1. Why Bishops?
There are clear indications in the New Testament and in the early church of a ministry of leadership and oversight (Greek: episcope). Those who exercised this ministry spearheaded the mission of the Church in particular areas and, as it grew, they delegated aspects of their task to locally based priests and deacons whose ministry they co–ordinated and supported. They were known as episcopoi (bishops) – leaders in the apostolic mission and pastors of the pastors.
2. Why dioceses?
The area over which the bishop exercised oversight became known as a diocese. The central focus of each diocese was the church in which the bishop had his cathedra, or teaching chair, from which the word ‘cathedral’ is derived. The diocese was something of a microcosm of the Church as a whole: its churches found their unity in gathering around the bishop. Dioceses kept communication, and communion, with one another through the person of the bishop. From the fourth century, new bishops were ordained by at least three others representing the wider Church, and gatherings of bishops in synod became the forum where faith was defined and safeguarded.
3. Was it always so in Ireland?
It is now clear that Patrick and other early Irish evangelists organised their converts into small, parish–like communities served by a priest, who was under the care of a bishop. However, by the seventh century, monasteries, as well as parish churches, had become centres of Church life. In some places the monastery was where the people worshipped and the abbot, not the bishop, was frequently the leader of the local Christian community. The bishop, however, had a specific role where doctrine and the ordination of clergy were concerned and in the early twelfth century the Irish Church was organised on a system of twenty–four dioceses.
4. What is distinctive about episcopacy in the Church of Ireland today?
At the Reformation, the Church of Ireland retained bishops and was ‘established’ as the official state church whose bishops had a significant political role including places in the Irish House of Lords. All this changed upon Disestablishment in 1871 when the bishops became leaders of a Church which was independent of state control and financial support. The Church’s income was greatly reduced and the bishops were now part of the General Synod, instituted at this time as the supreme governing body of the Church of Ireland, made up of bishops (House of Bishops) and elected representatives of the clergy and laity (House of Representatives). The Church is thus referred to as episcopally led and synodically governed. Bishops remain extremely influential in determining the direction of the Church. However, synodical government means that, for any measure to be passed, both the House of Bishops and the House of Representatives must vote in favour. The bishops retain a distinctive role as guardians of doctrine and leaders of the Church.
5. How are bishops elected?
Any priest aged thirty or over is eligible for election as a bishop. At present bishops (and the Archbishop of Dublin) are chosen by electoral colleges which comprise lay and clerical representatives from both the vacant diocese and the wider province in which this is situated, whether Armagh or Dublin. Seven of the present twelve dioceses are in Armagh province and five are in Dublin. The archbishop of the appropriate province normally presides at the election, and if agreement cannot be reached the choice passes to the House of Bishops. The Archbishop of Armagh, who is Primate of All–Ireland, is always chosen by the House of Bishops from among their own number. Unless already serving as bishop of another diocese, bishops–elect are consecrated by at least three other bishops, of whom one shall be the archbishop of the province or a bishop acting as deputy.
6.What is the work of a bishop?
The bishop’s role is to be the chief pastor of the diocese, called to lead in serving and caring for the people of God. The work is richly varied: caring for the clergy; overseeing clerical appointments; encouraging vocations; ordaining priests and deacons; promoting ecumenical endeavour; conducting confirmations and visiting parishes. Bishops also serve as patrons of church schools; acting as teachers of the faith; furthering the unity of the Church and promoting its mission. In addition, bishops devote time to the work of the wider Church and the corporate duties of the House of Bishops. They also represent the Church of Ireland in civic society.
7. Is there an international role?
Bishops of the Church of Ireland take part in the councils of the Anglican Communion – the family of autonomous national churches who share a similar approach to worship and doctrine derived from the Reformation in England in the sixteenth century. Every ten years the Archbishop of Canterbury calls the Anglican bishops together at the Lambeth Conference for fellowship and discussion of common concerns. These conferences have no legislative authority for the individual provinces. Archbishops of Canterbury have no jurisdiction outside the Church of England. The historic role is to be ‘first among equals’ of the bishops when they gather.
8. May women be bishops?
In several provinces of the Anglican Communion women have been elected to the episcopate. Since 1990 women have been eligible for ordination as bishops as well as priests in the Church of Ireland. In 2013, Bishop Patricia Storey was consecrated as the first female Bishop in Ireland.
9. How does the Church of Ireland view Churches with different understandings of episcopacy?
The Church of Ireland maintains the historic three–fold ministry of bishops, priests and deacons. However, the succession of the historic episcopacy is viewed as a sign rather than a guarantee of continuing in the apostolic faith, the latter being in the stewardship of the whole people of God. This view has facilitated the establishment of full communion, through the Porvoo Agreement, with the Lutheran Churches of Scandinavia, the Nordic and Baltic countries where episcopacy remains central to church government. At the moment progress is being made in discussions with the Methodist Church in Ireland to achieve full interchangeability of ministry – this could involve the President of the Methodist Conference being designated as an ‘Episcopal minister’ and a role for Church of Ireland bishops and Methodist presidents in the consecration of persons chosen for episcopal ministry in one another’s Churches.
10. What of the future?
In 2012 the General Synod established a commission to review episcopal ministry in the Church of Ireland. The bishops (and especially the archbishops) have an increasing workload, exercised in dioceses which have retained their essential geographical shape since the twelfth century. Some of the dioceses have small populations but extensive territory. The General Synod is mindful that in our rapidly changing and increasingly diverse society, the way bishops exercise their ministry needs to be reviewed. Only thus can they live up to the high aspirations set out in the order for the consecration of bishops in the Book of Common Prayer.
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