Thursday, March 12, 2009

Presbypiscopal or Episcopresbyter?

I'm catching some flack from a numpty (not this numpty, but one of his devotees) about my having switched teams (left the PCUSA and joined the Anglican Communion). He's very upset that I "have decided to renounce not only the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church, but the presbyterian form of government itself in favor of the papacy" and "ditching Westminster and the presbyterian form of church government."

I see. So broad swaths of the PCUSA can ditch Westminster as a whole (which it did in C-67) and let presbyterian government largely be undermined in favor of denominational lackeys (when it's not being ignored by "non-schismatic pastors" that choose to abandon constitutional restraint - acting as though their local congregations and presbyteries are able to act without waiting for GA to ratify constitutional ammendments) - but if I hold to the essence of the Reformed faith as put forward in Westminster and seek an ecclesial structure where the highest-ranking clergy seek the consent of their subordinate clergy and the laity, while acting in concert within a college of equals, then I'm apostate and abandoning biblical polity? (Excuse me...he actually lumps me with "orthodox schismatics" ilk.)

Let's set the record straight. I know that there's a lot of history between the Presbyterian Church (i.e., the Reformed Church as it developed in English-speaking countries) and the Anglican Communion (i.e., the Protestant Church that continued some form of episcopal succession). It's generated no small amount of animosity. In fact, the Reformed Episcopal Church seceded from the Protestant Episcopal Church precisely because the latter - taking on Anglo-catholic leanings - began impeding the cooperation that had marked Presbyterian and Episcopalian relationships for the preceding 150 years. But we should echo the cry of the Reformers - Ad fontes! - and go back to our sources if we are to see clearly the challenges of the present.

Presbyterianism is a creature of the supreme orthodoxy shown in the Westminster Confession of Faith and the rejection of monarchical claims (whether by kings or by bishops). Its political history is checkered with moments of assent to and dissent from an episcopal polity. John Calvin and Thomas Cranmer were corresponding about the restoration of the historic episcopate to the Church of Geneva. "Power-mad" Calvin declined episcopacy for himself, and his successors and the successors to the archepiscopacy of Canterbury lost touch in the ensuing decades of turmoil. Eventually, both parties hardened into positions that their founders eschewed. Calvin's objection was to a sacerdotal system* - not to rule by bishops. We should also note that Calvin was not objecting to a sacramental system - but insisted on the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist (cf. B. A. Gerrish's Grace and Gratitude: The Eucharistic Theology of John Calvin).

Father of Presbyterianism, John Knox, gave assent to bishops in the Convention of Leith in 1572 (cf. Ian Haslett's The Reformation in Britain and Ireland for brief analysis). The Reformed (Presbyterian) Church in Hungary continues to be headed by synodical bishops who have a non-pressed but very real succession from the historic episcopate. The Reformed Church in France (Calvin's homeland) also uses bishops to maintain their synodical government - though they do not claim an unbroken succession. Similarly, the Churches of Sweden and Finland (Lutherans) maintain an unbroken episcopal succession - just as the Church of England did.

An excellent study of the many issues involved in church polity - from biblical, theological, historical, and practical perspectives - is given in a book called Who Runs the Church. Therein, representatives of episcopal, presbyterian, and congregational systems give their side and graciously critique the positions of the others. I'll let you decide who wins....

For what it's worth, I'm an Anglican because I think that it has the greatest chance of bringing about catholic unity - not by bridging the divide between Rome and the Protestants, but by reuniting every Christian Church with the past and the present (including the Eastern churches) in practice and polity, as well as in barebones orthodoxy (via the Nicene Creed) - without the dogmatism on developments after the first ecumenical councils. And I'm proud to stand next to defenders of the faith like these guys.

* Don't let the English word priest be confused with the sacrificing priest pictured in the Roman sacerdotal system. The word priest is just the Old English pronunciation of presbytĕrātus, the Latin transliteration of the Greek presbys (πρέσβῠς ). It refers to one holding the office of the ministry of Word and Sacrament. It is emphatically not a translation of the Latin sacerdos or the Greek ἱερεύς!


Kevin said... episcopal succession necessary for ordination to be valid? I'd love to hear your thoughts. (Great post, btw.)

Rev'd Chris Larimer said...


I think it would be hard to make that case. Validity is a tricky thing outside of a Roman Catholic concept. There is no truly catholic conception of sacramental validity (i.e., one that is accepted by all branches of Christ's historic church - East & West).

