It is not an accident that the church to which we belong is named the Episcopal Church USA rather than the Anglican Church of the USA. To understand this and to understand the role of bishop in our midst we will take a brief look at the formation of bishops and their relationship within the development of the Episcopal Church.
The word episcopacy has its origins in the Greek for “watcher” or overseer. The concept of church leader appears in an assortment of locations in the New Testament. Depending on the scripture translation, words such as leader, bishop and overseer can be found. For example, 1 Timothy 3:1-7 define the role of the church “bishop”. The NRSV translation contains such ideals as “sensible”, “respectable”, “hospitable”, “not violent, but gentle”, “not quarrelsome” and “well thought of by outsiders so that he may not fall into disgrace”. These characteristics may still be appropriate today!
In the Book of Common Prayer, Preface to Ordination Rites (page 510) the following introduction is offered:
“The Holy Scriptures and ancient Christian writers make it clear that from the apostles’ time, there have been different ministries within the Church. In particular, since the time of the New Testament, three distinct orders of ordained ministers have been characteristic of Christ’s holy catholic Church. First, there is the order of bishops who carry on the apostolic work of leading, supervising, and uniting the Church...
It is also recognized and affirmed that the threefold ministry is...a gift from God for the nurture of his people and the proclamation of his Gospel everywhere.”
Thus, the role of bishop (leader/overseer) begins in our very early Christian history.
The Church grew within the Roman Empire, but when the empire collapsed, the church remained. To preserve the church, bishops (appointed by Rome) became the financial and spiritual connection between Rome and the local churches. However, resistance to papal authority grew.
Within the time of turmoil of the Reformation, the church in England separated itself from the church in Rome for political, rather than theological reasons. The bishops of the church now found themselves serving by appointment of the crown, not the pope.
By the time colonization of the New World began, the English church was functioning under a common Prayer Book. As colonists continued to arrive in the New World disagreements about the level of oversight from the crown, the need for bishops, the use of the Prayer Book and a multitude of theological differences developed. Bishops were still mostly on English soil. They were still required to acknowledge allegiance to the crown and this was contrary to the wishes of many in the colonies.
The above three paragraphs have been provided as a VERY BRIEF history of the church so that we may fast forward to Samuel Seabury.
Samuel Seabury became the first bishop of the Episcopal church. He was born November 30, 1729 in Groton, CT. He served in many roles within the church from the time of his ordination in 1753. After the Revolutionary War substantial difficulties arose because bishops consecrated under the “old” order had pledged loyalty to the English crown. This was no longer acceptable. To overcome this barrier to the continued episcopacy in the colonies, Samuel Seabury went to Scotland. There he was consecrated as bishop on November 14, 1784. He returned to the colonies having committed to incorporate at least some elements of the Scottish Prayer Book in the development of the new Episcopal Prayer Book. He accomplished a major task - bringing the validity of apostolic succession to the developing church of the “New World”. His other major concern was that of the threefold ordained ministry which, as has been mentioned above, remains a part of our tradition today. Samuel Seabury served as Presiding Bishop October 5, 1789 - September 8, 1792.
We have established that the role of bishop has its origins in the New Testament and that bishops have traveled many paths, through a multitude of difficulties to bring us to where we are today. However, the basis of the bishops role is unchanged.
A bishop is a leader and overseer, responsible for the well being of the Church. The Examination of a Bishop (BCP pages 517 - 520) provides some of the following charges:
1 “...to be one with the apostles in proclaiming Christ’s
resurrection and interpreting the Gospel...”
Well, here we are in search of a bishop who will be called by God to serve this Diocese and the larger church with the history and commitment of so many that have gone before. Our prayers are with this process and those who feel called to respond.
Prepared by: The Rev. Sandra Oetjen for the Diocesan Search Committee