Theological Education - IATDC


The Anglican Way: The Significance of the Episcopal Office for the Communion of the Church - October 2006


At this time in the life of the global Anglican Communion tensions and rifts between Provinces – and bishops -- have seriously impaired the fellowship (koinonia) of the baptised. The reasons for these difficulties are complex and no one would imagine that it is an easy matter to restore fellowship across the churches of the Communion. In such circumstances we can forget that our life together is a gracious gift bestowed by the Lord. It is a gift that serves the mission of God in the world and directly impacts on the integrity and power of our witness to the gospel.

How can we proclaim one Lord, one faith and one baptism when the gift of koinonia seems to be so easily set aside for a supposedly greater goal? What can be more fundamental to our life on earth than our essential interconnectedness with others and the world.[1]  This koinonia or oneness is given by God in creation and renewed in Christ and the Spirit. It is a gift which subsists in the whole body of Christ prior to its embodiment in an ‘instrument of unity’ or particular ecclesial office. Furthermore, like all gifts of God, it can only be a blessing as it is faithfully received and shared by all.  It is critical for this truth to be grasped by an often anxious and fearful Church that seeks heroes and leaders to heal its inner life.

Bishops bear a particular responsibility for the maintenance and nurture of koinonia. Their actions impact upon the whole body of the faithful for we are all ‘members one of another’ (Romans 12:5). The ordinal is clear that bishops of the Church have a great and grave responsibility to the Lord of the Church for the fellowship of all the baptised. Accordingly we offer these ten theses on the role and responsibilities of bishops for the well-being of the communion of the whole church. In the theses that follow it should be abundantly clear that the maintenance of koinonia is not an optional extra or luxury for the episcopate. Rather, at this time in our history the furtherance of koinonia bears directly on the peace and freedom of the baptised. It is they who have been called by God to bear witness to the glorious gospel of Christ in a broken and violent world hungry for peace, freedom and healing.

The following theses identify the bishop’s ministry in relation to the gifts and responsibilities that nurture and grow communion. Thesis One sets the episcopate within the life of the whole church.  Theses two to seven identify aspects of the office of bishop. Theses eight to ten focus on the place of the episcopate in the life of the Church. Our overall concern is the significance of the episcopate for the maintenance of communion in global Anglicanism. However, we also deal with local, diocesan concerns, recognizing that the way a bishop fosters communion  at the micro level has implications for the way a bishop contributes to the fellowship of the baptised at the macro level. It will be clear from the theses that follow that the deeper issue concerns not only what a bishop does but who a bishop is for Christ and the people. The significance of the episcopate for the renewal of koinonia and mission is directly related to how a bishop bears witness in life and service to the holy and triune God.

Thesis One: The Bishop serves the koinonia of the gospel into which the baptised are incorporated by God the Holy Spirit

Through the gospel God calls all people into relationship and establishes a covenant of love, mercy and justice. By baptism the people of God become participants in the visible body of Jesus Christ. The bishop is called to serve this new fellowship by actively fostering the koinonia of the Body of Christ. Just as the eucharist is the focal event which connects communities of faith together so the bishop is the focal person who links communities of faith not only to one another but to the wider Church. As a result the bishop has a universal and ecumenical role. This fundamental theological truth challenges all parochial conceptions of the episcopate that fail to transcend ethnic, social, and cultural realities in which the episcopate is, by nature, necessarily embedded.

Bishops of the Anglican Communion have primary responsibility for Anglicans. However, the nature of the episcopal office means that bishops are called to lead the Church towards a deeper koinonia amongst all God’s people, and in so doing represent the wider Christian community to the diocese. This universal and ecumenical ministry  belongs to the bishop’s role as a symbol of unity. Yet this symbol is ambiguous because the Church is divided and torn. In this context the bishop is a sign of a broken Church looking to its Lord for healing and hope through the power of the Spirit.

Thesis Two: The bishop’s evangelical office of proclamation and witness is a fundamental means by which those who hear the call of God become one in Christ

Bishops in the Anglican Communion are called to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ and provide oversight for the witness and the mission of the Church in all its aspects. This evangelical office of the bishop is founded upon the good news (evangelion).  The bishop encourages all God’s people to be bearers of the good news of Jesus and practice personal evangelism through words and actions. This evangelical office includes a prophetic element through which the bishop gives voice to the concerns of a world  that seeks justice and a creation that needs care and renewal.

