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This page last updated 18 October 2004  

an essay for Anglicans Online

Leading “the Church Throughout the World”
The Rt Revd Pierre W. Whalon, D.D.
9 October 2004

From the Ordinal for Bishops: “With your fellow bishops you will share in the leadership of the Church throughout the world.” (BCP 517)

Why does the canon law require the consent of a majority of bishops and standing committees (or close to General Convention, of Deputies) in order to confirm an episcopal election and approve the consecration of a bishop-elect? As the release date of the Lambeth Commission Report (October 18) draws closer, this question is a good one for Episcopalians to reflect upon.

A majority of the Standing Committees of the various dioceses, or the House of Deputies of the General Convention (if the election is held within 120 days before Convention), must approve the consecration of a bishop-elect. The canonical language is clear as to why: in order “that the Sacred Order and Office of Bishop should not be unworthily conferred…” (Canon III.16: 3(a); 4(b)) Thus the clerical and lay representatives of the dioceses affirm, so far as they are able, that the bishop-elect is lawfully elected and possesses the qualities necessary to exercise the ministry of bishop. The consents of a majority of bishops exercising jurisdiction are also necessary, though the canon presents no rationale at all for their consents.[*] Nor is any discussed in the commentaries on our canon law consulted by this writer. One presumes of course that a bishop’s consent would be based on the same principles as that of a standing committee or deputation, viz., that the election followed the canonical norms and that the bishop-elect possesses the education, strength of faith, and “godly character” to be consecrated bishop. But nowhere is this spelled out.

A number of bishops voiced concern about the rationale for casting a vote to consent or withhold consent to a consecration at last year’s General Convention, especially concerning the then-bishop-elect of New Hampshire. On what exactly were they voting? After Convention, a few bishops voiced publicly and more privately that, in light of the consequences of their vote, they did not fully understand what this consent means. In any event, the question of why consent is required would seem to need some further thought.

One aspect, besides the conformity of the election to canonical norms and the fitness of the candidate to the Order, is the paradoxical role of the bishop both as a minister restricted to a definite geographical jurisdiction, and as a minister responsible for the Church throughout the world. It would seem that, as bishops have the power to found congregations and dioceses, it needs to be restricted, lest bishops go all over the world, leaving priests and laypeople who are more attached to the individual bishop than to their own diocese, their province, the Anglican Communion—even the Church Militant Here on Earth. Furthermore, as people charged to be guardians of the faith and order of the Church, the geographical restriction requires bishops to work together for the greater good, rather than seek personal, idiosyncratic solutions.

This dual role, as well as fair elections and fitness, is another reason why the consent of the bishops is necessary. It is one of the reasons the venerable Fathers of the First Nicene Council, called in 325 A.D. by the Roman emperor Constantine, passed a canon requiring this consent (as well as writing a goodly piece of what eventually became known as the Nicene Creed). The first General Convention revived this tradition, re-interpreting it to mean the consent of both the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies sitting in Convention. Eventually the consent process was modified to its present form.

“With your fellow bishops you will share in the leadership of the Church throughout the world.” We do not consecrate bishops only for a defined region, but for the whole world. Therefore it behooves the Church to make provision for full informed consent by responsible authorities for every new bishop to be consecrated, if we are to impose that person on the world. And from the same exigency springs the necessity for each bishop to stay within his or her own diocese, in terms of exercising the power of the episcopate. The Church in the world has always needed both the college of bishops working together, as at Nicea, and each bishop ministering at home within a diocese.

There really is nothing new under the sun. The Nicene Fathers were considering cases of bishops going into other dioceses to ordain priests and deacons to their liking, the problem of “puritan” bishops (followers of Novatian) too rigorous in their interpretation, and of course, various heresies concerning the Trinity and the person of Christ.

Today some bishops are taking it upon themselves to issue licenses for priests to work on their behalf thousands of miles from their dioceses, or even to ordain bishops without consents for other provinces considered “not orthodox enough.” Other bishops are wondering about the rationale for giving consent to elections and consecrations. The Fathers of Nicea considered these and ruled upon them. The current chaos in the Anglican Communion testifies to their enduring wisdom, as bishops forget those ancient disciplines and history repeats itself.

Now the question is, who is the Council of Nicea for our time and who is the Constantine to call it together?

*] The present writer, as bishop-in-charge of an area mission, does not have a vote to consent.

Bishop Whalon welcomes comments or questions about this article. You can write to him at

THE RT REVD PIERRE W. WHALON is Bishop in Charge of the Convocation of American Churches in Europe.