Please note that I am thinking out loud here, and that my thoughts are fragmentary and incomplete!

I have had various thoughts about bishops going through my head in the last months. They’ve been sparked by reading Saint Ignatius of Antioch and Saint Irenaeus, and probably also by my reading of Being as Communion. I’ve also been reflecting on the tendency in a western context (at least in the western contexts that I’ve been exposed to) to view the Church in institutional and functional terms in which the institution is all-too-often played off against the experiential, and in which in a postmodern context it is the latter that comes to be seen as authoritative. Reading the Fathers and Zizioulas is making me realise the importance of the ontological nature of the Church, that it is not just something we can make up but that even its historically mediated structures reflect a deeper reality. Thus my puzzlement at some Protestants who want to learn from Orthodox and Catholic ecclesiology and yet see no problem at proceeding without an historic episcopate. And, likewise, my discomfort with Catholics such as Schillebeeckx and his followers who appear to reject the necessary nature of the episcopate for the Church on the grounds that critical research cannot show it to have been instituted by Christ. I do not want to deny the historical, limited and decidedly messy nature of the Church’s history (and I have further questions about some of this that I will not raise now) but I find it difficult to escape the conviction of the Fathers that the bishops had a theological role that goes beyond the merely institutional or functional. Rather the institution, despite all the accidents of its concrete history, is seen as mediating truth.

I’ve just seen a similar dynamic at work in a discussion at Koinonia, in which one participant who questioned the validity of Catholic sacraments did so on the basis of the charismatic authority of enlightened elders over and against the bishops. I did know that there were such tendencies in Orthodoxy, but I found it rather shocking to realise that the dynamic at work is really a mirror image of that operating in the West, of a prioritising of the subjective in such a way that it allows one to pass judgement on objective authority.

Now, this relationship between the ontological, the institutional and the charismatic is a complex issue, and one that I hope will emerge more clearly for me in my continued reading of Zizioulas. But this discussion served to highlight one of the things that had been going through my head in thinking about these things in a contemporary western context, namely, that the very arbitrariness of the historical structure of the Church, might also be a grace. Yes, there are mediocre, corrupt and sinful bishops, as the participant at Koinonia pointed out. And, yes, the Church developed according to certain social structures which may not be ideal according to our contemporary western perspectives. Concrete history implies limitation. But it is precisely the acceptance of this concreteness, the insistence that God works through human structures and human weakness, that distinguishes Christianity from gnosticism. And, perhaps more importantly, it offers us the opportunity to let go of our own ideas and acknowledge that the Church precedes us and gives us birth. To hand ourselves over to that which is in one sense decidedly arbitrary is perhaps the greatest lesson in humility, for it teaches us to let go of our own ideals and agendas which are all-too-easily the products of our own egos.

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