The bishop is called to cherish and nurture the evangelical office  always bearing in mind ‘how beautiful are the feet of the one who brings good news’ (Romans 10:15, Isaiah 52:7).  At the heart of this witness is a threefold injunction: to know Christ; to know the power of his resurrection; and to enter into the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings (Philippians 3:10).  This dimension of the office gives a fundamental unity to all mission.  It is symbolised in the eucharist where the bishop gathers and sends the people to be witnesses to the ends of the earth.  Through this office the kingdom of God expands and people discover their oneness in Christ the Lord and Saviour.  Given its centrality for the establishment of communion for all peoples it is clear that the nature and character of the bishop’s evangelical office will occupy a significant part of the collegial life of the episcopate.

Thesis Three: The bishop is a teacher and defender of the apostolic faith that binds believers into one body

Bishops vow to guard the apostolic faith. The historic succession in the episcopate is a sign of communion with the apostolic Church through time and space. As witnesses to the ‘faith once delivered to the saints’, bishops are expected to be more than guardians intent on preserving orthodoxy; they are looked upon to be teachers who are able to bring the Scriptures and the creeds of the Church to life in the present day. Their effectiveness as teachers will depend upon the strength of their own educational formation and upon their openness  to the questions and concerns of their contemporaries. Very often it is when the Christian tradition interacts with new ways of thinking that previously forgotten or unexplored aspects of Christian truth are disclosed. Growth in theological understanding thus requires a lively memory of the Christian inheritance and capacity to use this to interpret new facts and fresh experiences. In this interaction new insights arise for faith. A bishop’s vocation as a teacher is intertwined in a life of prayer and spiritual discipline.  This is the crucible in which wisdom is formed and courage found to  apply it  to everyday life. 

Bishops have a special responsibility to encourage attempts to translate the historic faith into the language, ideas and stories of the people.  The aim of this is to foster a genuine inculturation that produces both worship and theology that are accessible to the people. Unless this happens the gospel is not understood, the Church does not put down deep roots, and communion is weakened as apostolic teaching is misunderstood and distorted. When it does happen, the flourishing of true faith fosters genuine communion across cultures.

In licensing clergy and lay workers, bishops signify that those whom they license are faithful ministers of the Word that gathers and sends the people of God. This means that they must be well equipped theologically for this ministry and mission. The bishop must ensure appropriate theological education and ministerial formation for the diocese. Bishops do well to raise up and support the work of theologians within their dioceses, and to make continuing theological education a high priority for their clergy and lay leaders. A scripture-formed people needs teachers and theologians to help build up the faith of the community and provide resources for the discernment of the Spirit in times of confusion and spiritual hunger.

Thesis Four: The Bishop has oversight (episcope) of the household of God for the good order of the Church

Bishops are commissioned and sent to be stewards or overseers of God’s household within their jurisdiction. They call the people of God into the full expression of the diverse gifts and ministries given by the Holy Spirit.  They oversee processes of discernment and selection of candidates for holy orders, ensuring they are well prepared for their ministries, supporting them pastorally and practically, and providing for the good order of ministry in the diocese.

Oversight includes sharing of responsibilities among clergy and lay people. This involves mutual accountability, good communication and willingness to learn from one another. This reciprocity between bishop and people is reflected in the decision making processes of synodical life. This pattern of working together is empowering for all and is a gift to be nurtured at all levels of the life of the Church. 

The bishop has to ensure the well-being (e.g., spiritual, social, economic) of the diocese in service of its mission. Harnessing resources, fund-raising and financial management of diocesan affairs involves complexities of oversight requiring specialized ministries. Providing episcope in this area highlights the administrative and managerial character of the work of a bishop, somewhat akin to a CEO (Chief Executive Officer) of a large organisation. Bishops ought not to underestimate the distorting effects on their oversight of management models associated with the global market economy. This can lead to a management ethos focussed on strategic plans, goal setting, tasks, competition and successful outcomes.  This is appealing because it seems to offer clarity and control but the price is often loss of the personal and relational dimension of ecclesial life.  The bishop who manages well is one who is aware of the danger of management becoming the basic lens through which episcope is practised. This issue raises a question of how bishops handle matters across diocesan and provincial boundaries. At these levels even koinonia may become a thing to be ‘managed’ at a distance (i.e., avoiding face-to-face relations) rather than resolutely pursued together with patience.

Thesis Five: The bishop is called to coordinate the gifts of the people of God for the building up of the faithful for the furtherance of  God’s mission 

The bishop has the duty of coordinating and encouraging the gifts and talents of all the baptised. The Spirit gives varieties of gifts to all God’s people to build up the church for mission. In the secular context of many cultures, success in life is mostly determined against a background of ruthless competition and individualism. In the church ‘we are all members one of another’ (Romans 12:5), and gifts are not the property of any one person but reside in the whole body for the purpose of strengthening the Church to serve God’s mission.

