This Sunday, Emmanuel will have an “Episcopal Visitation.” In more current parlance: “The Bishop is coming! The Bishop is coming!” It’s customary in the Diocese of Maryland that either the Bishop, the Assistant Bishop, or the Canon to the Ordinary (the Bishop’s right-hand person) visit each parish yearly. This week, the Right Reverend Eugene Taylor Sutton, Bishop of Maryland, visits us.
Perhaps a note on church polity—church governance—is appropriate at this time. Generally speaking, there are three types of polity: episcopal, presbyterian, and congregational.
The episcopal model—from the Greek word episkopos, meaning overseer—involves having bishops at the top of a hierarchical ladder, though there are variations in how this works. The Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox churches, the Anglican churches, the Scandinavian Lutherans (though not until recently the German and some American Lutherans) and the United Methodist Church in the United States (but not in England), are all episcopal churches. In the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox churches, the Pope or Metropolitan bishops have the final say on matters of church governance.
In Anglican churches such as ours, the bishop of a diocese or the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church has a great deal of authority, but the final authority in a diocese is the diocesan convention and in the national church is the General Convention. For instance, a bishop alone or bishops acting in concert could not have ordained women or approved recognizing the sacramentality of same-sex marriage by themselves. It required the action of conventions—and where the diocesan convention and the General Convention are at odds, the General Convention’s actions prevail.
The presbyterian model—from a Greek word for elder, presbus—is another form of polity. In it authority rests with a body of elders, not with a single individual. In some presbyterian churches, there is a hierarchy of boards of elders stretching to a national General Assembly. In others, the elders govern the local church but are not connected to other churches or congregations. In the United States, there are a wide variety of Presbyterian churches which have split from other Presbyterian churches over the interpretation of Scripture or the role of women in the church. The Reformed churches in this country are also often governed by presbyters.
Congregational churches are exactly what they sound like. The decision-making authority rests with the individual congregation in matters as important as calling a minister to less important ones, though no less contentious, such as what color to paint the doors. Some congregational church unite with others, such as the Southern Baptists or American Baptists conventions, but the larger denomination cannot dictate to the congregation. The United Church of Christ, which includes congregationalists from the time of the pilgrims, states: “Our covenanting emphasizes trustful relationships rather than legal agreements.”
In our time, so-called ”megachurches” defy categorization. They are congregational in that they stand alone, but they are often tightly controlled by the minister (sometimes called a bishop), and when he or she either dies or retires or, alas, leaves amid a scandal, the church sometimes collapses.
Emmanuel is an Episcopal Church. We pray for our bishop at every service, and we consult with him—and he with us—about the needs of the parish and the diocese. We send voting delegates to the annual diocesan convention. We support the work of the diocese, and through the diocese the national church, with a contribution of over $100,000 each year. Members of Emmanuel serve on various diocesan committees, and the diocesan transitions officer is working closely with our Vestry through the process of calling a new rector. Though there is sometimes tension between this parish (or any other parish for that matter) and the diocese, we remain closely tied together.
We welcome Bishop Sutton this Sunday.