Presbyterianism and Episcopalianism III


Last time we had looked at the biblical and L the historical side of the problem, as posed by Prof. J. Plomp in his inaugural address. This time we want to look at the more practical side. Prof. Plomp also mentions several practical points which we shall discuss briefly.

1. The calling of ministers

As I said before, I am personally not always happy with our present system. It cannot be denied that there are certain defects in our system. As far as the ministers are concerned, it is all very individualistic: the decision is virtually in the hands of one man (or should I say: one man and one woman?). As far as session and congregation arc concerned, it often seems to be matter of guess work, not to say, a gamble. It would be nice indeed, if we could find a solution. But is the introduction of an episcopal element the solution?

To be honest, 1 cannot see this yet.

In Our situation here in Australia and New Zealand we are immediately faced with some practical difficulties. We would need a synodical-federal bishop of a kind of archbishop, because a classical bishop would not do. Most of our men arc called from the one classic to the other, or even from Australia to New Zealand and vice versa. Further, whether or not this is the intention, does one not give too much “power” to one man? I use the word “power” on purpose, for it is obvious that it is not enough to have a bishop who can only give advice. His word has to be authoritative and binding. Otherwise it would be of no help. But is it really biblical to give this power to one man who, at least at this point, has authority over his fellow-ministers and over the congregations? Can we so easily throw away the fundamental principle of the parity of all ministers, which is mentioned in nearly all confessions and church orders of the Reformed Reformation?

If we do need a change on this point, then I personally would be much more in favour of giving it into the hands of a synodical committee, the members of which have been selected by Synod with the utmost care. In other words, I would prefer something along the lines of the system used in the Methodist Church in Australia. This system has two great advantages. On the one hand, there will be much more order in the system, and matters of calling will no longer be decided merely on the local level (although the local congregation can still make its preference known ). On the other hand, we avoid the dangers inherent in the one-man-system and give it into the hands of a committee of wise men, who can check each other and keep the whole matter in the proper balance. Of course, such a committee should have a binding authority. At the same time, the way of appeal to the synod should always be open.

2. A pastor of pastors

This is undoubtedly an important aspect. The pastoral care of the pastors is a matter that has largely been neglected in our system. This is to be regretted and it would be a great improvement, if we could find a solution for this. But again we must ask: is a bishop really a solution?

In a personal conversation one of our older ministers made some good remarks. Suppose our Synod would decide to appoint such a “pastor pastorum,” who can guarantee that this is the man to whom you can really unburden yourself? We are all different personalities and there is no certainty that a particular minister would be able to accept this particular bishop as his “pastor,” with whom he can have a confidential, heart-ta-heart talk. I think this is really true. Usually every minister who wants to talk seeks his own “confessor,” one of his colleagues or perhaps one of his elders or some other person in or outside the congregation, whom he trusts and to whom he can open his heart.

I also wonder whether it would not be possible to use our present system of church visitation. Art. 47 of the Revised Church Order (Australia) says that “the classis shall appoint at least one committee composed of at least two of the more experienced and competent ministers to visit all churches as a rule once a year.” According to the second part of the article they have to “ascertain whether the officebearers faithfully perform their duties, adhere to sound doctrine, observe the provisions of the Church Order and the decisions of the major assemblies, and properly promote the edification of the congregation and the coming of God’s kingdom.” Usually they attend one of the session meetings, held during the evening. But would it not be possible for them to visit the minister (and his wife) during the afternoon to have a pastoral talk with them? Of course, the same problems, which I mentioned before, are found here too. But at least an attempt is made and at the same time there is no need for creating an episcopal office. If they are really “experienced and competent,” I would not be surprised, if they could be a great help for the ministers, especially for the younger ones. Personally I think it would not be difficult to have a good talk about the joys and the hardships of the ministerial office, and from their own experience they would certainly be able to give valuable advice.

3. The unity of the church

Prof. Plomp also mentions the lack of unity which seems to be one of the characteristics of the presbyterial system. He even speaks of “presbyterianitis.”

It cannot be defiled, of course, that there is much division and disunity within the Presbyterian or Reformed community at large. But the great question is: Is this due to the presbyterial system or is it perhaps due to a wrong view of the church, which is unfortunately too common among people of a Reformed or Presbyterian persuasion? Personally I believe that the latter question points to the real cause of disunity in our Reformed family. Many Calvinists have never studied or have refused to follow Calvin in his “high” view of the church. When one reads what Calvin writes in his Institutes about the sin of separation (Book IV, Ch. I), one knows that it is not the system that has created the disunity, but rather the non-adherence to the system!