Sometimes bishops – like all people -- are threatened by the gifts of their brothers and sisters in Christ.  They can become jealous, guarding all power and responsibility to themselves, and thereby thwarting the work of the Holy Spirit. Personal prayer and discernment of one’s own gifts, however, turns one to the nurture of the gifts of others. When a bishop’s life is marked by joy in the ministry of others that bishop will be able to share in ministry with other bishops in a non-competitive and generous manner.  This is a key to the building of koinonia beyond the local diocese. Specialized training in team building and collaborative leadership is critical.

Thesis Six: The bishop serves the koinonia of the gospel through care, encouragement and discipline of the pastors of the Church

To facilitate care of the people of God is fundamental to the episcopal office. To do this the bishop has to know and be known by all.  Face-to-face relationships of generosity and graciousness are vital for this is where trust is nurtured. Communion in Christ involves sharing in holy friendship, in counsel, prayer and guidance as well as visitation of parishes on special occasions, such as confirmation.

It is clearly not feasible for a bishop to be able to get to know everyone.  However, the bishop has a special responsibility to care for the pastors who share in the bishop’s episcope. Caring for the pastors includes attention to their welfare including practicalities of life as well as their spiritual and vocational health, ensuring continuing ministerial and theological education and ongoing formation. One of the most important ways in which the bishop cares for the pastors is by being an example in the development of habits of self-care and attention to the spiritual disciplines.  Such a witness draws people together and raises their sights to new possibilities for freedom in the Spirit.  

A bishop’s responsibility for the encouragement and discipline of clergy is built upon an exchange of trusts that only comes through patient companionship with others. This is the context in which the bishop can offer guidance and admonition, and call the pastors to honesty, care and mutual accountability. What is true in diocesan life is true at the level of the Communion. Mutual accountability at the international level is the result of a genuinely shared episcope, exchange of trusts and mutual accountability at the diocesan level. 

Thesis Seven: The bishop serves the koinonia of the gospel through a ministry of mediation to recall the broken and conflicted body of Christ to its reconciled life in him

Dealing with conflict is a significant feature of a bishop’s work. Most obviously the Church is made up of frail and foolish people. The upward call of Christ presumes we are sinners in need of God’s grace, forgiveness and mercy. In this context, koinonia is necessarily a partial and vulnerable reality. A bishop’s vocation involves tending this koinonia through the wise handling of conflict. A ministry of mediation in situations of conflict is relevant at local and wider levels of the church’s life. The challenge for bishops is how to harness conflicts so that through this process a deeper koinonia in the gospel emerges.  Learning to be a reconciler is a life-long task and bishop’s may benefit greatly from special training in mediation. 

Thesis Eight: The catholicity of the episcopal office connects the baptised across boundaries of culture, class, gender, race and lands and enables the church to realise its oneness in Christ

Catholicity means that the apostolic faith is expressed in the diverse contexts of the world. The gift of God in Christ is for all people, and the Trinitarian faith expressed in the doctrine and worship of a particular church is to be that of the whole church. The bishop embodies this catholic character of the gospel.  This means that a bishop has particular responsibility to strive for a reality in which the eucharist in a diocese is one celebrated by and for the whole church.  It is ironic and a cause of sorrow that the sacrament of unity is an occasion of division.

The catholicity of the office means the bishop is an agent of the fullness of the one faith expressed through myriad local forms. Inculturation that is authentic plumbs the heart of the Christian faith.  This requires active engagement with the local cultures so that any stumbling blocks to the hearing, receiving and enacting of the Gospel be removed.  When this occurs the gifts of the people are harnessed for authentic mission in that time and place. A bishop must truly know the local cultures and values of the people that the bishop has been called to serve and lead. This can be a real challenge, for the bishop is chief pastor within and across particular ethnic, racial, and cultural contexts.  Yet in this role the bishop has to ensure that the one catholic faith finds expression through these particular identities without becoming subsumed by them.  The catholicity of the office requires a way of life that is constantly in dialogue with others (especially including other bishops) across many boundaries.

Catholicity also means that the decisions that come from any local place are not simply ‘local’ decisions, but affect all. Bishops have a particular responsibility to bring the church catholic into local processes of discerning the apostolic faith. They also have a responsibility to represent their diocese to the rest of the church, to interpret to the Communion the realities of their local place.  This means explaining not simply the end results of decisions reached, but being able to give theological explanation of the discernment of the Gospel in the culture, and of the catholicity of such decisions. Bishops need the courage and wisdom to be able to hear the voice of others whether within or outside their contexts.

