What should we expect from our bishops?

Qualifications for Overseers

Here is a trustworthy saying: Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task. Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap. (1 Timothy 3)

Bishop Meditations (1)

With these instructions to his protégé, The Apostle Paul considered someone’s lifestyle as relevant to their qualifications for becoming a bishop. How do we reconcile the division between qualifications and lifestyle that is being made within the context of wholeness of the requirements for an overseer in 1 Timothy 3?

Bishops are held to a much higher standard in their personal and public life than others precisely because of their unique leadership position of “propagating, defending and safeguarding” the teaching of the Church.

Somewhere tucked away in my basement in an old Ashey family album there is a picture of the bishop visiting in our home.  It must have been around 1960, when my father was rector in a new posting, and I was just a toddler. In this old black and white photo the bishop is on all fours with me on the carpet, smiling and inspecting one of my toys. In many ways, that picture represents what we would love to expect from bishops: kindness, gentleness and the ability to step down from their office and relate to us on our level.  Bishops should demonstrate the love of Christ in a gentle and caring way.

“...not only to be faithful to Apostolic teaching, but also faithful in drawing upon Apostolic power and practice—the power of the Holy Spirit, prayer, and 'weapons of righteousness on the right hand and on the left' to tear down strongholds from the other side”

But is that all we should expect, all we should want in a Bishop?
You see, the Bishop in that picture was James A. Pike, Episcopal Bishop of California. He was the bishop whose theology involved the rejection of central Christian beliefs. In his public preaching, teaching, speaking and writing the central Christian beliefs he rejected included the virgin birth, the Trinity and the doctrine of Hell. At that time my father was among the pioneers of the Charismatic renewal in the Episcopal Church. He told me how Bishop Pike wrote a pastoral letter to the clergy of the Diocese of California warning them not to associate with any one “speaking in tongues” because glossolalia was associated with the devil. As we later discovered, Bishop Pike was even then beginning to associate with “mediums” to contact and reconcile with the spirit of his son, who had committed suicide.  Later, in September 1967, Pike participated in a televised séance with his dead son through the medium Arthur Ford, who was ordained as a Disciples of Christ minister. Pike detailed these experiences in his book “The Other Side.” Tragically, Bishop Pike died wandering in the Judean desert—some say, still searching to contact the spirit of his dead son.

Gentle, kind and caring Bishops can be seriously mistaken. They can be false teachers. They can be so spiritually misguided that they lead themselves and others away from Christ rather than to him.

During a recent American Anglican Council Bishops’ Leadership Summit, Presiding Bishop Ray Sutton of the Reformed Episcopal Church, quoted from St Athanasius at the Council of Nicaea c. 325 AD: “The road to hell is paved with the skulls of bishops.” He then went on to pose the question, “Why is it that bishops began to corrupt so early in the life of the Church?” Bishop Sutton observed:  “When you become a bishop, a bullseye from Hell appears on your forehead… Satan is very clever; he knows that if he can take you [bishops] down, he can take down a lot of sheep with you…”

As Bishop Sutton points out, we should expect our Bishops to be spiritually mature and aware of the pressures they face to compromise—and of the very real attacks “from the other side” to take them down.  We should expect our Bishops not only to be faithful to Apostolic teaching, but also faithful in drawing upon Apostolic power and practice—the power of the Holy Spirit, prayer, and “weapons of righteousness on the right hand and on the left” to tear down strongholds from the other side.

But I also believe there is a more subtle temptation that bishops face. It is the phenomenon of groupthink. “Groupthink” is a psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people in which the desire for harmony and conformity in the group results in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcome. Group members try to minimize conflict and reach a consensus decision without critical evaluation of alternative viewpoints by actively suppressing dissenting viewpoints and by isolating themselves from outside influences. The groupthink phenomenon among bishops leads to a lack of conciliarism; an insistence upon their own autonomy over against the Biblical, catholic, universal teaching of the Church, and, specifically, against the majority of Churches in the Anglican Communion.

