Toon on the Relation of the Historic Episcopate to the Whole Church

Peter Toon, in Who Runs the Church? 4 Views on Church Government, goes on to outline and describe the three views held within the Anglican family on the relationship of the historic episcopate to the whole church: the esse, the bene esse, and the plena esse.

First, the view that the historic episcopate of the of very esse (or essence) of the church. On this view “the episcopate guarantees the church. Thus the church derives all her authority from the Lord Jesus Christ through the divinely ordained means of the historic episcopate. Only bishops, who are in the apostolic succession of persons and doctrine, and the priests whom they ordain, have authority and grace to celebrate the Eucharist as an effectual sacrament of grace.” (37)

Second, the view, held mainly by “evangelical churchmen and liberal churchmen,” that the historic episcopate is of the bene esse (“well-being”) of the church. This view sees the episcopate as utilitarian: it is “the best as well as the most natural method of church government, for it brings the greatest good to the church of God in terms of value and usefulness.” (37)

Third, and this is the view Toon himself takes, there is the idea that the historic episcopate is of the plene esse (“fullness of being”) of the church. The historic episcopate embodies the gospel in church order (question: do Presbyterians think in this way? Would we say that our form of church government “embodies the gospel in church order?” Some would, no doubt – especially three office Presbyterians, but some, like Thomas Witherow, simply claim that it is the most biblical form of church polity), according to Toon, and this in two ways.

First, “it provides the effectual sign” of the church’s catholicity / unity, which I suppose stems from the historical fact that the universal church – for many centuries, as least – practiced this form of government. (Keep in mind that catholicity refers to unity not just in space – geographically – but also in time.)

Second, “it includes the principle of apostolicity. The episcopally ordained ministry is sent to represent Christ to his church and is representative of his church. It provides the guardianship of the Word and sacraments, of faith, and of the flock of Christ. The historic episcopate is thus the effectual sign of the relation of Christ to his church, for it shows forth his authority within his church.” (37-38)

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