Make Bishops History!

Stephen Booth

The Methodist Connexion faces many challenges. At the root is a long-term decline in membership, from 550,000 in 1974 to 294,000 in 2005. There are plans to change the Connexional structure, and reduce the Methodist Conference. Decline in membership brings decline in finances and cuts to the Connexional Team. Of central importance in the ecumenical process, conforming with previously declared plans to put in place Methodist 'Bishops', is the plan to subordinate the church to the doctrine of the Historic Episcopate. In accepting such an unscriptural belief, falsely described as a 'gift', a vital and essential distinction between truth and error is being lost.


The Current ProposalsL~

The 2005 Conference report What Sort of Bishops? must be understood within the context of the ecumenical process. This follows the attempted Anglican-Methodist Union in the early 1960s, through Episcope and Episcopacy (2000), and the Anglican Methodist Covenant. The most important doctrinal difference is the Historic Episcopate, also called the Apostolic Succession. This is the belief that Jesus sent the apostles, and the apostles sent others, in a hierarchy of deacons, priests and bishops; that the true church is defined through time and space in a chain of such ordinations; and that this commissioning is visibly shown through the bishops’ laying on of hands. The present report What sort of Bishops? refines eleven down to five models of episcopacy [pp. 576-579] but the danger in discussing the relative 'merits' of each, is that the Circuits and Synods thereby concede the principle on episcopacy. Fortunately, the 2005 Conference offered another option: 'To the list in the report of possible combinations of existing officers who might be made Bishops, Conference added a sixth option, none of the above'. 1


This ‘Great Tradition’L~

The current report asks the question '…is there, in other words, a worldwide ecumenical consensus on what episcopacy involves?' 2. It then makes a subtle slide from question to assertion: 'the British Methodist Church may simply be adopting a 'given' of the worldwide church'. The slide continues, in the suggestion that the Historic Episcopate is part of 'a single great Tradition' (their capitalisation). This slide urges us to adopt the false doctrine, but contrary to the claim of its universality ('a given'), it has by no means always been believed, everywhere, and by all. Denial of it is characteristic of Protestant Evangelical theology, as held by Martin Luther, John Wesley and others. In subordinating themselves to it, the Connexional leadership betrays our church.


History of the DoctrineL~

The most important consideration is that the doctrine of the Historic Episcopate is not found in scripture. On the other hand, Jesus warns against this type of practice when he says:

The rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant and whoever would be first among you must be your slave [Matthew 20:25].


There is a similar warning in James 3:1: 'My brethren, be not many masters, knowing that we shall receive the greater condemnation'. Following the Gospels, the latter part of the New Testament refers to 'elders' (presbyters), for example in Acts 15, Titus 1, and 1 Peter 5. The word 'bishop' (episcopos) appears in 1 Timothy 3, and Titus 1, where both these words are used. The doctrine of the Historic Episcopate is not found in the New Testament, but first makes its appearance in the Epistle of Clement of Rome to the Corinthians (c96 AD). Opposing the exclusion of ministers by the Corinthian Church, the author(s) place a hierarchical division between priesthood and laity, patterned after Judaism. This Epistle is said to be the earliest Christian document to use the term 'laity' in this way 3. Clement describes a hierarchical pattern of transmission for the gospel, and the commission, from God, through Jesus Christ to apostles and bishops.


Augustine, Reformation and RestorationL~

The aim of this doctrine is to define and identify the true church institutionally, by asserting a progression of spiritual authority through the line of bishops. The question of true identity and boundaries is live when they are challenged. In the Donatist controversy 4, Augustine claimed the Catholic Church's right to use coercion. The Church became powerful; bishops took on the political attributes of Emperor. The doctrine was challenged by Wyclif (1376-78) and then by Martin Luther 5. Against Luther, the doctrine petrified into its modern form, at the Diet of Worms (c1538-1540) and the Council of Trent (1545-1562). Seventeenth century English polemic followed when Smectymnus attacked the doctrine as 'drawing the line of their pedigree through the loynes of Antichrist.' During the Commonwealth following the execution of Charles I (30th January 1649), bishops were abolished. The doctrine of the Historic Episcopate was subsequently given its peculiar Anglican form at the Restoration, in the imposition of the 1662 Act of Uniformity. The Book of Common Prayer was 'made more grievous than before' according to Richard Baxter, the Puritan Divine 6. The prayer book Ordinal strengthened the doctrine, linking ordination with the laying on of hands and the consent of political authority (contrary to John 18:36). In 1659, Dr Edward Stillingfleet (later Bishop of Worcester 1689-99) wrote Irenicon, arguing that bishops and presbyters are of the same order, with the same right to ordain. In 1691, Lord Peter King wrote An Enquiry into the Constitution, Discipline, Unity and Worship of the Primitive Church.


