Covenant is on break from providing new material in early August, but is presenting the top ten posts of its past year, since Zachary Guiliano became Covenant’s editor.

One of the oddities of ecclesial life is that priests can’t be members of a parish. When ordained, the new cleric’s “residency” moves from a parish to the diocese; more specifically, the residency moves to the clericus, the body of clergy within a diocese. The same holds for a bishop, who upon ordination leaves the diocesan clericus to join the college of bishops (not simply the Episcopal House of Bishops, mind you, but the college of bishops of the Catholic Church of Christ, however infrequently they actually meet!).

My ecclesial or canonical residency is in the Diocese of Dallas, even though I live in Milwaukee. Dallas is where I was ordained and where I served in parish ministry for eight years. Since I didn’t move to Milwaukee for a parochial job but for doctoral studies, it made sense to remain resident in Dallas (the legal process is that a priest in my situation makes a formal request to the local bishop for a license to function as a priest within his diocese, which Bishop Miller has kindly granted).

All of the clergy of the Diocese of Dallas, along with lay representatives from each parish and mission, will elect the seventh Bishop of Dallas on Saturday, May 16, 2015. This election is critical, since Dallas is one of the largest dioceses associated with Communion Partners, and it contains some of the most vibrant and growing parishes in the Episcopal Church .


What I want to suggest are a few aspects of episcopal ministry that I believe all of us might do well to consider. These are the kinds of priorities that we should hope for and expect in our bishops, which means that we need to provide them the means to undertake them. I present them in the form of seven theses:

1.  The Bishop is (as) Christ

In Ephraim Radner’s marvelous essay on “Bad Bishops” in Hope Among the Fragments, he highlights the rigorous rhetoric of St. Ignatius of Antioch. In his Epistle to the Ephesians, the martyr emphasizes that the nature of submission is intrinsic to the economy of salvation and that the hierarchy expressed in both the natural order and in human relationships reflects this spiritual fact. We are to look upon the bishop as “the Lord himself,” and, as he says elsewhere, “Be subject to the bishop, and to one another, as Jesus Christ to the Father, according to the flesh, and the apostles to Christ, and to the Father, and to the Spirit; that so there may be a union both fleshly and spiritual” (Epistle to the Magnesians 13). This hierarchy is a central means that God uses to conform Christians to Christ and thus into real and true communion (see Radner, 182-183). Proper submission to the bishop is bound up in the way that the Lord conforms us to Jesus Christ.

2. The Bishop must pray

O for a revival of the daily use of the bishop’s chapel. There should be nothing strange about the bishop with the diocesan staff publically praying the Divine Office (and thus the Scriptures) and standing daily at the chapel’s altar and celebrating the Sacred Mysteries. We should be clamoring for this! Is there anything more fitting than the bishop celebrating “the regular services appointed for public worship in this Church” (BCP 13)? Do we really wish our bishops to send email instead of praying?

It may seem superfluous, but this is absolutely central to the weight of the episcopal office: to be faithful in prayer and the study of Scripture is the first vow, as well as to be the “chief priest and pastor.” How can one “boldly proclaim and interpret the Gospel of Christ” and “guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the Church” (all from BCP 518; see the entire liturgy here) without this?

3. The Bishop must study

Unlike in England, American bishops rarely hold a higher degree in some theological discipline. But the reading and studying of serious theology should not be left to a rare few. Such study is the essential corollary to the prayerful reading and study of Scripture. Popular theology may be helpful, at least in order to know the cutting trends and gain insight into the current pulse. But bishops who reads luminaries such as Augustine, Bonaventure, Aquinas, Calvin, Hooker, Andrewes, and Rowan Williams are people who will know how to think in proper theological form. And they will have been trained to read popular theology with care, precision, and the necessary criticism.

At least one bishop will join the Covenant writers when they retreat together this summer to study Augustine’s City of God. This should not be unusual for bishops. For this too is bound up with the weight of their office. Bishops might start with some important recent works of theology, history, and literature (scroll down to see my idiosyncratic list at the conclusion).

4. The Bishop must preach and teach

The priest’s obligation to “minister the Word of God and the Sacraments of the New Covenant” (BCP 532) is not reduced but only heightened for the bishop. The third, fourth, and fifth vows for the bishop explicitly assume that preaching and teaching are of the very essence of the episcopacy. Preaching requires time (see our recent post on the topic): time to pray, time to meditate on the Scriptures, time to form one’s mind theologically, time to prepare its declamation. Not every bishop can be golden-tongued. But it is fitting for us to expect serious, substantial preaching when our bishops make parochial visitations or preach at cathedrals.

In the consecration liturgy, the verbs regarding the Gospel are “proclaim” and “interpret,” while the bishop is “to guard … the faith, unity, and discipline of the Church.”  These verbs revolve around the idea of “conserving” (though they are not to be identified with political conservatism). Rather, the image is that there is a tangible inheritance of which bishops become particular stewards, and woe to them if the Gospel of Christ and the Church’s faith, unity, and discipline become undone under their watch.

The language of the 1928 BCP is “to banish and drive away from the Church all erroneous and strange doctrine contrary to God’s Word; and both privately and openly to call upon and encourage others to the same.”

This pedagogical and homiletical work must be done as much outside the diocese as within. It is absolutely imperative that bishops be fluent in the language, construction, logic, syntax, and grammar of theology (no less than the sound of the voice of theology’s Subject). We’re in the habit of voting about theological matters of considerable substance in TEC, and the serious level of preparation needed for a bishop to exercise properly the episcopal office in such settings is difficult to overstate. Theological argumentation that is unrecognizable to the Tradition is to be assiduously avoided.

