What makes a Christian bishop?
As my own United Methodist denomination is busy sunning itself in Tampa, FL at General Conference 2012, and deciding (among other restructuring initiatives) not to set aside one bishop to be President, that is, "bearer of hope and messenger of best practices," (to be sure, a job description anyone could be happy to avoid), it is perhaps a kairotic moment to think about bishops.
What are bishops?
For the majority of Christians, bishops are those members of the Christian Church who embody the apostolic succession: a chain of witnesses extending from the first apostles, down through the centuries, down past today, right on to Christ's return and the end of time.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says it this way:
In order that the full and living Gospel might always be preserved in the Church the apostles left bishops as their successors. They gave them their own position of teaching authority. Indeed, the apostolic preaching, which is expressed in a special way in the inspired books, was to be preserved in a continuous line of succession until the end of time. (par. 77)
This living transmission, accomplished by the Holy Spirit, is called Tradition... through Tradition, the Church, in her doctrine, life, and worship perpetuates and transmits to every generation all that she herself is, all that she believes. (par. 78)
In this Roman Catholic articulation, which would bear a level of resemblance to Eastern Orthodox and some Anglican articulations, the bishops, or episcopacy, have a special role to play in preaching and handing on the faith "once delivered unto the saints" (Jude 3). The verb for "handing on" in both Greek and Latin has the same root as the word for "tradition"— hence the lively importance of Tradition for Catholics and Orthodox, and the close association of it with the work of the Spirit. The episcopacy, then, are those successors of the first apostles whose preserved "unity of the Spirit" (Eph. 4:3) in what is believed and taught, across the nations and the centuries, assures the identity of the Catholic Church in any age with the "one" Church of the first apostles.
What is a United Methodist Bishop?
Among the most salient features of United Methodist bishops is that they differ from the above model in almost all the relevant particulars. They certainly do not enjoy the teaching authority of the first apostles—in fact, UM bishops have no direct power to shape or control United Methodist doctrine. To their deep boredom, and perhaps as a providential punishment for their sillier exploits, they cannot even vote at General Conference.
Further, United Methodist bishops seem to stand in a rather clear relation to the historical apostolic succession. They are outside of it. (Unless one takes seriously the tale involving Bishop Erasmus, John Wesley's episcopal ordinations of Coke and Asbury seem a bit spurious—though Wesley did not even want them to call themselves bishops!) The chief power of United Methodist bishops is the power to make clergy appointments. They also ordain. While these are important, and carry great weight, they not seem to fulfill the felt needs United Methodists have for their bishops.
So: What is a United Methodist Bishop? This is the question. And how to answer it? Which model from the present age can fill the void of this time? Or who among us stands as a Belteshazzar to interpret these dark dreams?
Is there some alternative?
Francis Asbury and the Dove
Francis Asbury comes to mind. As noted in his new book, (the cleverly titled) Bishop, Will Willimon records Asbury's take on these things. It is this: in the early church—correction: the early, early, early church— bishops were itinerant. He means the apostles who literally were the twelve disciples, and a few people after them. Ragged apostolic itineracy was good. The settling of bishops in one place, one seat, one location was, for Asbury, the beginning of the decline of the Church into unfaithfulness. And darkness. For centuries.
Then (with something like the flair with which Willimon narrates it), the predawn grows and grows, and the first radiant beam of the sun shines down over the hills, setting afire with light and orangey goodness the valley floor. The Holy Spirit descends and lights again on the world like a dove, as God's intention for the church begins at last to be realized when the Methodists appear with itineracy, and so re-institute the apostolic polity. Presumably, the Holy Spirit also brought down a box of Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations fresh off the celestial printing press. (This new people would need some book to discuss at their meetings.)
Asbury's argument might be the occasion for some balking were it maintained strongly in our ecumenical relationships, but it is at least an argument. And it makes a move that is important, a move on which Methodists being "church" depends. Asbury takes a creedal mark of the Church—as in, one, holy, catholic, apostolic—and makes the criterion of identity faithfulness to what Christ has given, rather than the (to his mind, mere) continuity in traditions of "handing on" across the span of centuries. Church is, then, a mysterious reality, given by the Spirit of God, in which we spiritually participate through faith and faithful works.
This gives us a way into "apostolicity," in spite of the lamentable schisms of the past that have resulted in United Methodist bishops looking illegitimate from the viewpoints of Roman Catholics and Orthodox. What United Methodist bishops can do is participate in the Spirit-given reality of apostolicity in such a way as to be a Christian witness to the world and an encouragement to the whole Church (including Roman Catholics and Orthodox). A good place to start is with the Apostle Paul.
Paul, Foolishness, and Filth
For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe. For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom: But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness. But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and Christ the wisdom of God. (1 Cor. 1:21-4.)
Apostolic episcopacy is not contented with the wisdom of the world, but only with the wisdom of God: preaching Christ crucified. To live is this Christ, and to die is this gain of resurrection. As Amy Laura Hall, Sarah Howell, and Len Sweet have voiced, the current obsession with "Leadership" doesn't quite grasp the radicality of Christian identity, which is to be a follower, nor the heart of apostolicity, which is willingness, for Christ's sake, to be a fool. The world is looking for heroes to lead it. St. Augustine notably thought it inappropriate for the Church's martyrs to be called "heroes." How much more then, must "servant leaders" be just "servant followers." The emphasis is on clear witness to the crucified.
The Apostle again:
We are fools for Christ's sake, but ye are wise in Christ; we are weak, but ye are strong; ye are honourable, but we are despised. Even unto this present hour we both hunger, and thirst, and are naked, and are buffeted, and have no certain dwellingplace; And labour, working with our own hands: being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we suffer it: Being defamed, we entreat: we are made as the filth of the world, and are the offscouring of all things unto this day. (1 Cor. 4:10-3)
In the Wesleyan spirit I do want our bishops to "lead" us to "fruitfulness in numbers," but with a debased and holy desperation, rather than the sleek manner of a CEO whose very appearance assures me that everything is going to be allright, and my money is fine, for I am investing (worldly) wisely. In my heart of hearts, I dream of bishops who are living incarnationally from the apostolic witness (and goading me to do the same!), bishops dragged forward at breakneck speed by the soaring of a risen Lord, who joyfully awaits our beleaguered arrival in the New Jerusalem, with all the winged hosts of angels singing about, whose songs will wipe the tears forever from our eyes.
As the Lutheran pietist Johann Georg Hamann wrote, "The more edifying the speaker, the heavier his Galilean shibboleth weighs on our ears." What we need most from our bishops is that they present themselves and preach with an accent so as to clarify the discontinuity between the way of the world and the way of salvation as starkly as possible. We need, and the world needs, in the Holy Spirit of "St. Francis Asbury," apostolic bishops: neither gurus, nor technocrats, but base followers, "Franciscan" Pauline apostles, who appear and show us the stigmata, and travel living among us still.
"St. Francis Asbury," ora pro nobis.
Clifton Stringer is the pastor of Lakehills United Methodist Church in Lakehills, TX.