Taking the Bishop

[Updated May 9th]
The historian Eusebius recounts that when the Roman Christians needed a bishop in about the year 250, they had some possibly miraculous  assistance:
They relate that suddenly a dove flying down lighted on [Fabian's] head, resembling the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Saviour in the form of a dove. Thereupon all the people, as if moved by one Divine Spirit, with all eagerness and unanimity cried out that he was worthy, and without delay they took him and placed him upon the episcopal seat.
The principle that bishops were elected by the clergy and people was very clearly established in ancient times, even where interventionist pigeons were not involved. Ambrose of Milan was famously acclaimed even while still a catechumen; Cyprian of Carthage is adamant about the principle of popular election.

This may seem to be very far removed from the news last week of the enforced retirement of Roman Catholic Bishop of Toowoomba, Bill Morris. Reactions to this event have been predictably varied, but conservative cheers and more circumspect reflections have had in common a recourse to law, and to secular models and practices. In the blue corner, Kate Edwards justified Bishop Morris' dismissal by suggesting he would have been liable to prosecution under the Trade Practices Act for false advertizing; in the middle of the ring Noel Debien contrasted the Roman roots of Canon Law with the common-law approach of the English-speaking world. In the red corner, Jesuits Frank Brennan and Andrew Hamilton asked pointed questions about due process and natural justice; The Age's Barney Zwartz has given the style of leadership shown by the Vatican a spirited serve.

Bill Morris' own response (quoted in Andrew Hamilton's Eureka Street piece) includes a fascinating and remarkable quote from the Pope's statement to him:
'Canon Law does not make provision for a process regarding bishops, whom the Successor of Peter nominates and may remove from Office'.
This is where the ancient stories of Fabian, Ambrose and the like become something more than antique curiosities. Although they are about the arrival of bishops rather than their departure, the Pope's claim jars with what he knows very well to be the general practice of the Church that gave us the Canon of scripture and the Creeds, and with the same sources of tradition to which he refers (with varying levels of accuracy or credibility) in apparently claiming Bishop Morris had departed from them.

I assume the Pope's is an accurate statement about the legal situation as it stands in current Roman Catholic canons. To give this state of affairs the status of a universal and obvious truth, however, would be absurd. Some might claim untrammeled executive authority is an organic or legitimate development from some notion of Papal primacy existing in nuce in the ancient Church. True, other bishops, not least the Bishop of Rome, were often involved in episcopal elections and depositions, particularly where there was doubt about legitimacy. Through the medieval period, episcopal elections were conducted by Cathedral chapters rather than by popular assemblies (not the Pope). Yet there is no authentic trajectory in Christian tradition from an ancient complexity balancing local and universal concerns to a central authority that recognizes no constraints, rules or principles for its exercise other than personal fiat.

So the problem is not just that the Pope isn't subject to reasonably-conceived ideas of natural justice and due process (although that is, I think, a problem), or that he has a certain leadership style; it is also the erasure from memory of what the Church has actually taught about the relationship between its wider reality and bishop and people locally.

This of course isn't a uniquely Roman Catholic problem. Bishops of the Church of England are not appointed more democratically or transparently than this (although there are known processes and lines of accountability - and they would have better legal redress should anyone try to get rid of them!). Yet mere recourse to saying "this is the teaching of the Church" and then throwing up one's arms helplessly (whether with a grin or a sigh) is not enough. Clearly, if the teaching of the Church is conceived as a living tradition, as the Pope would insist, then it is not just wider legal frameworks but that very tradition which asks some hard questions of any exercise of power like this.


  1. Charles Sherlock5:59 am

    Thank you, Andrew: this is precisely the sort of re-reception of the ministry of the Bishop of Rome which ARCIC envisages in The Gift of Authority, but about wider matters. Your honing in on the issue of how bishops are 'elected' is very pertinent as ARCIC resumes discussion on the relation between the Church local and universal.

    (NB: the UFT Dean has a lot of fascinating information on how episcopal appointments have been made among Australian Anglicans ...)

    But 'elected' is perhaps an unfortunate word: its theological grounding is in divine grace, the electing / creative work of God in Christ, but populist ideas of 'laocracy' perhaps shape it now (as anyone who has endured Melbourne election synods will know!).

  2. Thanks Charles - perhaps people in Melbourne Synods need to be reminded that "elected" just means "chosen" after all...

    Thank you for making the connection with the ARCIC focus, which was in my mind as I wrote. I suspect that, at least for those sympathetic RC interlocutors who will hold lightly to the idea of "subsistence", this is an area where Anglicanism for all its/our flaws really has something of catholic tradition to offer back to our sisters and brothers across the Tiber.


  3. Anonymous4:29 am

    An interesting parallel:


    It takes the Episcopalian Bishop of South Carolina to task for assuming the self-containing sovereignty of his own diocese, as opposed to a model which sees the individual diocese dependent on the polity of the national church. This seems to be the general view of the episcopacy and the diocesan structure in TEC - hence the various issues over individual dioceses attempting to steer away from the majority decisions of the national church.

    But added to this is the TEC attitude towards any similar binding kind of collegiality on an international level - e.g. the rejection of the Anglican Covenant by the Diocese of Quincy (http://www.livingchurch.org/news/news-updates/2011/5/2/quincy-opposes-anglican-covenant). The imposition of supra-national authority is the key argument in the 'no' campaign against the covenant.

    As to the appointment of Bishops – TEC and RC bishops both have much more stringent procedures for integrating the local and universal elements of the episcopacy than Australian dioceses: TEC through the requirement that a majority of other dioceses consent to the choice by the individual diocese, and the RCC through the thorough processes engaged in by Papal nuncio, Episcopal Conferences and presidents thereof; the Congregation for Bishops in Rome; and finally, the choice of the Pope from the Terna presented to him at the end of the process.

    We might disagree with the balance between local and universal in these processes, but we can’t deny they’re both there. The question, after the appointment of a bishop, is one of balance between ‘every bishop a pope in his own diocese’, and the imposition of external power structures over the basic constitutive unit of the Church. The simplification of this issue to "Pope imposes personal will over and against needs and wants of the local church, expressed by its legitimate bishop" doesn't really do it justice.

    Intervention by the Pope was both 'legal' from an RC perspective, and consistent with the teaching and polity of that Church. In some of the principles involved, as Anglicans, I think it's probably not a bad thing to agree with - the individual bishop is not sovereign in his or her own diocese, but must be accountable to the wider church and the 'consensus fidelium' (and what belongs to the consensus isn't something that can or should be defined by each individual bishop). We wouldn't want to say, for instance, that the Diocese of Sydney should allow lay presidency because Sydney both thinks that it's biblical, and has itself decided that it is a second-order issue and therefore not something for which it needs the assent of the wider church.

    The practical implementation of the course adopted – the denial of natural justice – is a different issue, and not ecclesiologically significant, although certainly significant in other ways, as you have hinted at. The natural justice argument could be separated from the ecclesiological by the following hypothetical: would you have no issue with the Pope’s move if Morris had been investigated (by the same notoriously conservative American bishop) in early 2007; called to the Vatican later that year, having received a copy of the report and told he could respond to it in person, given the opportunity for a public recantation of his stated opinions on the ordination of women and the recognition of non-Roman orders, and then fired upon his refusal in late 2007?

    Stuart Thomson.


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