A few thoughts on the evolution of monepiscopacy (“one bishop”)

Matt Kennedy, a presbyter in the Anglican Church of North America, has initiated an interesting discussion on Facebook regarding a post on the canon fodder weblog, “Were early churches ruled by elders or a single bishop?” I largely agree with what Dr. Michael Kruger, the Presbyterian blogger at canon fodder, has to say, but I’d like to expand on his comments a bit.

The evolution of from the plural episcopacy (of presbyter-bishops) that we seen in the New Testament and other early writings to monepiscopacy took about a century and was not simultaneous throughout the Church. There are hints of its origins in the NT texts, though we must avoid the temptation to impose later developments in church order, whether presbyterian or episcopalian or congregationalist, on those texts. Monepiscopacy, or more precisely the congregational oversight of an individual (likely in concert with presbyter-bishops) is suggested by the ministries of Timothy and Titus as well as the “angels” of the churches of Asia Minor noted in the opening chapters of Revelation.

Interesting, these churches (with the exception of the island of Crete) are in the same region, and are some of the same churches (Philadelphia, Smyrna, Laodicea) addressed by Ignatius of Antioch as having a bishop and presbyters. So it appears that monepiscopacy had developed at least in Antioch and the churches of Asia Minor by the very beginning of the second century, possibly out of those NT precedents (apostolic delegates and “angels of the churches”). We should also note that the bishop and presbyters were over a local church. There would be no “diocesan” structure, with a bishop having oversight of a number of churches that had been given into the congregational care of presbyters, until well into the fourth century in most places. (Yes, we Anglicans have to admit that the Presbyterians preserve something that we don’t, in the congregational threefold ministry of pastor-elder-deacon.)

Notably and uniquely, Ignatius does not address the bishop (or the presbyters) in his letter to the Romans, suggesting that monepiscopacy was unknown in the church in the imperial capital at the time, which accords with the evidence of a plurality of overseers that we find in the letter of Clement to the Corinthians and in the Shepherd of Hermas, both of which are letters associated with the church in Rome. (Corinth, whose perennial problems with factionalism Clement addresses in the letter, apparently came under the authority of the church in Rome in some way, possibly having to do with St. Paul’s association with the church in Rome.) In fact, it is fairly conventionally assumed that monepiscopacy was unknown in Rome until the episcopate of Anicetus (d. 167/8) or immediately after. The writings of Irenaeus of Lyons suggest that in the late second century no clear distinction was made in the West, or at least in Italy and southern Gaul, between the apostolic succession (in faithful teaching) of presbyters and of bishops.

While the development of parish (or in Rome, “stational”) churches took another couple of centuries, it appears that pretty early on the presbyters of the church in Alexandria were associated severally with churches in the various districts of the city. (Arius’ position as a “parish priest,” the presbyter-pastor of one of the more important of these several city churches, made him and his fellow Alexandrine presbyters rather unusual in the early fourth century Church.) In fact, the bishop of Alexandria was chosen from among these presbyters, and probably up to the episcopate of Alexander (early fourth century – he was the bishop of Alexander present at the first Council of Nicaea, to whom Athanasius was deacon and theological adviser), a new bishop was ordained not by other bishops (as was the case in other parts of the Church; cf. the Apostolic Tradition “of St. Hippolytus”), but by the laying on of hands of the presbyters of the church of Alexandria. (And possibly also by laying the hand of his deceased predecessor on the new bishop’s head.)

There is no reason for Anglicans to become primitivists. Monepiscopacy developed for valid reasons, under – I and many others believe and have done for nearly two millennia – the direction of the Holy Spirit. To think otherwise demands a coherent and nonprejudicial account of how (at a minimum) the development of monepiscopacy can be rejected while the simultaneous development, or rather discernment, of the NT canon can be accepted. That’s being said, there is no question that in faithfulness to our own heritage as reformed catholics and specifically to the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, we Anglicans can rethink how the ministries of bishop and presbyter relate to each other; how bishops can actually provide pastoral care not only to the clergy but to the laity in the churches committed to their charge; and how episcopal, presbyteral, and diaconal ministries are better exercised among local churches.

Over the next few weeks, as a reboot to the Confessing Reader, I plan to examine some of the ways that Anglicans historically have rethought these issues and more fundamentally, how I think that we should be rethinking our ecclesiology to make it more pastoral and more missional by making it even more deeply biblical and catholic. These are not merely issues of rearranging the deck furniture on a sinking ship—or even on a sound ship well under way for the pleasure of its passengers alone—but are issues that have what I hope to show are profound consequences for how the Church is ordered, how bishops relate to the people and clergy committed to their care, how the diocese and the parish relate to one another, and how faithful bishops relate to heretical ones, specifically with reference to how those bishops in The Episcopal Church who dissent from the recent actions of General Convention relate to other bishops who have either championed or simply conformed to the canonical, liturgical, and doctrinal changes.


One thought on “A few thoughts on the evolution of monepiscopacy (“one bishop”)

  1. Do I need to subscribe? Thanks for defining Monepiscopacy: at first glance I thought you were promotng that soft drink company that I have called for an international boycott of its numerous products throughout the rest of this century. I take almost getting run over by one of their trucks very seriously!

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