- The office of bishop (Greek episcopos) emerged slowly over the first centuries of the Christian church. In New Testament times, a bishop was hardly distinct from what is termed elsewhere an elder (Greek presbyteros). By the 16th century, the episcopacy collectively, with its visible head in the pope (the bishop of Rome), was seen as carrying the apostolic lineage of the church. That lineage was passed on by the laying on of hands by a bishop who stood in apostolic succession with Christ and the apostles. Any bishop was, in theory, able to trace his (the bishopric had become an entirely male occupation) lineage backward through a series of consecrations to one of the apostles. As one approached the early centuries, the lines of consecration tended to become ever more difficult to verify.The office of bishop was called into question by John Calvin and the Reformed Church. Calvin argued for a church led by elders, whose authority would be based on preaching the Word and the proper administration of the sacraments. The leaders of the Radical Reformation likewise rejected apostolic successions and bishops. Seventeenth-century Baptists and Congregationalists had no use for bishops.Episcopacy survived in the Church of England (and its lesser known parallel community in Scotland). Though the Roman Catholic Church has at times questioned the legitimacy of the Church of England's orders, Anglicans have staunchly defended them and worked to keep them intact. Martin Luther seemed personally indifferent to apostolic succession, but branches of the Lutheran Church, most notably the Church of Sweden, preserve episcopal leadership and apostolic succession. Other Lutheran churches have presbyterial or congregational organizations. Among other Protestants that claim apostolic succession is the Moravian Church.As the Protestant community continued to divide, the question of bishops came up once more. John Wesley, himself an Episcopal minister, tried to have the Anglican bishop of London consecrate a bishop for American Methodists in the years immediately after the American Revolution. Failing in that approach, Wesley suggested that the office of bishop was primarily a functional one; since he had himself functioned as a bishop in calling forth and overseeing the Methodist movement for several decades, he was in fact a bishop and thus had the power to consecrate (set apart) some of his ministers as bishops (he called them superintendents), most notably Thomas Coke. In 1784, Coke consecrated Francis Asbury as the general superintendent of the American work, and the ministers collectively chose to call Asbury a bishop.In the 19th century, with the emergence of new churches such as the Reformed Episcopal Church, the title "bishop" lost even more of its traditional meaning; it could simply mean the person or persons chosen to act as the leaders of a church or a major division thereof. Most of the new 20th-century churches that call their leaders bishops make no claim to apostolic succession. Traditional divisional terms such as diocese have been replaced with modern organizational terms - district, conference, territory, and so forth. Often the designation of a leader as a bishop is simply an attempt by a new sectarian group to claim legitimacy within the larger church community.African Americans lobbied for entrance into the episcopacy in the older churches at the beginning of the 20th century. The first African American admitted to such orders was Richard ALLEN, who after leaving the Methodist Episcopal Church and establishing the African Methodist Episcopal Church, was elected as its first bishop and consecrated by several black ministers. A similar event occurred a few years later with the founding of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.Both Methodists and Episcopalians admitted African Americans to their episcopal orders, but in each case the bishops were designated for service outside the United States. In 1858, the Methodist Episcopal Church (now part of the United Methodist Church) selected Francis Burns (1809-63) to superintend the work in Liberia. He served for five years and was succeeded by John W. Roberts (1812-75). Not until 1920 were black bishops selected to serve the predominantly African-American Methodist conferences in the Methodist Episcopal Church - Robert Edward Jones (1872-1960) and Matthew Wesley Clair Jr. (1865-1943).The first African-American Episcopal bishop was James Theodore Holly (1929-91), who was assigned to minister in Haiti, where he raised up a French-speaking church, Église Orthodoxe Apostolique Haitienne. In 1874, the Episcopal Church recognized the Haitian jurisdiction and authorized the consecration of Holly as a missionary bishop to Haiti. Meanwhile, in 1864, Samuel A Crowther was consecrated in England as the first Anglican bishop of African descent.The drive for an African-American bishop within the Episcopal Church become focused in the 1920s on the figure of George A. McGuire, a prominent priest. In 1918, two African Americans, Edward Demby (1859-1967) and Henry Delany (1858-1928) were named suffragan (assistant) bishops in Arkansas and North Carolina, respectively. However, there was little prospect of a black being named to lead a diocese. In 1921, McGuire left the church and founded the African Orthodox Church, over which he came to preside as archbishop. It would not be until 1970 that John Burgess (b. 1909) was consecrated as the bishop of Massachusetts.The episcopacy became a major bar to modern plans for church union, especially involving Anglicans. Only in a few cases, for example, the Church of South India, was a consensus reached between supporters and opponents of apostolic succession.The issue of admitting women ministers to the episcopacy became the major topic of the 1970s, and it has continued to plague the Anglican community to the present. The United Methodist Church, the largest American Protestant church with episcopal leadership, elected their first female bishop in 1980. Marjorie Swank Matthews (d. 1986) served a single four-year term in Wisconsin before retiring. Since that time, United Methodism has elected a number of women to the office.Within the Anglican Communion, Barbara Clementine HARRIS of the Episcopal Church (in the United States) was the first woman elected to the episcopacy (and incidentally the first African-American woman). While other Anglican churches, including the Church of England, continue to debate the issue, most of the churches of the Anglican Communion have copied the American example. Several Anglican provinces, most notably Singapore and Uganda, have strongly opposed females in the ministry.The Episcopal Church raised an even more divisive issue for fellow Anglicans in 2003, when it approved the election and consecration of Rev. Gene Robinson, a homosexual priest living with a gay partner, as the suffragan bishop of New Hampshire.Further reading:■ Ivar Asheim and Victor R. Gold, eds., Episcopacy in the Lutheran Church? Studies in the Development and Definition of the Office of Church Leadership (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1970)■ Gerald Moede, The Office of Bishop in Methodism: Its History and Development (New York: Abingdon Press, 1964)■ Jack M. Tuell and Roger W. Fjeld, eds., Episcopacy: Lutheran-United Methodist Dialogue II (Minneapolis, Minn.: Augsburg, 1991)■ Women in the Anglican Episcopate: Theology, Guidelines, and Practice, The Eames Commission and the Monitoring Group Reports (Toronto: Anglican Book Centre [for the Anglican Consultative Council], 1998)■ William L. Wright, The Anglican Concept of Episcopacy (Toronto: Hart House, 1964).
Encyclopedia of Protestantism. Gordon Melton. 2005.