The East places a strong emphasis on sacramental validity, but their whole conception of it is different than the West's mainly because it didn't deal directly with the Donatist controversy. The Donatist controversy - as you recall - had to do with the validity of Christ's sacramental ministry through "unworthy" ministers. It was a pastoral doctrine (initially, at least) where the bishops said that those who received ministry from these questionable officers had received what Christ intended for them to receive.

The historical episcopate itself had more to do with defending against gnosticism, which is why the uncertainty we see in the NT (i.e. presbyterial/synodical gov't versus monarchical episcopate) is settled rather quickly in the latter's favor shortly after the close of the canon. The gnostics would claim a secret tradition handed down from the apostles. The orthodox would counter with the public handing down of teaching / ruling authority from the apostles and their immediate successors. It had a pretty good effect of shutting the gnostics out (which is why in the Roman and Orthodox churches, there is less infatuation with 'the latest' neo-Gnosti manuscript find...they have what they need passed on in public).

As I understand it, ecumenical relations demand that the historic episcopate be respected. However, sacramental validity is more vested in the historic episcope - i.e., the teaching office of the Church that has continued unbroken since the apostles. Therefore, churches that rise out of the historic church (Greek or Latin or Syriac or whatever) which intend to hold to the orthodox faith (evidenced by holding inviolate the ecumenical creeds) and catholic order (evidenced by holding to the ecumenical councils) have a valid episcope (i.e. teaching & jurisdictional office), even when it is - for dire purposes - held corporately rather than invested in one man.

The point of all of this is that (theologically speaking) no one picks up the ministry on their own. Rather, the authority to teach and minister in Christ's name is handed on to someone from someone who had it handed on to them. Pastorally speaking, it is to let people know that they truly are members of the Body of Christ. And as all sacraments are - according to Calvin - concessions to our weakness, so the sacramental sign of church order is a pastoral provision that assures members of their incorporation into Christ's Body.

For a more Anglo-Catholic exposition (one that admittedly repudiates mine), see Dr. Moss' work. I have to agree with him that I am troubled at the refusal of laying on of hands during ordination at some places of the Reformed history - and if anything would "invalidate" the ministry, it would be that. However, if my loosey-goosey approach to historic episcope is correct, the problem was redressed ages ago by the inclusion of ordaining lines of men who were unquestionably in a historic succession (though perhaps only as presbyters).

Flycandler said...

Chris, I do not feel comfortable divulging personal information about myself over the Internet, which is apparently a precondition for posting on your blog. You have comment moderation enabled and will probably not post this, so I assume I am writing to you directly.

You have rejected your ordination in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and repeatedly renounced the confessions of the church. You are now in a small Anglo-Catholic sect of the Anglican Communion. I wish you well in your new church. However, I respectfully ask that you hold yourself to your own standards (or "gauntlet" [sic] as you put it):

"As a duly certified officer of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, I adjure you to tell your denomination ... to quit meddling in the affairs of the Church ...!"

If you want to meddle in the affairs of the Presbyterian Church (USA), which only a ignoramus or a demagogue would assume is the only branch of American Presbyterianism (it was I, not you, who mentioned the EPC, OPC and PCA), then I humbly suggest you give up your ordination in your own church and come back to the PC(USA). Otherwise, the plank in the Anglican Communion's eye is rather large considering that you wish to irritate the mote in the PC(USA)'s.

Should I "inform" your superiors of your childish attacks and frankly unpastorly conduct toward members and officers of another church in an attempt to get you to lose your job, then publish a confidential letter to the world when I don't get my way? No.

And frankly, if that's the fruit of the orthodoxy you're offering, I want none of it.

Post this if you have the courage.

You had the courage to abandon your ordination in my church and find another with whom you could agree more. Fine. Now leave mine alone. There are plenty of witchhunts you can engage in within the Anglican Communion.

Rev'd Chris Larimer said...


Anonymous blog-trolling is the internet equivalent of burning bags of dog doo left on porches. Now what were you saying about being childish and cowardly?

As far as "rejecting my ordination" - all I did was move to make sure that my ordination did not reject Christ. You see...Jesus Christ and His Church are way more important than any denominational, institutional wrangling I can imagine.

You have accused me of calling Jesus a liar. I ask for clarification and you point me to the sermon on the mount, but you really have no case.

You accuse me of "repeatedly renounc[ing] the confessions of the [Presbyterian] church" but you have yet to point it out. While it is true that my acceptance of an episcopal polity is a tacit rejection of the polity found in the Westminster Confession (and other continental standards), I've already shown that it is not inconsistent with claiming the title "Reformed." While the Westminster Divines may have held a presbyterian government to be jure divino, that same rigour is not found in the Confession itself. Nor is it repudiated in the 39 Articles, which speaking of retaining the historic offices.

