Comprehensive Church with Reduced Episcopacy

The vexed question of church government has, ironically, often kept the Church in disorder. A church reconcilable to both Episcopalians and Presbyterians, governed by an Ignatian episcopacy according to biblical patterns, was an opportunity lost in the 1660s, an opportunity that, given episcopacy as the plene esse of the Church, should vigorously have been taken.

Abbott, William M. ‘James Ussher and “Ussherian” Episcopacy, 1640–1656: The Primate and His Reduction Manuscript’. In Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies 22, no. 2 (1990): 237–259.

Spalding, James C. and Maynard F. Brass. ‘Reduction of Episcopacy as a Means to Unity in England, 1640–1662’. In Church History 30, no. 4 (1961): 414–432.

Except in the power of vestries, however, I see no way of compromise with Independents (Congregationalists), even passing over their historic role in the killing of the king. It’s far preferable to maintain an established church whose members lawfully submit to a set of confessional standards: the Book of Common Prayer (Ordinal included), Royal Supremacy (the power of bishop and crown to settle controversies), and the Thirty-Nine Articles. I think anyway that Independents are, by and large, either by disorderly nature or by vain desire to use backhanded coercion in their little worlds, schismatics who are too stiff-necked to submit to a synod’s canons. In the days of the Apostles, citing individual liberty or congregational sovereignty (a cover for individual licence, since you can have a church split and a church of one), they would’ve chafed at the canons passed by the Council of Jerusalem for order, that ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled (Acts 15.29). If they would not submit to authority in the past, they will not duly respect authority today.

James Ussher’s proposal for reduced episcopacy does call for consensus decision-making as the norm, but it isn’t the democracy that Congregationalists want. If churchly authority can be obeyed, it ought to be obeyed, not subjected to an extra round of congregational voting; in an established church, the system of checks and balances includes acts of Parliament, which eliminates the need for clamour. If things are going so badly that the status quo overturns the judgement of Scripture, have a reformation rather than a schism. I do believe any endeavour toward church unity and catholicity will have to end in congregationalist polity dissolved. Unless the structure’s become apostatical, all must commit to working within the system rather than pulling out. As for civil liberty, I follow Jonathan Swift, who seeks both authority and liberty.

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