in the 1662 Act of Uniformity. We have inherited a form of episcopacy which gives Bishops ecclesiastical responsibility within a structure which owes much to the insecurities of a newly restored 17th Century monarchy. It seems like number 8 in Baxter’s list, though it might work as number 6.

Whatever kind of episcopacy we have, there is no denying that the Bishop speaks for the church in the ears of the unconverted. One of Baxter’s foundational principles for general ministry, that is the ministry of the Bishop, is that it should acquiesce with the general ministry of the church, as given in the scripture. He asserts:

“The principal use of a general ministry, is for the converting of the unconverted world, and Baptising them when converted, and Congregating their converts into Church Order and setling them under a fixed government. And the next use of them is, to have a care, according to the extent of their capacity and opportunities, of the churches which they have thus congregated and setled, and which are setled by other ministers.”[12]


There are a number of important points to think through in respect of the current position for reformed Anglican presbyters.

1. Since Bishops are of the same class as presbyters, is it so strange that now women are accepted as presbyters, many wish them to be accepted as bishops too? Or perhaps the order that is maintained by the existence of bishops is the creation order. That, however, would seem a somewhat revisionist stance. Those who believe that there were women presbyters in the early church acknowledge that the evidence is scant, and there is certainly no evidence for Bishops being consecrated to sustain male headship. The ordination of women presbyters but no women Bishops is thus a weak position to hold.

2. If we contend that bishops are appointed by elevation rather than succession, and the system should work from the bottom up rather than the top down, it appears that the third moratorium is invalid. There cannot be an absolute ban on church leaders taking oversight of breakaway parishes in an Anglican territory that is not their own. The idea that the bishop's jurisdiction is compromised by someone seeking alternative oversight represents a 'top-down' view of episcopacy. Orthodox presbyters must accept the authority of orthodox oversight, but cannot be forced to be allied with a heretic for the sake of ecclesiastical jurisdiction. Nevertheless, Baxter is clear that Bishops “must not play the Bishop in another man’s Diocese, or suspect or disparage the labours of the proper Pastor of that church ‘til the sufferings of the church do evidently warrant him, and call him to assist them.”[13] Across the Atlantic we can be assured that they do.

3. Claiming the ground of orthodoxy within an unwieldy and imperfect system requires re-asserting the right use of episcopacy as well as demanding the right actions of the episcopate. We need to be clear on the nature as well as the content of the response we believe is necessary. Much of Tom Wright’s critique of the 2006 Covenant was deeply unfair, but he had a point when he implied that it was Congregationalist in application, and that its appeal for oversight seemed out of context with the rest of its content.[14] The FCA approach is thus much more appropriate, as it trades on a right episcopal authority and responsibility for the mission of the church. It would be helpful, however, for FCA to articulate the role of Bishops per se, as their part is critical in the fight for orthodoxy. Ireneus is a fine example to follow!

4. Finally, we must acknowledge that our Bishops speak for the church and call them to account.

[1] Timothy Bradshaw, The Olive Branch. (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1992), 175

[2] Richard Baxter, A Treatise of Episcopacy. ( London: Neville Simmons, 1681), 31

[3] Titus 1:5-9

[4] Cited in Bradshaw, Olive Branch, 176

[5] Baxter, Treatise, 31

[6] Richard Baxter, Five Disputations of Church Government, and Worship. (London: Nevil Simmons, 1659), 275

[7] Summarised from Baxter, Five Disputations, 14-21

[8] Archbishop Usher, The Reduction of Episcopacy unto the form of Synodical Governments received in the Ancient Church, proposed in the Year 1641 as expedient for the prevention of those Troubles which afterwards arise about the Matter of Church-Government. Cited in Reliquae Baxterianae II:240.

[9] Usher, Reduction of Episcopacy, 239-240

[10] Baxter, Treatise, 39

[11] Ibid.

[12] Baxter, Five disputations, 276

[13] Baxter, Five disputations, 287

[14] NT Wright, ‘A Confused Covenant’ (link will open in new window)