Thesis Nine: The bishop serves the collegial life of the Church through the nurture of strong bonds with bishops of the Anglican Communion and those who share episcope in other Christian churches

The episcopate is by nature and calling collegial. An Anglican bishop participates in an episcope shared with all other bishops.  In the first instance this occurs between the bishops in a diocese (i.e., diocesan bishop, assistant and  suffragan bishops).  Therefore all are called into open relationship with each other in the Communion and with those called to exercise episcope in the wider church. Collegiality means more than working with those with whom one has an affinity. Rather it involves seeing one’s ministry not as one’s own but as shared with others. At a Provincial level, collegiality involves many practical aspects of cooperative work, study and prayer, and shared responsibility with Synods in Provincial governance. It has particular importance in contexts where the Christian church is in a minority or in a multi-faith context. The patterns of local collegiality-in-communion are a gift to the wider Anglican Communion.

As bishops seek counsel, journey with each other, and pray with and for each other, real relationships grow. But such solidarity is a costly gift. Real relationships are fragile and tainted by sin. If relationships amongst some bishops within a Province are fraught with tensions, refusals of dialogue or other patterns of manipulation undermine collegiality. It is no surprise that these weaknesses show up at the international level. Yet it is of the essence of the episcopate that bishops give themselves over to collegial mutuality in the service of communion. Given the present state of the Anglican Communion it is the special collegial responsibility of the bishop to be at prayer for and with fellow colleagues. This is particularly relevant for those bishops who are in conflict with one another. Their failure to attend fervently to this ordinal vow weakens the body of Christ for which they have responsibility.  This in turn weakens the bonds all the baptised share with one another.

Thesis Ten: A diocesan bishop is given responsibility for episcope in the particular place where the bishop is principal  Pastor

It is important for the coherence of the mission of the Church that in one place there should be only one principal or chief Pastor. Within particular and complex circumstances (for example, where indigenous people have been subjugated), it may be necessary, with the consent of the chief Pastor, to provide a specific pastoral ministry of support to a section of a population. However, sight should never be lost of the desirability that a Christian church in a particular place should be a single assembly of people of all kinds.

There are occasions when a church falls out of sympathy with its bishop on a matter of doctrine or conduct. It must not be the case that the mere fact of ease of modern communication and travel becomes the excuse for choosing a leader in another territory to be one’s chief Pastor. In the case of serious and extensive conflict, it becomes the duty of a diocesan bishop to provide pastoral support in particular congregations.  When a diocesan bishop fails to undertake this duty the matter becomes a provincial responsibility.


The theses outlined above cover the broad range of episcopal responsibilities.  There will undoubtedly be matters that have not been dealt with that are significant for bishops in the exercise of their daily office.  The intention throughout has been to reflect on the nature of the episcopate in relation to the issue of communion.  This focus has been explored at the diocesan level and in relation to the Communion.  We are convinced that how a bishop handles the complex and delicate issues surrounding the koinonia of the Church at the local level of the diocese will influence the way a bishop nurtures communion beyond the diocese.

We have tried to offer a brief outline for a theology of the episcopate that is grounded in the received wisdom from scripture and tradition and also alive to the realities that bishops face as they serve the Church’s koinonia in the gospel.  The theses are incomplete and are currently being developed more intentionally in relation to the scripture tradition and the ordinal.  Where relevant we have also tried to indicate areas that might become subject of training and professional development for bishops.  More detailed work is currently being conducted in this area by other bodies in the Communion.  

We offer this present document as a work in progress.  We hope that we have provided a small resource to promote discussion and learning concerning the character of the episcopate.  Throughout the diversity of episcopal practices, attitudes and ways of leadership we wonder if there might be room for reflection on the idea of an ‘episcopal character’ along similar lines to what has been referred to as the ‘baptismal character’? We hope and pray that the bishops of the Anglican Communion may find it useful in their difficult but sacred calling to serve the Lord of the Church who desires that all may be one in Jesus Christ.

[1] The terms ‘koinonia’ and ‘communion’ can become so much a part of the discourse of a fractured and divided church that they loose their force and significance.  Koinonia has to do with a fundamental connectivity between God, the world, and all living things, including of course human life. The African word ‘ubuntu’ captures something of this primary oneness.  In the Genesis story human beings are called ‘earthlings’ or ‘groundlings’ (Genesis 2).  This underscores the fact that we are ‘of the earth’ and are intrinsically related to other living things, the whole created environment and God. Such koinonia is encoded into the very being of creation. The story of redemption is a story of Christ rejoining people, races and the rest of creation.  This is the good news which overcomes sin and broken bonds. There is no other community on the earth with a mandate to bear witness to the remarkable miracle of our oneness in the triune God.  What is even more remarkable is that God invites the body of Christ to become the new experiment in the communion of the Holy Spirit. Bishops serve this koinonia which is nothing less than the way of creation, salvation and the life of the world to come.