Wednesday, September 27, 2017
Bishops and Their Councils and Conferences. . .
Episcopal Conferences seem to have a status greater than individual bishops and yet, they really have no specific theological stature. The Bishop of Rome claims status over the Universal Church and individual bishops, priests, and even deacons have status over specific locales but Episcopal Conferences? So what does this mean, practically speaking. If a majority of bishops in a national episcopal conference decide something, then that obviously has greater import and priority over individual bishops and dioceses, right? Well, even if it does, why? Why does a conference of bishops have greater authority, status, or jurisdiction over the local bishop? It seems to me an invention without real status or authority but yet it certainly acts as if it had such authority and status.
By now you are glazed over and wondering what kind of stuff I am putting in my coffee. Well, it does have reference to Lutheranism. Many, perhaps even most, Lutheran denominations have a form of an episcopal conference. It could be the Council of Presidents in the LCMS or the Bishop's Conference of the ELCA. I can understand how the individual District President or Synod Bishop has authority and jurisdiction. I am not sure where the idea of a council or conference of presidents or bishops came from? We Lutherans distinguish the President or Bishop from the pastor not by divine right but by human assignment of responsibility. So for us, there is no class distinction between bishops or presidents. It is a distinction of function or responsibility we have assigned to those pastors who have been elected to these offices. But doesn't a council or conference of presidents or bishops imply that this class distinction? Doesn't having such a group invest them with responsibilities and jurisdiction that our theology has not assigned?
I understand pastoral conferences since by our own definition (at least in Missouri) members of Synod are pastors and congregations. I am not sure how the ELCA describes this but I cannot imagine that clergy do not have similar status within their own structure and theology. Since we have both a congregational and a ministerial identity and status, it is logical that a pastor's conference represents a relative consensus of those who are members of the Synod. But what about bishops or presidents councils or conferences?
Don't get me wrong, I am not necessary opposed to them. In fact, I can see how they might function for good. My question involves not their advisability but the theology of it all and how we both invest and justify the authority, responsibility, and jurisdiction we place in them. It may well be that these are simply anomalies. They are not really anything -- that is, anything more or less than we want them to be. I suspect that Rome would like them to have more than this kind of identity and I think we Lutherans would prefer some sort of legitimacy as well. That is why I ask the question. What is the theological status, authority, and jurisdiction we assign to national groups such as episcopal conferences or councils of [district] presidents? If someone could enlighten me, I would appreciate it.