Making Bishops

A recent article on ordination penned by the Very Rev. Lady Shelia Sherwood, OPoc did an excellent job of describing the sacrament and explaining why it couldn’t be accomplished from a distance. I could have written the answer to the rhetorical question posed by the headline more substantially, however. The terse response would be, “No.” More emphatic would be the response, “Heck no.” I could even get a little verbose by saying, “No effing way!”

Any of those answers would have been dwarfed by the headline, and wouldn’t be nearly as informative. Lady Sherwood’s writing got me to thinking about consecration, the elder sibling of ordination, which is how bishops are made.

Those of us who belong to liturgical and hierarchal churches may have gotten puzzled looks from friends and family from evangelical Protestant denominations. They might have a hard time understanding why a church might need leaders before it begins accumulating followers.

The main difference, I would submit, is that evangelical Christians place a heavier emphasis upon the Great Commission: “Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”  – Matthew 28:16-20, (NIV)

Members of liturgical churches, however, put a little more emphasis on this verse: “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.”– Matthew 16:18, (NIV)

The second verse gives us a splendid sense of Christ’s efforts to redeem us from our sins. After all, Peter had abandoned Jesus in the Messiah’s darkest hour. The once self assured disciple became, ahem, petrified by the notion of being identified as one of Christ’s followers; now he would be a leader. Church tradition holds that Jesus’ words made Peter the first pope.

In the early days of the church, there was little difference between a Bishop and what we would call a priest today. Over time, however, the job became more about administration than performing the main works of the gospel. Eventually, they became the ones who dispatched missionary priests to  all sorts of  inhospitable places like northern Europe, the British Isles, and North America to bring the Good News to the indigenous residents, whether or not said residents were interested in receiving it.

Evangelicals, on the other hand, would focus on spreading Christ’s words of hope and salvation. When a particular missionary had gathered enough followers, a church would be built and a formal leader chosen.

Choosing a Bishop is a more complex process than elevating a member of the laity to priesthood. The preferred form, was to have at least two bishops involved in consecrating the latest episcopal candidate. In the early days of the church, I am certain that a requirement for multiple bishops being involved in elevating of a priest to the episcopacy was intended to maintain orthodoxy. The church fathers would have taken a dim view of a group of parishioners prostrating themselves before a dried-out gourd or receiving Communion in the form of pizza and beer. (Domino’s: deliverance in 30 minutes or less.)

Within the independent Catholic movement, there have been times when there was a shortage of bishops to allow for a traditional consecration which has given rise to the so-called “one handed” consecration, in which only one bishop lays his hands on the individual about to become his or her equal.

An interesting variation on the one-handed consecration is the long-distance consecration.

Case in point, a Bishop with his hands upon a rock consecrating it. Once the Bishop-elect is on the scene and the U.S. Postal Service has delivered the package, the recipient would place his or her hands upon the rock. Through the wonders of transitive property, the recipient is now a Bishop.

Blessed be the rock of my salvation, indeed.

The other interesting phenomenon surrounding consecrations in the independent movement is that of “line-chasing.” In a perfect world, every bishop could trace the line of bishops who preceded him all the way back to St. Peter. Of course, that is rarely possible, so some would-be bishops spend time scrutinizing the predecessors – the lines – of those who would consecrate them. They hope that by locating a consecrator with a particularly distinguished pedigree – in church terms apostolic succession – that they will be regarded every bit as legitimate as bishops from other, larger churches.

It’s kind of like Pokémon for people who wear purple.

“Well,  my lines include Mercurialis of Forli, and he could slay dragons.”

“That’s nothing. Hilarius of Arles could make your guys laugh themselves sick.” (Not really, but doesn’t it sound like it might be right?)

“Oh yeah? Well, Polycarp was an a apologist, so he could debate your guys under the table.” (But don’t you think an expert apologist ought to be able to talk himself out of being executed?)

“Yeah, but Augustine of Hippo could crush them with his ummm… err…  Hippo Power!”

There are other things that distinguish bishops in the independent movement from their peers in the larger churches.

But that’s a topic for another time.

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