Sunday, February 16, 2020, is the date of Bishop Matt's official episcopal visitation at All Saints, so I thought I'd take advantage of the opportunity to share some general information about holy orders in our Anglican church tradition and about episcopal visitations, specifically.
One that distinguishes The Episcopal Church from other liturgical Christian traditions that maintain the historic episcopate* is that in our Church, "Canon law requires every diocesan bishop to visit every congregation in his or her diocese at least once every three years. The canonical purposes of a visitation are for the bishop to examine the condition of the congregation, oversee the clergy, preach, confirm, preside at the eucharist, and examine parochial records. The BCP also assumes that the bishop's visitation will be an occasion for baptism, and that the bishop will preside."1
These purposes and obligations are in keeping with our Church's understanding of the special (specific) vocations of bishops. From "The Catechism" in of The Book of Common Prayer:
Q. What is the ministry of a bishop?
A. The ministry of a bishop is to represent Christ and his
Church, particularly as apostle, chief priest, and pastor
of a diocese; to guard the faith, unity, and discipline of
the whole Church; to proclaim the Word of God; to act
in Christ's name for the reconciliation of the world and
the building up of the Church; and to ordain others to
continue Christ's ministry.
*The words episcopal, episcopate, and bishop all derive from the same Greek work that literally means "overseer." Thus, the primary function of a bishop is oversight ~ of the faith, of the diocesan congregations, of the clergy serving under the bishop, and ultimately of the "cure of souls" in the bishop's see (territory, i.e., the diocese).
Within a diocese, every mission and parish is essentially a "branch office" of the ministry of the bishop of that diocese, and the presbyters (priests) and deacons serve within the diocese as agents of their bishop. Indeed, one of the main reasons that the priesthood first developed in antiquity as an ordained order of ministry is that, as the Christian faith grew and spread, it became impossible for the primary ministers of the faith ~ bishops ~ to be physically present to celebrate the Eucharist in every worshipping community within their territories. So "presbyters" ("elders") from those communities were recruited to preside over and administer the sacraments in the bishop's stead. The bishop remains the primary minister, however, and that is why the canons of The Episcopal Church require our bishops to visit in person each congregation within his or her diocese on a very regular basis.
So it makes sense that we are known as The Episcopal Church: our entire Church polity is structured around this theology of bishops, after all. Below is additional information put together by the Episcopal Diocese of Fond du Lac.
So why do we have Bishops?
Being a Christian is not simply a matter of individual belief and belonging to God. It is also about belonging to the larger community of believers who make up the Church, the body of Christ Jesus. That belonging is practiced and lived out concretely in our local congregations. But, it does not end there. We also belong to one another in the larger congregation of congregations that is the diocese, and, through that, we belong to the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church around the world and through the ages. The Holy Spirit, working in that belonging, enables us to live into the promise that God heals all that is separating us from God and one another.
Bishops are symbols of that belonging. Bishops are consecrated by the laying on of hands by other bishops whose authority has come down from the Apostles – the appointed leaders of the early Church. Thus, bishops are physical representations of belonging through their connection with other bishops around the world and through history. They, collectively, are the visible sign of the Church’s unity and of continuity within the Church’s life and witness through the ages. Thus, the bishop is a sort of bridge (pontiff in Latin) between the congregations of the diocese as well as to other dioceses throughout the world and throughout time. As far back as we can go in the history of the Church, bishops have served this role.
Bishops exercise general oversight of a diocese through their ministry as chief priest and pastor, prophet, and teacher. Their duties include: visiting the congregations of the diocese, supervising diocesan staff and programs, and issuing guidance on the Church’s doctrine, discipline and worship. The bishop also serves as “the pastor to the pastors.” Two Sacramental functions are reserved for bishops: Confirmation and Ordination.
The bishop wears two particular pieces of head-gear. The first is a zucchetto, a purple cap. Its purpose is to keep the head warm in drafty, cold cathedrals.
The other is the mitre. It has many associations. Its two sharp peaks represent the flames of the Holy Spirit given at Pentecost (see Acts 2:3). The lappets, or two tails which hang down behind, are reminiscent of two large book marks, said to represent the Old and New Testaments. The bishop removes the mitre for the proclamation of the Gospel and to approach God in prayer.
The bishop wears a pectoral cross.
The bishop also wears an episcopal ring. It symbolizes the call to faithfulness to the diocese. It has been compared to a wedding ring.
It is also a custom for bishops to put a cross before their signatures, as in “+John Smith,” for example. (Priests customarily place one after their signatures, as in “John Smith+.)
Please plan to join us on February 16th for the episcopal visitation ~ I encourage you all to take part in this important aspect of our shared Episcopal life.
1 "Episcopal Visitation," An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church, The Episcopal Church, https://episcopalchurch.org/library/glossary/episcopal-visitation, from An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church, A User Friendly Reference for Episcopalians, Don S. Armentrout and Robert Boak Slocum, editors.