Moreover, I've explained that I had to leave the PCUSA because it would not uphold its own Confessional standards. When a PCUSA minister is able to attack the foundational beliefs of Christian unity (the resurrection and the triune personhood of God) and receive no censure for it, you tell me WHO HAS RENOUNCED THE CONFESSIONS? Since you don't seem to have read them - by your misplaced emphases - let me remind you that in their opening salvo, they place church government well below doctrinal consensus: "Because (although it ought not to be so) we find it true in experience, that Churchmen, through their corruption, are more hot and greater zealots about government than about matters more substantial...."

Call me lackadaisical in my faith, but I treasured my Christianity above my Protestantism. I treasured my Protestantism above my Calvinism. I treasured my Calvinism above my Presbyterianism. I treasured my Presbyterianism above my membership in the PC(USA). At worst, you could accuse me of abandoning the discipline of the PCUSA and the presbyterian form of government. (The same charge MUST be laid at the feet of anyone who breaks G-6.0106b and ordains non-celibate LGB persons to church office!)

What I did not repudiate is the system of doctrine that is found in the Westminster Confession. And unless you are ready to accuse Calvin of worse than I, you'll find that I am in substantial agreement with him in matters of history and church polity (see Institutes 4.3-4.4).

As for "meddling" - I critique, only. I do not meddle. The Presbyterian Corporation (U.S.A.), however, is continuing to pretend to speak as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ. It is undoubtedly a fine corporation - and its upper management has done such a job of running it aground that they deserve a gov't bail-out and AIG-sized bonuses. But any institution that claims to be a church and yet cannot unequivocally confess what the Church has ALWAYS confessed is either deceptive or deluded.

P.Corp.(USA) - if it is a true church anymore - is only barely so in the same sense that the corrupt and beleaguered Roman See was in the late Middle Ages.

Kevin said...


Thanks for the lengthy reply and for clarifying where the smell of poo had come from. I suspected at first that I had stepped in something!

Obviously, I hold to a Reformed view of Apostolic Succession, that we succeed the Apostles by holding fast to their doctrine, being visibly set apart by the ordination ceremony. I was curious to know what the Anglican spin on it was.

Rev'd Chris Larimer said...

Glad you found it edifying. Calvin held to a ministerial succession - same as the Lutherans (good defense against Muntzer and the Anabaptists). I think that succession within the historic episcopate is a more focused, federalized view of the same thing - concentrated on the most public minister's public ceremony of public acceptance to a public office. When you talk about "power of orders" you get into much murkier material (though some of it is mentioned in the 7 ecumenical councils - so it's worth considering).

You should also note that Hippolytus is firm about ordination to the presbyterate requiring the laying on of hands of the presbytery - not just the bishop, though he is the chief minister. The entire presbyterate acts as the ordaining body for a presbyter, though deacons can be made by a bishop alone. Presbyters, it seems, cannot.

Flycandler said...

Yep, I've noticed that conservative Christians and the Internet: not so much. Refraining from posting one's name, address, picture and Social Security Number on the Internet is not "trolling" (especially if invited to comment). I suppose you've given your bank account numbers to various Nigerian royalty as well.

You're back to the cowardice. Unsurprising. You are increasingly irrelevant, and it's not the PC(USA)'s fault.

You renounced your ordination in the PC(USA) and went to another denomination. Now leave us alone. If you want to engage in orthodox witchhunts, you have plenty of tempting targets in the Episcopal Church.

Rev'd Chris Larimer said...

Five points to the person who can help me find the "cowardice" to which FlyCandler alludes.

I'm not on a heresy hunt. You only have to do that when it hides itself. Heresy holds parades, protests, and presbytery meetings in the PCorpseUSA.

And Fly, I'm not a member of the Episcopal Corporation. I'm a member of the Anglican Communion - right now through FiF-NA and soon through the Anglican Church in North America. (That means John Shelby Spong and I aren't related right now - first because we aren't formally together, and secondly because he's given up every pretense of even being a Christian...PCorpseUSA still goes on with the ridiculous notion that not only is it a Christian Church but that it is a Reformed Christian Church - and has a duty to lobby the US Government on the basis of their authority as such. As an officer of the Reformed Church whose roots are in England, I kind of have an obligation to stand up to that sort of nonsense.)