Blog|The Rev. Canon Anna E. Rossi
On the night of Jesus’ betrayal, the Gospel according to John records an extended teaching, which scholars term Jesus’ “Farewell Discourse.” In its narrative context, the lyrical, mystical poetry is intended to shore up the disciples and prepare them for Jesus’ glorification on the cross and ultimate return to the Father. Jesus prays: “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” (John 17:11 NRSV) And Jesus continues: “I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (17:23)
Theologians have understood the unity of which Jesus spoke as proleptic (already and not yet), or eschatological (fulfilled at the end of time). We might look to it as both vocational and aspirational — that is, it is the work and hope of every Christian, by the grace of God working in us. And while this work is common to the whole Church and shared among its members, it is particularly expressed in the Episcopate, the Order of Bishops.
The rite of ordination of a bishop makes explicit this vocation of unity. In the Examination (BCP 517), the Presiding Bishop describes the call to the Bishop-elect, who is “called to be one with the apostles,” and to “guard the faith, unity and discipline of the Church.” The first liturgical act that the Bishop-elect leads in the rite is the Nicene Creed: We believe in one God, and by the Holy Spirit, one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. The theme of unity continues after the prayer of consecration and laying on of hands. There, Presiding Bishop then prays that the new Bishop’s heart will be filled so that they can “serve before (God) day and night in the ministry of reconciliation.” (BCP 521)
A Bishop’s ministry of reconciliation concerns not only pronouncing God’s forgiveness at the confession of sin, but the church-wide and public exercise of their ministry to gather, heal, and share God’s love for the world. Episcopal ministry has been understood as central to the reconciliation of church bodies, dating from the 1886 Chicago Quadrilateral, four criteria for Christian unity, written by Episcopal priest William Reed Huntington and affirmed by the House of Bishops in the Convention. (The unifying role of Bishops was also understood as central to Anglican polity and identity when the Quadrilateral was adapted and affirmed by Anglican bishops at Lambeth two years later.)
Chicago and Lambeth affirmed “the historic Episcopate, locally adapted.” There is no one way to be a Bishop or to exercise a ministry of reconciliation. While the purview of a Bishop is decidedly global — each is called to “share in the leadership of the Church throughout the world” (BCP 517) — the exercise is often local and particular. Bishops confirm individuals with names, stories, and gifts in the unity and faith of the apostles. They ordain deacons and priests in the same. Bishops convene specific interfaith, civic, and other partners, with whom they build relationships over time, and partner to respond to the real, human (and ecological) circumstances on the ground.
When Jesus convened his disciples on that fateful night, he prayed that they would be one. Jesus would not need to pray for what already was in its fullness. He prayed because the disciples were also going to be scattered; they were going to betray, deny, despair, disagree, disbelieve, and drift away on their boats. None of this dissuaded Jesus from his prayer, call, and ultimate faithfulness; neither should it dissuade us. This is the faith of the apostles. It transformed the face of the earth. Thanks be to God who gives us signs of unity and the ministry of reconciliation, that by them the world may glimpse the love that makes us one.
The Rev. Canon Anna E. Rossi
Director of Interfaith Engagement