On the theological paradox of ecclesiastical authority in the Episcopal Church

Last weekend I attended the opening formation retreat as part of the M.Div. program at Bexley Seabury Seminary. The retreat included a lengthy discussion on the following paradox: in the Episcopal Church, priests take vows to follow the counsel of their bishops and to live and teach the doctrines of the Church BUT are also called to help people live into the life and teachings of Jesus who was anything but deferential to institutional religious authority. Our retreat leaders did not give us a clear answer to this paradox, but rather invited us to use that paradox to spur further theological reflection and practice of the role of institutional religious authority in our lives.

In the Episcopal BCP, the liturgy for the ordination of priests includes the following:

The Bishop says to the ordinand

Will you be loyal to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of Christ as this Church has received them? And will you, in accordance with the canons of this Church, obey your bishop and other ministers who may have authority over you and your work?


I am willing and ready to do so; and I solemnly declare that I do believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation; and I do solemnly engage to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of The Episcopal Church. (pg 526)

It is interesting to note that in the 1828 Webster dictionary, “engage” is defined: “To unite and bind by contract or promise.” Thus, “engage to conform” perhaps could be rephrased “to promise to conform.”

Later in the Examination of candidates, the BCP reads:


Will you respect and be guided by the pastoral direction and leadership of your bishop?


I will. (pg 532)

Regarding the authority of priests, TEC Canon 6.A.1 says:

The Rector or Priest-in-Charge shall have full authority and responsibility for the conduct of the worship and the spiritual jurisdiction of the Parish, subject to the Rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer, the Constitution and Canons of this Church, and the pastoral direction of the Bishop. [emphasis mine]

I’ve learned in my first two weeks of seminary courses that episcopal authority has a long history in the Christian tradition. As early as around 110 CE, Ignatius instructed the Smyrnaeans: “See that ye all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as ye would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. […] Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. […] Whatsoever [the bishop] shall approve of, that is also pleasing to God, so that everything that is done may be secure and valid.”

In sum, this all seems pretty straightforward: in the Episcopal Church, ordained priests are to follow the counsel of their bishops.

To me, this raises a number of questions:

  1. What are the historical and theological foundations for episcopal religious authority, in the Episcopal Church as well as the wider Christian tradition?
  2. What is the theological understanding of episcopal religious authority in terms of representing “correct” belief, praxis, and/or metaphysical truth, especially given that bishops often disagree with one another in their policies and pronouncements?
  3. What theological or institutional frameworks should govern decision-making on the part of priests who find themselves in disagreement with their bishops over a matter of doctrine or practice?
  4. To what extent is strong deference to episcopal authority consistent with the spirit of the ministry and teachings of Jesus who was, at best, skeptical of the primacy of institutionalized religious authority?

Here’s one small perspective I might be able to contribute to the conversation. Having been raised in the Latter-day Saint tradition, I am no stranger to theologies of deference to ecclesiastical authority. The LDS Church has a strong priesthood hierarchy very similar to that of the Catholic Church, with similar understandings of priesthood and ecclesiastical authority.

In the Latter-day Saint tradition, the common understanding is that ecclesiastical leaders are to seek inspiration from the Holy Spirit as well as counsel from their associates and higher-level leaders when making important decisions that affect members of their congregation. When the decision is made, it is presented to the congregation for an affirming vote, which traditionally is a pro forma ritual where you get to say “yes, I recognize the authoritative legitimacy of that decision” whether or not you agree with it, and rarely is there a dissenting vote (for both theological and social reasons). All members are invited, however, to seek their own individual inspiration from the Holy Spirit to confirm the correctness of the decision on the part of their ecclesiastical leader.

It is an open theological and cultural question, though, what one is to do should they receive personal spiritual inspiration that the decision was misguided or incorrect, and how that affects their obligations to obey.

As a relative newbie to the TEC, I am curious if there are any equivalent theologies, traditions, or norms that govern similar ecclesiastical tensions. I am anxious and eager to learn more.

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