Well I've been an Anglican for a little while now but yet I’m still struggling with the idea of Bishops.
There seems to be a real obsession amongst Anglicanism with bishops and this obsession doesn't seem to be anything new. Anglicans come from such a diverse spectrum, with some of us coming from High church backgrounds and others low, some of us support homosexuality and others don't, some of us are liberals, others evangelicals and some are even Anglo Catholics. But yet everyone seems to be completely preoccupied with the bishop. In my old pre-anglican days bishops were presented as some sort of bossy boots figure who did very little except lord it over those further down the food chain. However, now I'm in a church that has bishops I see they are more akin to ecclesiastical celebrities. After all even the most docile and dozy of congregations bounce back to life when they hear “the bishop is coming!”
The religion of the New Testament - by which I mean small groups of Christians walking to together in the faith in equality and working together like a family - doesn't really have much of a part in the Church of Ireland today. This seems to suit the episcopacy since from what I can see bishops only really arrived on the scene a century or two after Christ. But you and I have arrived almost two thousand years after Christ and sometimes this time difference can seem like a momentous obstacle for a Christian... after all how am I meant to get to know someone who lived two thousand years ago? This is where the Bishop is meant to come in. If Christ seems remote to some of us at least we have the Bishop. A man succeeded from the Apostles who learned directly from Christ. Who better to help me and oversee my learning about Christ than a man directly succeeded from those whom Christ directly taught? A man who's job description is summed up in a single Greek word: “episkope” - the power to oversee.
If Big Brother is watching you.
Then Big Bishop is watching over you.
Of course we aren't the only church with bishops. Others hold to the idea that bishops (rather than being men in big hats who are to look after a group of Christians in a specific area) are in fact men who have a supernaturally guided line of direct communication with the apostles which is transmitted by the laying of hands. The idea is that Peter and co. being Apostles held special gifts (everyone agrees with this) because they were Christ's disciples. They then made bishops and gave them some of their gifts. These bishops did the same to new bishops and so this method of receiving and then passing on the gifts carried on down the centuries until the bishops of this very day. Hence the Bishop of today is a direct link with the Apostles themselves.
This idea of Apostolic succession is a kind of divine Ouija board where a part of an Apostle is present in your local bishop... it is also a silly basis for any authority in the church. The idea that Joe Boggs over thereis somehow better than you or I because a Bishop put two hands on his head is crazy to me. Silly though it seems it is still the only real reason bishops should have any power at all within the church. Women bishops, male bishops or even homosexual bishops don't really matter when you realise that the office itself is pretty much meaningless in the modern church.
Greek and Russian Orthodox, Egyptian Copts, Armenians, German Lutherans, American Methodists, and Roman Catholics: all have bishops. And the office's antiquity can seem persuasive. Christianity may seem to be moving at an alarming pace towards the cliff and the ubiquity of the bishop is something to hang on to in challenging and changing times.
Truthfully though, we don't need a lot of the bishops we have because what they actually do is venerate consultants rather than the saints. They run from county to county in order to attend seminars and conferences but yet they have very little to do in the day to day running of parishes. They have very little interaction in the lives of the Christian laity, instead choosing to visit once every so often and maybe send a letter once or twice a year to let the church know what some community worker or government official has said.
My problem with bishops and indeed the reason I feel they are fast losing any sort of purpose is because of the modern church's absolute surrender to every social pressure group. Which when added to the fear of entering any sort of dispute about the faith leaves us pretty weak. It's not that we don't need bishops because in truth the opposite is true... the problem is that we don't need a lot of the bishops we have. We need people who are going to stand up for the faith, people who aren't afraid to offend people with the Scriptures and most of all people who have a faith in Anglicanism and who are prepared to go out and tell people how good the Church of Ireland is and why people should come to our churches. We need to find people like that sooner rather than later!