The exhortation to the priest in the 1928 BCP is no less applicable to the bishop:

Have always therefore printed in your remembrance, how great a treasure is committed to your charge. For they are the sheep of Christ, which he bought with his death, and for whom he shed his blood. The Church and Congregation whom you must serve, is his Spouse, and his Body. And if it shall happen that the same Church, or any Member thereof, do take any hurt or hindrance by reason of your negligence, ye know the greatness of the fault, and also the horrible punishment that will ensue. Wherefore consider with yourselves the end of the Ministry towards the children of God, towards the Spouse and Body of Christ; and see that ye never cease your labour, your care and diligence, until ye have done all that lieth in you, according to your bounden duty, to bring all such as are or shall be committed to your charge, unto that agreement in the faith and knowledge of God, and to that ripeness and perfectness of age in Christ, that there be no place left among you, either for error in religion, or for viciousness in life.

5. The Bishop must shepherd the clergy

Most priests and deacons are extremely lonely. And there are very few people who can understand the precise contours of clerical loneliness, burden, and need.

I want to suggest the following strategy as one possibility among many. Once every year or so, possibly in consort with the visitation of the bishop, the bishop spend a day with the rector of vicar of each parish (and maybe the rest of the parish clergy). They begin either at the bishop’s chapel or at the parish, the bishop and cleric(s) celebrating the Divine Office and the Sacred Mysteries together.

The focus of the entire day is pastoral. This time is not for evaluation or correction, but pastoring. Questions the bishop might use:

  • How can I pray for you? For your family?
  • What is giving you the most joy in your ministry?
  • What is weighing on you most right now? Let’s pray about that together….
  • How has my ministry made your ministry more difficult in the past year?
  • What are one or two aspects of life at your parish that seem poised for growth or blessing?
  • Where do you see the Spirit working in your parish?

The bishop should take the priest out for a meal and try to do one thing with that priest that is purely pleasurable (listen to some music; take a walk around the lake; play Wii golf or tennis; smoke a cigar). For priests and deacons, their last memory of being pastored should not be when they were a lay person.

Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care is, of course, essential reading.

6. The Bishop must ensure the administration of the Diocese

Not every bishop need be an excellent administrator. But woe to bishops who do not understand how indispensable it is both to recognize skillful and poor administration and see that the former is executed under their watch. There are few things that can so infuriate and demoralize the clergy and people of a diocese than poor management. Ask any ordained person or active lay person. Depending on the size of the diocese, a bishop may have the capacity to do more or less administration personally. But an excellent chaplain, archdeacon, or canon to the ordinary, who has that rare combination of being in Holy Orders and the skill set and charism of pastoral administration, is essential. The very difficult task of finding a skilled clerical assistant is worth every minute and every dollar.

7. The Diocese must fund the Bishop’s Office

The foregoing aspects of the bishop’s ministry are essential and it is the obligation of the diocese to make sure that the bishop has as a minimum a full-time, high-capacity administrative assistant and a full-time chaplain/archdeacon/canon to the ordinary. If a diocese can’t afford this, maybe dioceses need to merge. The days of dividing diocese are over, at least for the near term. But diocesan “programs” must be penultimate to bishops receiving the necessary means to execute their sacred office.

Is this unreasonable? Yes. Is this an extraordinary burden on a bishop? Absolutely.

O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favorably upon thy whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; by the tranquil operation of thy perpetual providence, carry out the work of men’s salvation; let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (The collect appointed for ordinations, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil.)

People of Dallas: let us fast and pray for ourselves and our bishop, now and at the hour of death.

The featured image is “Robinson surrounded by bishops during consecration.” Photo credit: ENS.


Appendix – A thoroughly idiosyncratic book list of modern theological, historical, and literary works for the bishop:

  • Henri de Lubac, Corpus Mystsicum and Medieval Exegesis.
  • Matthew Levering, Scripture and Metaphysics.
  • Lewis Ayres, Nicaea and Its Legacy.
  • Hans Frei, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative.
  • Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man.
  • Owen Chadwick, The Early Church.
  • Herbert McCabe, God Matters.
  • Johan Huizinga, The Waning of the Middle Ages.
  • Brad Gregory, The Unintended Reformation.
  • Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation.
  • John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory.
  • Robert Louis Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christianity.
  • Sarah Coakley, Powers and Submissions.
  • Ephraim Radner, Hope Among the Fragments.
  • Jacques Maritain, Art and Scholasticism.
  • Alaistair MacIntyre, After Virtue.
  • Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology and Jesus of Nazareth.
  • Rowan Williams, On Christian Theology.
  • Patrick Collinson, The Religion of Protestants.
  • Jean-Pierre Torrell, O.P, St Thomas Aquinas, Vol. I & II.
  • Andrew Louth, The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition.
  • Fergus Kerr, After Aquinas.
  • Hans Urs von Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale.
  • Yves Congar, Tradition and Traditions.
  • David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite.
  • John Meyendorff, Byzantine Theology.
  • F Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov.
  • G Bernanos, The Diary of a Country Priest.
  • Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory.
  • Ian McEwan, Saturday.
  • Flannery O’Connor, Collected Works.
  • J.F. Powers, Morte D’Urban.
  • Wallace Stegner, Crossing to Safety.
  • Alan Paton, Too Late the Phalarope.
  • Czeslaw Milosz, The Collected Poems.
  • Gjertrud Schnackenberg, Supernatural Love (Poems 1976-1992).
  • Anne Ridley, Collected Poems.
  • Gerard Manley Hopkins, The Major Poems.
  • John Henry Newman, Plain and Parochial Sermons.
  • Romano Guardini, The Lord.

About The Author

The Rev. Matthew S. C. Olver, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of The Living Church Foundation and Publisher of The Living Church Foundation.

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