What's eating Gilbert Meilaender–OR: What's really Wrong with Wright?

In the February edition of “First Things”, Gilbert Meilaender has a little piece wittily entitled “Wrong from Wright“. His main concern is that the Anglican Bishop of Durham, N.T. (Tom) Wright lacks a little maturity when it comes to political analysis.

I am quite fond of Wright, myself. For an Anglican bishop he is remarkably orthodox. In fact, that’s his selling point: he marries complete orthodoxy with regard to the “historical Jesus” and the “physical resurrection” with an incredibly scholarly philosophy and practice of the science of history.

But, as Meilaender points out, he is not nearly so talented in the area of political science. In fact, in several directions, Wright seems to be at pains to make up for his historical and Christological orthodoxy by publically demonstrating a rather more radical approach to other topics: such as the War in Iraq and the Ordination of Women to the Episcopate. These are, of course, quite different topics. But sometimes one wishes that the good bishop gave the same detailed attention to his other areas of pontification as he did to his investigation of the Christological history. Is his support for female bishops simply a political, rather than theological, choice for Wright? It could well be, given this interpretation.

Not to worry. My main interest in Meilaender’s piece is his opening paragraph:

Those of us Protestants whose heritage is relatively congregational may sometimes find ourselves thinking things would be better if only we had bishops to provide the sort of guidance that gives the church theological direction in a world that constantly raises new and difficult questions. Such a longing may be moderated, however, simply by looking at the guidance bishops sometimes give.

Ah well. Yes. It is an interesting thing that my own longing for Rome Sweet Home began with the recognition–decades ago–that the Lutheran Church of Australia lacked real bishops. “Pope Grope” (as we used to call the venerable General President, the Rev. Dr Les Grope) and his successor, Lance Steicke, didn’t really cut it in the episcopal stakes. I was strongly of the mind (living in Adelaide as I did at the time) that Leonard Faulkner was the real bishop of Adelaide and the one to whom I owed true allegiance. I was unaware of all the very human failings of this true bishop at the time, but knowing them even now does not cause me to revise or revile the notion I held at the time.

Bishops are never infallible, UNLESS: They either a) are the Bishop of Rome and teach under specific circumstances, or b) they teach in unison and communion with all the bishops of the Church and the aforementioned Bishop of Rome. Cardinal Kasper made such a point some time ago, when he pointed out that

To stand in the apostolic succession is not a matter of an individual historical chain but of collegial membership in a collegium, which as a whole goes back to the apostles by sharing the same apostolic faith and the same apostolic mission. The laying on of hands is under this aspect a sign of co-optation in a collegium.

Many have taken this to be a denial of apostolic succession, but it is not. Rather, it gives the essence of what that ancient canon meant when it required (for a really valid episcopal ordination) three episcopal ordinators.

In any case, this is what is really “Wrong with Wright”, and, for that matter, what was wrong with the Rev. Drs Grope and Steicke and Semmler: they have not been “co-opted” into “the same apostolic faith and the same apostolic collegium”. And given the enthusiasm with which Wright and his fellow Church of England bishops are embracing the idea of female bishops, there is little chance that they ever will be.

Of course, belonging to “the same apostolic collegium” is no guarantee that every individual Catholic bishop will be orthodox in all his teaching (“Ha, ha, ha”, I hear you say) but it is a guarentee that, as a collegium, the Bishops of the Catholic Church are able to “provide the sort of guidance that gives the church theological direction in a world that constantly raises new and difficult questions”.

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