Moreover, is the episcopal system really a solution for the problem? Although there may not have been as many divisions in the episcopal churches, there certainly have been divisions, as every student of church history knows. In addition, the reason why there have not been so many, does not always follow from the system, nor is it always a recommendation of the system. As to the R. C. Church, which is also episcopal in structure, there is the authoritarian, judicial application of the system. If you disagree, you are either silenced or thrown out (which is another way of silencing a person). The Anglican Church has always managed to keep all kinds of theologies and modalities together by its “comprehensiveness.” Nearly everyone is allowed to have his own views, as long as one does not impose them on others. I cannot escape from the impression that in such a situation the main task of the bishop is to keep the various views and groups together. But the result is that the bishop himself has to compromise all the time. Very illustrative was the attitude of Archbishop Ramsey after the publication of “Honest to God” by Bishop Robinson. At first, in an address over the wireless, the archbishop took a rather firm stand. But a few weeks later he wrote a booklet in which he certainly disagreed with Bishop Robinson, but at the same time put it all in such general terms that no one would accuse Robinson of heresy. In fact, Robinson is maintained as a bishop of his church in full rights. No one has taken any action against him. I wonder whether this would be possible at all.

Of course, I know that these examples refer to the so-called “hierarchical” bishop. I am sure that Prof. Plomp would be the first one to reject such a system. His “bishop-in-presbytery” or “synodical bishop” would be quite a different figure. Yet the question must be asked whether one can really avoid this development. It may be possible to avoid the extremes, but once one introduces the episcopal element, one cannot help moving in a certain direction and the price one pays for unity might be rather costly. Furthermore, it should also be remembered that there have hardly ever been true reformations in episcopal churches. The only good example I know of is the Church of England itself, in the 16th century. But has it ever happened since? Is some form of “compromise” not inherent in the episcopal system? There seem to be only two possibilities: either the authoritarianism of Rome or the comprehensiveness of the Church of England. At any rate the system seems to tend in either of these directions.

Yes, I do see the weaknesses of our own system. Just as Prof. Plomp I would like to remove them. But I am not yet convinced that the remedy he recommends is really better than the malady. Indeed, I am afraid that it is the other way round. Even though one may reject the “hierarchical” bishop, as Prof. Plomp does, and advocate a “synodical” bishop, yet one undoubtedly introduces an hierarchical element into the structure of the church. One particular minister is set over his fellow-ministers and, naturally also over the congregations which these fellow-ministers serve as ministers. However carefully the task may be delineated, this hierarchical element cannot be avoided. As an example I mention the description of the office of the “bishop-in-presbytery” given in the union proposals of the Presbyterian, Methodist and Congregational Churches of Australia. The report first gives a general description, in which the limitations and bounds of the episcopal office are clearly mentioned. “The bishops must be ‘bishops-in-presbytery’ so that their personal episcope ( = oversight) shall be exercised within the corporate episcope of (all) the presbyters (= ministers). Bishops, like presbyters, would be set apart to their office, ad vitam aut culpam (thus retaining the name of bishop for life, except in the case of proven offence) but this shall not preclude bishops from being transferred from one diocese to another or from serving the Church in any sphere and for such terms as the Church shall determine.”

But this is only one side of the matter. Within these limitations and bounds the new bishop receives a considerable amount of authority. It is expressed in terms of the threefold office of prophet, priest and king …(a) In the fulfillment of his prophetic office the bishop has the primary responsibility for maintaining the true expression of the Christian faith in preaching, teaching and evangelism. In particular, therefore, he will be required to exercise responsibility in relation to the call, training and the continuing growth in Christian knowledge of the ministers to whom he must be a ‘father-in-God.’ (b) In the fulfillment of his priestly office he has primary responsibility for maintaining and safeguarding the sacramental and liturgical life of the diocese. He must be responsible to see that the sacraments are duly administered, confirmation faithfully observed, and the ministries of oversight continuously maintained. He will intercede with God for the presbyters, deacons and people committed to his care. (c) In the fulfillment of his kingly office, he is the ‘pastor pastorum’ caring for the shepherds, fostering the unity of the people with each other and with the wider Church, and taking initiative and responsibility in relation to the discipline necessary to the continuing life of the body.” The two sides of the office are finally summed up in this sentence: “In all these matters the bishop must have freedom and initiative; in all of them he must also be responsible to the councils of the Church.”

I do not deny that such a kind of structure is possible, nor do I deny that it would have certain advantages. I also see the clear limitation that is set to the power and authority of this “bishop-in-presbytery.” He is de6nitely not a little “pope” in his diocese. But at the same time it is evident that the “ordinary” power and authority, which otherwise is shared by all ministers and ciders, meeting in the assemblies of the Church, is being concentrated in one single person. All that the assemblies can do is to check and limit this power, if it is exercised in the wrong manner. In other words, the basically horizontal structure of the church has been replaced by a basically vertical structure.

Taking all these things into consideration T for one answer the question in the heading of this article: “Should we mix them?” with a clear NO. I believe that the disadvantages definitely outnumber and outweigh the advantages. I am convinced that the more responsibility and authority is given to the officebearers of the local congregations, the stronger the church as a denomination will be spiritually. And I also believe that one can make quite a good case for this from the history of the church.

Dr. Klaas Runia is Professor of Theology at the Geelong Theological Seminary, Geelong, Australia.