Why Bishops Matter (and Don't)

main image

The last few days have involved enough things episcopal to last a decade! Thanks to all whose efforts made the events possible.

Last weekend I heard a bon mot of the great Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey. The question was whether having bishops is of the essence (esse) of simply the well-being (bene esse) of the Church. Ramsey quipped they must be of the esse, for they sure aren’t of the bene esse! After all that pomp it is good to take a little air out of the episcopal tires.

This has set me to thinking about the question, and I think the answer is that bishops do matter to the extent that their ministries make it plain that they don’t! By this I mean that they exist to point at, and remind us of, things true quite before and outside of them. They matter in pointing away from themselves, and in this are the same as clergy and lay leaders of the Church too.

 First of all, we recall that Paul always cites the apostles in his letters as witnesses of the resurrection of Jesus. That is the new and creative thing they are sent to tell people about. This means that bishops too, heirs and servants of that apostolic ministry, are to do that same thing. And it also means that they are not to worry overmuch about creativity or originality- those have been covered primarily by Jesus Christ, though we do think about how to lift up the news about Him in our time.

Secondly, priests in every place and time have oversight for the ministries of Word and sacrament, in companionship with their bishop. But the latter has a special care to protect the continuity and the recognize-ability of the Gospel. They are bridges, seeing that the same Gospel is received from our grandparents and passed on to our grandchildren. They are signs that salvation is the same for the human being in Dallas, Toronto, Cairo, and Singapore. Here too the particularity of the bishop is less important the reliability of what is passed on.

Third and finally, we can return to Archbishop Ramsey. He thought hard about the question of holding the more catholic and evangelical wings of the Church together. The first emphasized the apostolic succession of teaching, the second the apostolic succession of persons down the ages. Ramsey wanted to hold the two together, the latter existing to guarantee the former. So the point is this, the special role of bishops has the focused purpose of serving the faithful succession of the Creed, the gospel, the hearing of Scripture. Apart from these his or her ministry is of no consequence.

One last point of a different kind. Last Sunday I had a great time with Emmanuel Anglican Church, our Nigerian congregation at St. Luke’s. Members of their Mothers’ Union wore dresses with the picture of Mary Sumner, wife of an English bishop of the mid-19th century and fonder of the Union on them. I have written of her before. But it is good to recall once more that most mission in our tradition was initiated by lay men and women like her. The job of the bishops was not to get in the way, in Winchester’s case so his wife could get on with it.

I guess that means two cheers for bishops! But not on their own, but on the basis of what they exist to witness to. For me, as for all of us in the face of God’s call, there is a challenge, and a relief too.

Peace, GRS

Posted by Bishop George Sumner with


 John Barclay, professor of New Testament at Durham, has written a reconsideration of grace in Paul. To understand his contribution, two words of background are helpful. First is the seminal work in modern anthropology called The Gift by Marcel Mauss. His argument (in Paul and the Gift) was that pre-modern societies operated on a different basis, one that was in contrast to a modern, commercial self-understanding. In gift societies people of importance enhance their status with their lavish gifts, which in turn place the recipients in their debt. Social relations are not bought and sold, but they are strengthened by generosity and gratitude. In my own ministry, I witnessed an example of the logic of gift in a visit to the Inuit above the Arctic Circle. They lived in a ‘mixed economy.’ They would sell paintings or groceries, but the blubber of a seal or whale was brought to the town hall, where anyone could take out their ullu (small pizza cutter-like knife) and take a piece. The latter was based on an older and different kind of relation

       Secondly, the Christian tradition was strongly influenced by Luther’s reading of Paul, according to which all sense of debt and repayment were to be banished from the concept of grace. For Luther we are in no way able to repay the omnipotent God - such an idea led to the corruptions of the medieval Church. The direction of the divine economy is, for Luther, all downward, from God to us. However there has been a reaction against these ideas in modern scholarship. To the new Pauline scholars, it has seemed too individualist, too derogatory of rabbinic Judaism, too anachronistic. The idea of grace was not unique to Paul, and the real center of the latter’s theology was the relation of Jews and Gentiles rather than justification.

     Along comes Barclay, who offers us a series of distinctions, based on his research into how Hellenistic thinkers of Paul’s era talked about gifts. How might a gift be special, in his term ‘perfect’? how might it be uniquely special as a gift from God Himself? It might, says Barclay, be unique in size (e.g. eternal life) or in attitude (born of pure love) or in timing (preempting all others) or in `incongruity’ (directed to one who seems least deserving) or effectiveness (sure to accomplish its goal) or in ‘non-circularity’ (expecting no return). In other words, when we see ‘free’ or ‘sheer’ grace, Barclay points out that we could be saying a variety of things, if we consider the matter more carefully.

   This all has a considerable cash-out. Thinkers who seem to be contradicting one another, they may simply have been answering different questions or making subtly different points.   Barclay thereby manages to incorporate some of the insights of the ‘new Paul’ while he keeps hold of important aspects of the traditional view. Critics of the Reformation approach are right, Barclay says: Paul shared with his Jewish interlocutors an emphasis on grace. But the emphasis on its priority, and more importantly, on its ‘incongruity’ (toward Gentiles) was indeed unique to God’s work in Christ. And while this does not allow a crude payback response, it doesn’t mean, says Barclay, that the forgiven were not understood to be beholden to God, at least in gratitude and devotion. There could be, in keeping with ways of thinking of the time a certain kind of reciprocity of heart, he claims. When it comes to the recent debates about Paul, Barclay essentially says that all have won and all shall have prizes.

    I think that a scholar who can say something fresh and illuminating on grace and Paul after all these centuries is remarkable! My only question in reply is this: there are, as Barclay says, a variety of ways in which a gift might be perfect. But insofar as God is God, wouldn’t His gift be perfectly perfect? In other words, wouldn’t His gift be unique, and his grace gracious, in every imaginable sense? If this is true, the old debates would reappear, which is what old theological debates have a way of doing.


12...89909192939495969798 ... 99100

Complete the Race (II Timothy 4:17)

At the end of our vacation we find ourselves in Chicago for its Marathon weekend (the fastest, I have read this morning, perhaps because it is cool and relatively level). Marathons offer many good things. You can see world-class athletes from places like Ethiopia and Kenya. There is a feel of fiesta with signs by family members, getups by some for-fun runners, and food for sale.

But as I looked out my hotel window at 7:30 a.m., I watched the race of competitors who have lost legs or their use. Wheeling vehicles by arm for 26 miles means serious fitness and determination.

Those competitors were to me, this morning, a symbol of the Church too. For each is wounded. The larger family cheers them on. Each by grace has risen up to run the race. Ahead is the goal, the prize, the welcome home. We find the companionship of Jesus the Lord, there, and along the route too.