- The Rt Revd Wallace Benn
The high-water mark of Reformed Anglican evangelical ecclesiology & apologetics.
Evangelicals are gladly Easter people who love to talk about the Gospel of grace and all that the Lord Jesus achieved for us by his substitutionary death and glorious resurrection. But Anglican evangelicals when they move home and look for a good church are often indifferent to the benefits their home church has brought them. When asked, especially in the light of unhelpful comments from some bishops, what is the point of bishops anyway?- they are left with an unclear understanding of the Reformers’ Anglican church polity.
Many evangelicals are Anglican simply because of history, or they stay in what they consider to be ‘the best boat to fish from’. But this is an inadequate ecclesiology, and leads either to embarrassment or pragmatic answers to thoughtful questions by friends, who belong to a different denomination. We may well be embarrassed by how the Church of England is behaving at present, but is there a good reason for being an Anglican evangelical? Peter Blair helps us hugely by putting us in touch with our heritage, and in particular explaining why arguably the outstanding evangelical scholar of the mid 17th century was a convinced Anglican and an advocate for an episcopally ordered church.
Peter’s succinct, accessible and clear book explains the views of Archbishop James Ussher who wrote about the place and role of bishops in the 1640s/1650s. He wanted the Church of England to be thoroughly reformed and for its ministry to express biblical principles of leadership in line with the teaching of the Bible. It was a time of ferment in Church and State and Ussher was a widely respected and very significant figure who had a considerable influence in his day. His arguments for keeping bishops were briefly, as follows:
In Old Testament times when the church grew, it not only had priests, but chief priests, and overseers (bishops) over the Levites (see for example Nehemiah 11:22). They were first amongst equals and no doubt acted as chairmen for the gatherings of priests or Levites. Organisationally they were helpful as numbers grew. Ussher argues that it is not surprising that as the early church grew it should develop the same God given structures. These chief priests or bishops are not to be confused with the High Priest who is abolished in the New Testament because of the work of our great High Priest, the Lord Jesus.
Ussher saw that the ‘apostolic delegate’ role of people like Timothy and Titus (the latter sent by Paul to appoint elders in every city church in Crete) were clearly bishops in function. J B Lightfoot followed this line in the late 19th century.
Ussher, as Lightfoot, believed that bishops were not a different order from presbyter/elders in the New Testament but rather a presbyter set aside to help organisationally, as first amongst equals, but holding a respected role to ordain and discipline as well as lead in faithfulness to the Apostles’ teaching and practice (Titus 1:5-9)
Ussher, in line with key mainstream Reformers, saw the ‘angels’ addressed in the seven churches mentioned in Revelation Chs.2,3 as the senior minister or bishop of the key church.
It is no surprise therefore that the role of bishops began to be clearly established without any significant opposition in the 2nd century. Ussher argues that it would have been opposed had it been a novelty.
Peter Blair explains Ussher’s views very well indeed, and in more detail than the outline given above. Also, his book is very well researched, and he gives us the historical background and debates going on at the time, which throws added light on Ussher’s views, as well as explaining the nuances of his opinions. He shows that Ussher was not arguing in a novel way but rather building on the reformed Anglican bishops’ arguments during the Reformation period. Ussher was, if you like, the high-water mark of Reformed Anglican evangelical ecclesiology and apologetics.
Peter’s book is well written and easy to follow as well as being a first-rate scholarly work. His writing raises all the right kind of question we need to ask to pursue a biblical view of bishops today. To those of us who are bishops, Ussher challenges us to ask, if we have understood our role and office correctly and if we are practicing it in the right way.
In conclusion, I am thrilled to see this excellent book in print, which will be a great help to a new generation seeking ecclesiological answers. It gives Anglican evangelicals reason to be righty happy and proud of our ecclesiology (at best), and it gives food for thought about the continuing need for much needed reform in our current practice. Read Peter Blair’s book and enjoy, and be made to ponder further…..!