It is something I have found in the Continuing Anglican movement as in the independent sacramental movement in general. For those in the mainstream churches, it is difficult to know why everyone seems to want to be a bishop!
There seem to be two issues in question. One is power and authority, a game of dominance of the pack and an expression of man’s baser animal instincts. However, there is another dimension, one of adapting to a situation that is completely different from the Anglican and Roman Catholic institutions. In these mainstream churches, the Episcopate is a clearly defined ministry, most beautifully expounded by the Vatican II decree Christus Dominus.
A malfunction has occurred in late nineteenth century and twentieth century western Christianity in such a way as to necessitate the existence of hundreds of small dissident communities of clergy and lay people who no longer had a place in the mainstream churches. Something was no longer working for all in the mainstream churches, and no longer could one say mainstream = good and heretic/schismatic = bad. Something happened in the twentieth century to make people question authority and unquestioning obedience. I believe I mentioned it a short time ago in connection with the Nuremberg Trials!
In the independent sacramental movement – yes, I’ll be lazy and use the acronym ISP American-style! – the ministry presents itself differently. We are no longer in a situation analogous with the old Church / State alliance which could force people to be the captive audience of the clerical caste. In the ISM, we find ourselves in a situation of total freedom, something like a ship of sailors after a mutiny. Either the men turn against each other, as usually happens, or they assume their freedom and reorganise their life under an acceptable authority figure or by some kind of democratic process and social contract. It is the same with those of us who have found ourselves alienated from the Churches of our origins.
In this article, I will resume ideas given by Bishop John Plummer in his book The Many Paths of the Independent Sacramental Movement. We are aeons away from the folies de grandeur described by men like Peter Anson in his famous book Bishops at Large. These little communities are unknown to the majority of lay Christians, and they find little demand from people whose usual choice is conformity with the Church of their origins or life without religion. The vision is too radical for those who have not studied the underlying questions, and prejudices are created by bishops who succumb to folie de grandeur and the temptation to create a parallel imitation of a mainstream Church.
We thus have churches that are mostly made up from clergy and those aspiring to become clergy, and the occasional lay person who has it all thought out. Plummer makes the observation that the Quakers had abolished the laity, not the clergy. All the members of the Church are raised to a level of full participation in the life of the community. The clergy of these communities are unpaid, and therefore work for their incomes. Being non-stipendiary changes the priest’s entire attitude to his role in the ministry. The life of the community becomes democratic. Many bishops and priests have no congregation but rather live a solitary and contemplative life of differing degrees of authenticity.
Why so many bishops? It is the same question in Continuing Anglicanism and in the more respectable Churches. It seems painfully simple. There just aren’t the resources needed to create large structures with institutions and bureaucracy needed to maintain conformity and coherence. The only way it can work is through the autonomy of the community at “parish” level. Therefore the particular church consists of a bishop, a couple of clergy assisting him and a handful of laity. It is a minimum, but it has the characteristics of something in which the Universal Church can subsist.
The Apostolic Priesthood in these communities is separated from the clerical caste. It is no longer an elite or a power structure. Thus, those who try to imitate the clerical caste of the Roman Catholic Church look ridiculous. Those who accept and embrace this rupture will be forced to embrace a different and more humble vision of the Church.
Such a ministry appeals to a romantic view of the early Church, and fosters a vision of a post-modern church that is no longer a hostage to property, money and men being held by material necessity. The sword is double-edged. Men can be prophetic, fickle or even delinquent. That is the risk of freedom. The future of most ISM communities is still precarious, until a second or third generation begins to take root.
The Episcopate is the basis of all sacramental Christianity, and a bishop makes the episcopal ministry of proximity available. The alternative is bring in a bishop from a distance, and that involves things like travelling expenses. The multiplication of bishops makes things cheaper and more practical in a world where Christianity is rarefying and becoming increasingly distant and invisible. Like it or not, that seems to be the reality.
With the high proportion of clergy, the model that seems to work best is not the diocese or some kind of “personal vicariate” or whatever it is called, but the loose and informal religious order and its secular oblates or tertiaries for those who are married. The bishop-abbot is a powerful archetype and confers a note of authenticity and coherence.
That gives some understanding of why hands can tend to be laid in haste and the episcopate banalised at times. It increases the “wince factor” in those who are used to conventional mainstream ecclesiastical structures. My own reaction is to imagine if we were in a country where the government decided to enter into a concordat with Rome and agree to make people choose between Roman Catholic conformity or being non-religious. Independent churches would be suppressed and put under prohibitive laws. Would that country be spiritually richer – unless the RC Church created an environment in which all its faithful could thrive and find happiness? That surely is the challenge thrown to the mainstream.
If the mainstream Church was wide enough and Catholic enough to embrace all, then surely there would be no further need for “pirate” communities to exist. It all seems rather simple. Make bishops parish priests. Reduce the size of dioceses and above all get rid of the bureaucracy. Until that problem is taken into hand, there will be independent sacramental communities and men and women deciding to take things into their own hands. That is how progress is made.