“Bishops should dedicate themselves to their apostolic office as witness of Christ before all men.” – Christus Dominus, 11
What would a Protestant make of this statement? This should not be a meaningless question asked out of mere curiosity. Regarding ecumenism, the then-Cardinal Ratzinger said in 1993, “To live unity in separation, in difference, we must learn to accept others in their otherness and precisely in this accomplish communion. We must learn to understand the objection of the other as our own problem. When this and similar things occur, when we can turn toward each other in our differences and let ourselves be refined by each other, as it were, then division can in its way be fruitful – more fruitful than superficial unity.” We might better understand Christus Dominus if we pause for a moment to turn toward a Protestant theologian.
John Webster, a self-consciously Protestant Anglican, now of the University of Aberdeen, would seem to be a likely source of help if we really are willing to “let ourselves be refined.” In a 2001 article, he outlined an “evangelical theology of episcopacy” – one “determined by and responsible to the good news of Jesus Christ,” proceeding by “dogmatic description, not by historical defense.” There is no reverent appeal to “from the earliest times” here. But Professor Webster also has little patience for a reflexive individualism and anticlericalism. Vague archaeological gestures to “from the earliest times” are no worse than a simplistic declension narrative of charismatic Pauline communities fading into a compromised “early Catholicism.”
In other words, there is no evading the question: What is the place of the church in the structure of the gospel? Professor Webster tells us that the God revealed by Jesus Christ is the God who elects, sustains, and perfect a particular human society “for the praise of his glorious grace that he granted us in the beloved” (Eph 1:6). So, there is no God without the church that manifests who he is. But, on the other hand, there is no church without immediate reference to this God whose action constitutes it. If we can happily speak of the church in the language of institutional forms and human intentions, we have lost sight of the true nature of the Church’s existence as creatura verbi divini (“creature of the divine word”). To be sure, we should never bifurcate divine and human action, but we must always give priority to the gracious action of the triune God. “Divine action is sheerly creative, uncaused, spontaneous, saving and effectual; human, churchly action is derivative, contingent and indicative.”
Does this mean that Professor Webster is left with an invisible, “spiritualized” church that is left “incapable of sustaining a coherent historical and social trajectory”? Not really. While Webster does wish to distinguish between “the gospel and its human representations” – perhaps spending sleepless nights worried by the “danger of collapsing Spirit into structure,” he claims that the gospel’s action will always realize in a concrete human representation. The “converting power and activity of Christ present as Spirit” will always form a social shape that we can call church order (and argue over endlessly). Jesus Christ is the minister of this church. Our Lord doesn’t eventually take an emeritus position, succeeded in his retirement by younger human representatives, but, in the words of Calvin, “he uses the ministry of men to declare openly his will to us by mouth, as a sort of delegated work, not by transferring to them his right and honor, but only that through their mouths he may do his own work – just as a workman uses a tool to do his work.”
We must have bishops in a visible church, then, but their ministry always “points beyond itself to the action of another.” Episcopal ministry is a “showing” of Christ’s self-bestowal in the Holy Spirit, and the bishop’s task, as Karl Barth wrote, “is simply to serve this happening.” This “showing” might be distinguished by tireless activity – teaching, presiding at the sacraments, exercising discipline – but it is always in service of a greater passivity, so that (Barth again) “all encroachment on the lordship of the One who is alone the Lord is either avoided or so suppressed and eliminated in practice that there is place for His Rule.” Jesus Christ is the “bishop of our souls” (1 Pet 2:25), and, to Webster, the local bishop’s “showing” of Christ’s more universal bishopric is simultaneously the refusal of the role of mystagogue.
Unity lies in this refusal. “The ministry of the church can neither create nor represent this unity, but only make it visible through the fact that it points unmistakably away from itself and toward that which it serves – the present action of Christ in the proclamation of the Gospel through word and sacrament.” “Episcopocentric” is a very dirty word indeed. Even Ignatius of Antioch, who might seem “episcopocentric” at first glance, wrote to the Ephesians, “I do not command you, as though I were a great person … For now I am making a beginning of discipleship, and I address you as my fellow-disciples.” Ignatius grounded his own authority in the “manifest will” of the Father to which the bishops were to promote obedience, “since the bishops, established in the furthest quarters, are so by the will of Jesus Christ.” The only ground of what we might call apostolicity is in this sort of claim, Webster says, “because it is not capable of being embodied without residue in ordered forms.”
In conclusion, the only authentic ministry is the “ministry of a herald” (Barth, for the last time). Bishops only perform the “delegated work” of Jesus Christ. It is a necessary implication of the gospel to create a church order with a ministry of oversight, but this ministry must be self-conscious of the contingency of its particular orderings before the action of the Spirit. Our strivings should never be directed towards the recovery of the ideal forms of a self-sufficient “official Christianity,” but towards the self-questioning that asks whether we are practically “attentive to word and sacrament, docile before the gospel, above all, prayerful for the coming of Christ and his Spirit.”
As Catholics, we would want to question Professor Webster’s suspicion of “ordered forms,” and his strong distinction between the bishop’s “representing” the unity of the church and his “indicating” this unity (Webster can commend only the latter). But we should also, in the then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s words, try to “understand the objection of the other as our own problem.” If we wish to suggest that certain forms are more than contingent and that the bishop can “represent” the church’s unity without diluting its Christology, we will have to show that these forms and representations intensify our “attentiveness to word and sacrament, docility before the gospel, above all, prayerfulness for the coming of Christ and his Spirit.”
Can we do this?