What is a Bishop?

By Dr. Chris Corbin

As the Diocese of South Dakota finds itself amid the excitement and uncertainty of the search for a new bishop, many of us many find ourselves asking: What exactly is a bishop and what do they do? At the very least, this is a question we all should be asking ourselves. Whether all you know about the bishop is that she or he is the person who wears a funny hat and comes to your church every year or you feel ready to teach a ministry weekend on the orders of ministry in the Episcopal Church, we could all stand to gain a better and clearer understanding of this important part of our Church’s life and ministry.

The English word “bishop” comes from the Greek ἐπίσκοπος (eh-PIHS-koh-pohs), which means something like “overseer” or “supervisor.” This Greek word is where we get the name of our Church (Episcop-al comes from “episcopos”), and the English word itself is a modified version of the original Greek (drop the e and the final osbis very close to p and sk makes a similar sound to sh, and you go from ePISKOPos to BISHOP). While the nature of the episcopacy (that is, the position or office of a bishop) became more clearly defined and uniform as time went on, the word “episkopos” was already used in the New Testament to refer to a ministry that was closely linked to the work of the original twelve Apostles (see Acts 1:20).  That ministry involved overseeing or supervising the life and work of a Christian community in a particular area (see Acts 20:28, 1 Timothy 3, Philippians 1:1, and Titus 1).

The Episcopal Church understands bishops as one of the three orders of ordained ministry, along with priests and deacons. As the Book of Common Prayer says, bishops are “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” (p. 855). Bishops act as Christ’s representatives for the Diocese and are called to serve a unifying role within their Diocese and between the Diocese and the larger Church. This role of maintaining unity and representing Christ means that a bishop is the chief pastor for a Diocese. He or she oversees that the worship, doctrine, and discipline of the Diocese so that they align with the expectations of the larger Episcopal Church while ensuring that these things remain responsive to the unique cultural and contextual needs of her or his Diocese. As the representative of the larger Church to the Diocese, the bishop is entrusted by the Church with those services that deal directly with the life of the larger Church, including the Ordination and Consecration of Bishops, Ordination of Priests, Ordination of Deacons, the Celebration of a New Ministry, and the Consecration of a Church or Chapel. Canon III.12 of the Constitution & Canons also lists other episcopal (that is, specifically for bishop’s) responsibilities that flow from this understanding of the role of a bishop. Bishops are to visit each congregation in the Diocese at least once every three years; provide pastoral letters to the clergy and people of the Diocese from time to time; provide an annual report to Diocesan Convention; and oversee the licensing of lay ministers.

The Episcopal Church understands the office of the bishop as the sign of unity not only across the Church at any given time, but also through time. For this reason, the Episcopal Church joins other Anglican churches, the Roman Catholic Church, and Eastern Orthodox churches in seeing bishops as in the line of Apostolic Succession. In other words, Episcopalians believe that properly ordained bishops should be able to trace their authority back to the original twelve Apostles through a historical series of unbroken ordinations.