In a couple weeks, The Right Reverend Stephen T. Lane, Bishop of Maine, will be making his regular official visitation to the parishes of Mount Desert Island. At the risk of bogging down in church-talk, I think it’s worth reminding ourselves a little bit about bishops and why we have them.
A couple months ago, in an article about ordination, I referred to the office of Bishop as being apostolic and catholic – terms we are used to hearing applied to the Church in the Creed we affirm every week, but not to particular orders in the Church.
Bishops in our tradition sometimes claim Apostolic Succession, that is, continuity with the Apostles, in a very literal sense. Since each Anglican Bishop (and Roman Catholic, and Orthodox, and others) is consecrated by laying-on-of-hands from at least three prior Bishops, and since we see an apostolic grace in that sacrament, one can trace a sort of genealogy right back to the Apostles. In more Protestant traditions, apostolicity is understood to mean continuity of teaching and function from one generation of ministers to the next, whether or not that continuity has been sealed with the outward sign of hands.
However one understands it, though, there is something in the office and the person of the Bishop that speaks of a continuous bright line back to that first band of disciples. The line may bend, but it hasn’t broken. I like to picture a sort of bucket-brigade, passing the tradition of the apostles hand to hand across the centuries.
If apostolicity is continuity over time, catholicity, meaning universality, is connection across the world. While the ministry of the Bishop may be to be apostle, chief priest and pastor to the geographic division we call a Diocese, Bishops are also called to guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the whole Church (see the Catechism, page 855 of the Book of Common Prayer). When the Church has convened Councils to clarify the universal faith of the church, it has been the Bishops who have met, and it has been concord with the statements of these Councils that has defined orthodoxy.
In the brokenness of this world, Bishops and even whole churches may try to cast each other out and pretend they have no need for one another, but our tradition teaches that the Bishop is a representative of and link to the universal church. It is no accident that three of the four “Instruments” that draw the Anglican Communion together involve Bishops: the Archbishop of Canterbury as spiritual head, the Lambeth Conference as a periodic Council of Bishops, and the Primates’ Meeting as a think tank for the Bishops who lead the Provinces of the Church.
Apostolicity and catholicity may seem like ridiculously abstract ideas, absurdly heavy to be carried on the shoulders of our frail bishops. But that’s the thing about sacraments. Water is a good thing, but there is nothing in it that conveys union with Christ and rebirth as children of God. Bread and wine are good things, but they have nothing in them that strengthens our union with Christ and one another, or feeds us for eternal life. As a sacramental church, we teach that God uses material things: water, bread, wine, and even us in all our brokenness and limitation, to share God’s grace with the world.
Stephen Lane is a nice man, a good man, eminently qualified by education and holiness of life to lead a religious institution. But as a Bishop, he and all Bishops become the sacramental means by which, among other things, the spiritual gifts of unity across time and space are mediated to the church. That has nothing to do with how nice or good or holy he is, but with the way we believe God uses Bishops in God’s church.
As Christians, we are the Body of Christ, the sacramental means by which, among other things, Christ’s work of reconciliation is carried on in the world. That has nothing to do with how nice or good or holy we are, but with the way we believe God uses Christians in the world.
And if all this seems like a bit much for August in MDI, just remember that +Steve is also our chief priest and pastor, and a good friend with whom we enjoy worshipping and breaking bread. Please plan to join with all the MDI parishes as we celebrate Eucharist with our Bishop on Sunday evening, August 14, 6:00 at St. Saviour.