On Bishops, Shepherds, and Flocks of Sheep

I’ve been thinking about bishops, particularly suffragan bishops. Our Anglican Province of Christ the King will be consecrating three Suffragan Bishops-elect on Wednesday at our parish church of St. Peter’s in Oakland.

I looked up suffragan, a term I knew meant a sort of assistant. The roots are Middle English from Old French from Medieval Latin, suffragari, meaning supporting or voting. That made sense – suffrage, the right to vote, is a more familiar term. So these men will be made full bishops who will play supporting roles in their respective dioceses.

Now curioser and curioser as Alice in Wonderland says, I looked upbishop. This term comes from the Old English biscop, from Late Latinepiscopus, from the Greek episcopos, watcher, overseer.  So that explained why we are often told our bishops are shepherds of their flocks. They even carry a shepherd’s staff.

The Anglican Church, sometimes called Episcopal in the United States, is a church of bishops, a church with an episcopacy. We trust our bishops to watch over the Faith in terms of both doctrine and governance. We trust them to watch over us, to shepherd us closer to God.

Our Anglican bishops, like the Roman Catholic and Orthodox bishops, descend from an unbroken line that reaches back to the first apostles. We call this Apostolic Succession, and there is a kind of family tree often seen in our parish churches, showing this passing down of authority. For each time a bishop is consecrated, he receives this authority to safeguard and watch over what he has received, this great Christian inheritance.

The inheritance is hugely important to us. It is a guarantor of truth as far as such a thing can be possible in a fallen, fallible world. We show this importance by requiring that three bishops co-consecrate one bishop. As they lay their hands upon the bishop-elect’s head, the apostolic line of succession is secured. So our episcopacy, our system of bishops, is important. It ensures orthodoxy going back to the first apostles, the first bishops.

Bishops are of course fallible human beings. There is only one true shepherd of our souls, Christ the Good Shepherd. There is only one whom we can truly trust and he alone is the door to Heaven. It is his voice we will recognize when we cross into that glorious world (John 10) when he calls each of us by name, our Christian name given in Baptism, when we wereChristened, made part of his body.

We do not expect our bishops to be perfect, in spite of their great lineage and in spite of the power of the Holy Spirit acting in this moment of consecration. But we do expect humility. We expect them to do their best in this most difficult of jobs, and we pray for them each Sunday in the Holy Liturgy of the Mass.

I looked up consecrate. Bishops-elect have been ordained and now they are consecrated. The term comes from Middle English consecraten, from the Latin consecratus, meaning con, with, + secre, to make sacred, from the Latin sacrare, to set apart as holy. These men are being set apart, chosen by God.

Sunday afternoon I sat down for dinner with other family members, and as we held hands around the table and thanked God for our meal, I sensed I was part of another flock, a smaller flock, the family flock within the greater family of God. There seems to be a comforting natural order in it all, the shepherd, the sheep, the flock gathered. There were two sets of grandparents so I suppose there were four shepherds. It was not a special occasion, a birthday or anniversary, Christmas or Easter. We simply gathered to share, to touch one another’s lives, to say, I love you. We gathered also to teach our children and grandchildren that this is what families do. Someday the grandchildren will do the same. They too will gather their flock together.

Sheep from many parish folds across this great country will gather on Wednesday, August 15, the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Recently one of our bishops told me how the Blessed Virgin had interceded for him at times in his life, how she had answered particular prayers for particular sheep in his care, how she responded to the candle he lit each evening in the chapel, how she heard his daily cries of love for one of his own. So too, we pray for Our Lady’s intercession this coming Wednesday, a day when we celebrate her ascent to Heaven. We ask that our new Suffragan Bishops be filled with the power and grace of her son, and that these shepherds will protect their sheep from all evil. We pray that they will lead us, feed us with Scripture and Sacrament, and that they will bind our wounds. Our Lady understands these things. She understands families, flocks, feeding, care, binding of wounds. She understands what shepherds must do.

And we give thanks for our apostolic bishops, our episcopacy.

Deo gratias.

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