Ignatius, the Anglicans and the Bishops

Back in the fall, in response to my post St. Jerome’s Idea of Bishops and Presbyters, Abu Daoud asked me the following:

I am wondering how you square Jerome’s idea with the much earlier statements by Ignatius of Antioch regarding the centrality of the bishop in the ministry of the church (ie, do nothing without your bishop.)

Looks like a number of people up in Canada may be asking themselves the same question:

On his way to Rome to be executed for spreading Christianity, St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote letters to leaders of a still-small church emerging around the ideas of Jesus Christ, crucified only decades before.

His letters spelled out what it meant to be Christian and formed the basis of the Catholic Church and, later, the Anglican Church. too. This week, some 1,900 years later, Ignatius’s words are echoing in a legal battle over church property.

At issue is what it means to be an Anglican; at stake is who can claim title to three conservative churches that have voted to break away from the Anglican Church of Canada in a dispute essentially over the blessing of same-sex marriages.

For the Anglican Church of Canada, Ignatius’s emphasis on loyalty to the local bishop as a defining characteristic of church membership is as important today as it was in the 2nd Century.

"He pushes hard for unity centred around the bishop," Anglican canon law expert Rev. Alan Perry says.

"Ignatius says to the people not to gather at another table for the Eucharist, but gather with your bishop as a symbol of unity."

Yet some self-professed conservative Canadian congregations are implicitly taking issue with Ignatius, leaving the mother church and hoping to take parish property with them.

The key issue here is the unity of the church.

Both Ignatius and Jerome agree that the role of the bishop is to insure the unity of the church.  So for that matter does TEC and ACC.  The problem comes when heresy arrives.

Ignatius lived in a church which literally lived in the shadow of the Apostolic teaching.  They had an orthodox and homogeneous view of what it meant to be a Christian and of the truth that defined that.  So bishops defended both orthdoxy and church unity.

In the case of Jerome, he came to prominence in an era when Christianity was struggling to emerge from the Arian controversy.  In that fiasco many sees had two or more competing bishops.  Jerome himself was caught up in the competition for the Patriarchal see of Antioch; depending on how you count them, there were three or four competitors, one Arian, one old Nicene, one "new" Nicene, and later an Appollonarist.  In this situation bishops did little to encourage unity but in fact perpetuated division.

The lesson from all of this is simple: if you’re going to have unity of church structure, you’ve got to have unity of belief, and that belief must be in accordance with the clear intention of the Founder.  Heretical divisions delegitimise the structure of the church.  Simply appealing to episcopal structures won’t cut it.  It didn’t in Jerome’s day and doesn’t now.

2 thoughts on “Ignatius, the Anglicans and the Bishops”

Leave a Reply