John WesleyL~

Stillingfleet and King influenced John Wesley. In 1746, he read King while riding from London to Bristol, and accepted his findings. It was 38 years before he put his belief into action. In September 1784, Wesley ordained Thomas Coke, Richard Whatcoat and Thomas Vasey in the house of Mr Castleman at 7 Dighton Street, Bristol, commissioning these ministers to go to America. Wesley then ordained some for Scotland and Antigua, and Newfoundland. He ordained Messrs. Alexander Mather, Henry Moore and Thomas Rankin for England. Wesley justified his action with reference to scripture, and the beliefs and practices of the early church. In his explanatory letter of 10 September 1784, he referred to 'the conduct of the primitive churches in the ages of unadulterated Christianity'. Regarding the situation of the newly independent American Methodists, Wesley stated 'we judge it best that they should stand fast in that liberty whereby God has so strangely made them free' 7. Thus, Wesley thought the doctrine as a watering down or contamination of Christianity - 'adulteration'; and as constraint or slavery, opposing 'liberty'. Wesley wrote to his brother Charles: 'I firmly believe that I am a scriptural Episcopos as much as any man in England or Europe. For the uninterrupted succession I know to be a fable, which no man ever did or could prove' 8. Wesley understood well the consequences of his actions - that it would lead to division. Three years before his death he stated 'A kind of separation has already taken place, and will inevitably spread, though by slow degrees' 9.


Ecumenical EffortsL~

The doctrine hardened in the nineteenth century. At the Ground Zero of ecumenicalism, it much taxed the Tractarians. Newman [Tract 1, 1833] describes it thus: 'the Lord Jesus Christ gave his spirit to his Apostles, they in turn laid their hands on those who succeed them, and those again on to others, and so the sacred gift has been handed down to our present Bishops'. The doctrine was asserted as the fourth side of the 'Lambeth Quadrilateral' (1886-1888), and in the ecumenical A Sketch of a United Church (1935) Dr Fisher, then Archbishop of Canterbury, in his declaration of 3 November 1946, suggested that the Free Churches 'take episcopacy into their system'. In discussions, Methodists take one view of what the word 'episcopacy' means, while the Anglicans mean by it the Apostolic Succession. This ambiguity was explicit in the Dissentient View against the 1960s 'Conversations'. Here, rightly, the writers declared Methodism 'already possessed episcopacy in the scriptural sense of the term'. The report stated: 'It is evident that the only kind of episcopacy that will qualify Methodism for communion with the Church of England is the so-called historic episcopacy. To discuss other kinds of episcopacy is therefore beside the point'10.


Consequences of adopting the 'Historic Episcopate' for Methodist ecclesiologyL~

Though Connexional and ecumenical bodies submit, its adoption is contrary to the character of British Methodism. In surrendering, the church repudiates its Protestant, Evangelical origins. To accept the unscriptural Historic Episcopate doctrine, leads to a loss of truth. The guilt of this deliberate and consciously taken lapse into error will remain with those who promote it, and the church will suffer a consequent loss of the blessings of God. Within the last period reported, the church experienced a 10% drop in members 11. Some in the church observe as the number of members decline, there is a commensurate expansion of the pretentious ambitions held by the Connexional leadership. The drive towards bishops confirms that observation.


[1] Methodist Recorder, Conference Digest, p. VII, 21 July 2005.

[2] What sort of Bishops? Report to the 2005 Methodist Conference, paragraph 26, page 561.

[3] The Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians, Chapter 40ff, in Maxwell Staniforth tr Early Christian Writings, Penguin, 1968, page 40.

[4] W H C Frend, The Donatist Church: A Movement of Protest in Roman North Africa, Oxford University Press, 1952.

Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo, Faber 1967, p 213.

[5] Martin Luther, Collected Works, Volume 4:28.

[6] John T Wilkinson, Three Centuries of English Nonconformity, Epworth, 1962, p 43.

[7] W J Townsend, H B Workman, George Eayrs, A New History of Methodism, Hodder & Stoughton, 1909, p 86.

[8] Letter to Charles Wesley, 19 August 1785, Letters Vol VII page 284.

[9] Townsend, Workman, Eayrs, A New History, p 295.

[10] C Kingsley Barrett, Thomas E Jessop, Thomas D Meadley, Norman H Snaith, 'A Dissentient View' Anglican Methodist Conversations, Epworth 1963, p 59.

[11] 'Green Shoots amid Falling Membership' (spin) Methodist Recorder, 26 May 2005. See also the complaints by ministers at the 'massive distribution' of 315,000 copies of the Connexional Momentum newspaper (just over one copy for every supposed church member), where ministers were swamped by 'totally unrealistic' quantities of newspapers. See Methodist Recorder, 1st December 2005.

Stephen Booth is a member of GalgateMethodistt Church in the Lancaster Circuit and a member of the North Lancashire District Synod. 

Headline Summer 2016 pp.23-24