Deposing Bishops

Been tossing back and forth with a friend what, if any, historical precedents apply in the consideration of how a Bishop could be deposed and where the authority lies to do it. Two occasions come immediately to mind and so I’ll share them here.

The first is St John Chrysostom who, as Patriarch of Constantinople (think Primate for an Anglican context) went around deposing Arian priests and Bishops. Here’s what chrysostom.org says:

The occasion was furnished by an unauthorised use of his Episcopal power beyond the lines of his diocese, which was confined to the city. At the request of the clergy of Ephesus and the neighbouring bishops, he visited that city in January, 401, held a synod and deposed six bishops convicted of shameful simony. During his absence of several months he left the Episcopate of Constantinople in the hands of Severian, bishop of Gabala, an unworthy and adroit flatterer, who basely betrayed his trust and formed a cabal headed by the empress and her licentious court ladies, for the ruin of Chrysostom.

On his return to Constantinople he used unguarded language in the pulpit, and spoke on Elijah’s relation to Jezebel in such a manner that Eudoxia understood it as a personal insult. The clergy were anxious to get rid of a bishop who was too severe for their lax morals.

The interesting thing is that he actually did depose the Bishops and the new ones that were put in their place stayed in place and carried on the Episcopal ministry there. The only reason he eventually got booted out of Constantinople was that the clergy couldn’t stand him actually enforcing the moral life that they were meant to lead!!! There’s more on how they immoral in the church eventually resorted to killing him to get rid of him at New Advent.

The precedent though is clear – A Patriarch (Primate?) has in the past deposed bishops within his jurisdiction if they stray from orthodox teaching or practice immoral acts.

Now, how about deposing a Patriarch (Primate?)? The best precedent is probably the Western Schism after the Avignon Papacy. Here the Schism was ended by the Council of Constance which, after securing the voluntary resignation of the Roman Pope Gregory XII then forcibly deposed the AntiPope John XXIII and elected a new Pope in their place. Here, crucially, it was the gathering of ALL the Bishops in the church who deposed the Patriarch. They stated clearly that their authority to do so came from being:

legitimately assembled in the holy Spirit, constituting a general council and representing the Catholic church militant, it has power immediately from Christ; and that everyone of whatever state or dignity, even papal, is bound to obey it in those matters which pertain to the faith, the eradication of the said schism and the general reform of the said church of God in head and members.

Such a conciliar ruling predates the Reformation and therefore has bearing on the Anglican Communion in a way that Vatican I’s claim of infallibility and inviolability of the Primacy doesn’t. Constance was a true Ecumenical Council of the Church from which the Anglican Church reformed itself. As far as I know no constituent part of the Anglican Communion has renounced Constance as a false council.

What would be the equivalent today for the Anglican Communion of all the Bishops meeting? Lambeth? Do they have the authority and ecclesiastical precedent therefore to depose Primates and install new ones in their place?

I’ve cited two examples to get the ball rolling. What does everybody else think?

2 Comments on “Deposing Bishops

  1. Well, it seems to me that it’s a weighty topic not to be entered into lightly. However, as humans are falable – and we certainly have a history of that in the past and in the present, there should be some system of accountability. The Biblical steps to resolve conflict should probably be used and the original precedent:

    The precedent though is clear – A Patriarch (Primate?) has in the past deposed bishops within his jurisdiction if they stray from orthodox teaching or practice immoral acts.

    If a bishop is unwilling to repent after all the steps have been taken, then they should probably be deposed.

  2. There are rather good and recent Anglican Communion precedents for deposing bishops (including Primates) and rebuilding / refounding provinces. But it is a long and careful Anglican process – not a swift American one.

    As it is, the Communion cannot currently depose US Bishops with the force of anything other than argument (tried and failed), suspension (tried and failed) and expulsion (february).

    The communion covenant will change diocese cannons precisely so that their is a clear and effective procedure for deposing bishops and clergy that can be invoked by the communion as a whole – so that, for example, any bishop who voted for VGR or whole attended his consecration could be deemed by that action to have forfeited their right in perpetuity to ordination, consecration, employment and pension within ECUSA — and unimpeacably according to US law too!

    And that is what is required in the new US province.

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