“The historic episcopate, locally adapted”

By Marshall Scott

Several Saturdays ago, I attended the diocesan service in which transitional deacons were ordained priests. I like to think that I’ve had some small part in the education of three of them. It was a great honor, and a great thrill, to participate in laying hands on them.

I think we are in a sort of “season” of ordinations – especially, the elections and ordinations of bishops. It seems to me that in just the last few months there have been elections or ordinations of new bishops in ten or eleven dioceses, with another three or four in process. With all these new bishops, it’s worth thinking about our understanding of what they’re committing to.

Not long ago I wrote a chapter – really, more an encyclopedia article – for a new book. It is being compiled by a colleague of mine, another chaplain, to provide information specifically for physicians on the spiritual traditions of patients, and how those traditions address issues of health care. I wrote, as you might expect, about the Episcopal Church.

The editor also requested of each author a brief statement representative of the tradition taken from Scripture or tradition. That wasn’t as easy as it sounded at first. The editor, himself a faithful Baptist, assumed for us writers that one or another passage of Scripture would be submitted. I thought of several, but none seemed quite right. It wasn’t because Scripture isn’t important in the Episcopal Church. Contrary to some current strident voices, it certainly is. But it seemed to me that no one passage of Scripture was more meaningfully “Episcopal” than any other. After all, there isn’t some distinctively “Episcopal” Bible. We read all of it, even if we wrestle with some parts more than others (and who doesn’t?). And, we share all of it with other Christians of the Western Church and, by and large, with the Eastern Churches. No single passage stood out for me as more “Episcopal” than “Catholic” or “Orthodox” or simply “Christian.”

Something from the Book of Common Prayer, then: that’s where any Episcopalian would go next. I looked through the 1979 Book (it is, after all, the Prayer Book we use, and in which I was ordained), including the “Preface to the First Book of Common Prayer,” and the section of Historical Documents, and through the Rites of Baptism and the Holy Eucharist (both Rites, and all six Eucharistic prayers). Finally, one prayer stood out for me. It is an ancient prayer, taken from the Gelasian Sacramentary (per Hatchett), but it has not been used in earlier Episcopal or Anglican Prayer Books.

O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry out in tranquillity the plan of salvation; let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Now, I will admit that this collect is a personal favorite of mine. At the same time, I was struck once again by how important this collect is in the life of the Episcopal Church. It is the last of the Solemn Collects in the liturgy for Good Friday. It is also the Collect after the ninth lesson in the Great Vigil of Easter. For each of these important rites of the Church, the collect is, as it were, a summary of what we believe God is doing. In the death and resurrection of Christ, we believe God is indeed restoring – or perhaps, re-creating – all of creation, so as to bring creation to perfection.

With that in mind, I was also struck by the third place in which this collect is used. This collect is the summation of the Litany for Ordinations in the Episcopal Church – all ordinations. Whether for bishop, priest, or deacon, this collect is read in every ordination in the Episcopal Church.

Now, this is a change from previous prayer books. The 1928 American book had this collect at the end of the litany:

Almighty God, giver of all good things, who by thy Holy Spirit hast appointed divers Orders of Ministers in thy Church; Mercifully behold this thy servant, now called to the Work and Ministry of a Bishop; and so replenish him with the truth of thy Doctrine, and adorn him with innocency of life, that, both by word and deed, he may faithfully serve thee in this Office, to the glory of thy Name, and the edifying and well-governing of thy Church; through the merits of our Saviour Jesus Christ, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the same Holy Spirit, world without end. Amen

This collect dates to the 1550 Ordinal of the Church of England, published then in the 1552 Book of Common Prayer, where it is used, again at the end of the litany, for consecration of bishops and priests, and in adapted form for deacons. It was used this way in the 1928 Book.

Now, I am convinced that one of the things that current Anglican arguments are about is bishops. Granted, I think over all it’s about what it means to be Anglican; and within that, then, how we interpret Scripture and how we do or do not accept human sexual lives. But, a critical event was the election of a bishop, and many of the subsequent actions and reactions have been either statements of, actions of, or ordinations of bishops. We continue to speak about ordination of bishops for “the whole Church,” even if we argue about what we mean when we say that.

It that’s the case, it seems these collects, once again in position to summarize the Litany for Ordinations, do describe a different understanding of what ordination is about, and not just the ordination of bishops, but all ordinations. The 1550 collect is, if you will, about one person, and that one person’s place in the structure and discipline of the Church. It is about one servant, the vocation to which he is called, his fitness for it, and his functions in it.

The 1979 collect has a much wider focus. In the 1979 rite ordination is not solely about one individual or one individual vocation. Rather, it places ordination in the context of God’s process of re-creating the world. The ordinand is not called simply to “serve in this office” of bishop (or priest or deacon), but to participate in raising up what had been cast down, and making new what had grown old, and so participating in God’s work of “bringing all things to their perfection.” The fact that this collect is also in some sense the summary collect for both the Good Friday liturgy and the Easter Vigil only seems to confirm this view. And, of course, this is not just the work of the ordinand, but of the “whole church, that wonderful and sacred mystery.” And so in that sense ordination is hardly about the ordinand at all, but rather about the participation of the whole Church in God’s work of salvation.

In these controversies, when the statements of bishops as individuals, as groups, and as “first among equals” have so much currency, and are attributed so much authority, I am struck by the differences in these collects used roughly in parallel in the different ordination rites. Looking at them, I can see both how we come to speak so often of God doing a new thing, and how others speak of us altering the Anglican tradition. The differences in these prayers will, to some extent, distinguish Episcopal bishops from bishops ordained in and for other provinces. At the same time, if we are to appreciate the “historic episcopate, locally adapted,” perhaps we can consider these understandings, not as mutually exclusive, but as complementary and mutually informative. Yes, we ordain each person to a particular office in a particular time and place. But in our sacramental theology we see each office and each person as a part of God’s mission of reconciliation and restoration. So, perhaps we can go beyond claiming one or another as “right,” and see the truth and the blessing in both.

I would hope we could. I think it’s something that we Anglicans used to do.

The Rev. Marshall Scott is a chaplain in the Saint Luke’s Health System, a ministry of the Diocese of West Missouri. A past president of the Assembly of Episcopal Healthcare Chaplains, and an associate of the Order of the Holy Cross, he keeps the blog Episcopal Chaplain at the Bedside.

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