When a group of bishops insist upon their “autonomy,” selectively chooses theological points of view, marginalizes qualified and respected Biblical points of view, and suppresses viewpoints that are not politically or socially “correct” you are seeing the hallmarks of the “groupthink.” We see it among Bishops in The Episcopal Church that promote false teaching on human sexuality, marriage and leadership in the Church. We have seen it all before here in North America.

So, what should we expect of our Bishops beyond kindness, gentleness and “generous pastoral accommodation”?  Here are some of the standards we should expect Bishops to live up to in their lives and their ministries:

  • From the Bible: “An overseer (bishop) must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.” (Titus 1:9)  Within the Anglican Church in North America this and other Biblical citations (I Peter 5:2-3, I Tim. 3:1-7 and 5:17) have led us to state in our Canons that a Bishop is, above all, a faithful teacher of the people of God entrusted to his care, “called to propagate, to teach and to uphold and defend the faith and order of the Church…” (Can. III.8.1)
  • From Thomas Cranmer, the BCP 1549, “Consecration of a Bishop”: during the examination, the candidate is asked “Will you call upon God by prayer for the true understanding of [the Holy Scriptures], so as ye may be able by them to teach and exhort with wholesome doctrine, and to withstand and convince the gainsayers?” and “Be you ready with all faithful diligence to banish and drive away all strange and erroneous doctrine contrary to God’s word, and both privately and openly encourage others [sic] to do the same?”
  • From the Book of Common Prayer 1662 and its Ordinal, recognized as a standard for doctrine among most Churches of the Anglican Communion—Almost the same language from Cranmer’s BCP 1549: “Will you faithfully exercise yourself in the Holy Scriptures, and call upon God by prayer for the true understanding of the same, so that you may be able by them to teach and exhort with wholesome Doctrine…to banish and drive away from the Church all strange and erroneous doctrine contrary to God’s word…” Note:  This language is the basis for the Examination of Bishops in the  Ordinal of the ACNA
  • From the Principles of Canon Law Common to the Churches of the Anglican Communion (2008) (a kind of “common law” among the Churches of the Anglican Communion)—In Diocesan episcopal (meaning “bishops”) ministry “the bishop must teach, uphold and safeguard the faith and doctrine of the Church” (Principle 34.7) and generally, in the presentation of Doctrine, bishops have the special responsibility “to teach the faith, to state publicly the doctrine of the Church, and expound their application to the people and the issues of their age.” (Principle 48.3).
  • The principle responsibility of the Bishop is to proclaim and teach what the Bible teaches. The flip side of that is the responsibility to guard the faith and order of the Church by “banishing strange and erroneous teaching contrary to God’s word written.” It is nothing less than the teaching Jesus gave in John 10 on the Good Shepherd who drives away the wolves, and in John 21, His charge to Peter the Apostle to “feed the sheep” with wholesome food.  Whether the bishop is kind, gentle, caring and “pastorally generous” in doing so is not the issue. Faithfulness is the issue.

It was ACNA Archbishop Robert Duncan (ret.) who said “There may be prophets in the Church, but they will not be bishops.” Indeed. But we must also ask ourselves as bishops, clergy and laity in the Church how we can protect Bishops from temptations to compromise and spiritual attacks “from the other side.” What prayers, structures and support can we put in place so that they will not surrender to “groupthink” and preservation of the institution of the Church as an end in itself?

Some of you will remember the words of former Episcopal Presiding Bishop John Allin who is reported as saying before he died, “I fear I have loved the Church more than I have loved the Lord of my Church.” Are we faithful to Jesus—Bishops, Clergy and Laity alike and together?

Please pray that as the Anglican Diocese of the Southwest goes about the discernment and election of its next Bishop Ordinary, that he is faithful to Jesus, and not ordain or bless anything contrary to God’s word written.


Rev. Canon Phil Ashey

President & CEO of the American Anglican Council, as well as Special Counsel of Archbishop Foley Beach

Canon Phil suggested we adapt and edit this blog entry from an article he previously wrote for americananglican.org. He has been a great supporter and help to our diocese and continues to pray for us.