Biblical Bishops: James Ussher’s Defence and Reform of Anglican Polity by Peter Blair (Latimer Publications, 2022), £5.50, 74 pp.
The past few decades have seen an encouraging retrieval of the works of Anglican divines: one of the most recent is Peter Blair’s Biblical Bishops: James Ussher’s Defence and Reform of Anglican Polity.
Ussher himself is both a fascinating and attractive Anglican divine, unfortunately known to many only because of his chronological work in dating the creation of the universe to 23 October, 4004 B.C. Born in 1581 (he died in 1656), his life spanned the turbulent generations after the Reformation that resulted in the English Civil War, eventually becoming Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of all Ireland. Ussher wrote on a wide range of topics but was concerned especially with patristics (his work on Ignatius is particularly noteworthy), theology, church history, and chronology.
Blair’s work focuses on Ussher’s moderate defense of episcopacy and his attempts to reform it for the seventeenth century. As Blair’s study makes clear, Ussher is worth reading because of his winsomeness, the rigor and quality of his thought, and his ability to provoke us to a greater examination of the role of the episcopacy today.
Ussher’s carefulness and moderation provide an enviable model in a fractured and fractious world where true winsomeness is in short supply. It sometimes appears as if the only two options left for Christians in contemporary discourse are a winsome capitulation to the culture or a pugnacious rejection of it. Ussher, however, managed to speak truthfully and convincingly without any compromise. His confidence in speaking in such a unitive and irenic tone flowed from the excellence of his research and his devotion to both the Scriptures and the Church Fathers.
The irenic character of Ussher is manifested in the company he kept: he managed to stay on good terms with Archbishop Laud, King Charles I, and Oliver Cromwell. In contemporary terms, this is something like staying on good terms with both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Like Ussher’s friendships, his view of episcopacy was, theoretically, acceptable to a larger number of Englishmen than other views, and yet he arrived at his view not through compromise or political expediency, but through thoughtful moderation and a careful reading of Scripture and the Tradition. In his “The Originall of Metropolitans and Bishops,” published in 1641 (revised in 1644), he followed Richard Hooker in concluding that episcopacy was not of divine right but was based on the fact that the government of the Church in the New Testament was based on the example of the government of Israel in the Old Testament. In a model of Anglican theological method, Ussher confirmed his conclusions regarding the New Testament presentation of episcopacy by turning to the Church Fathers. Ussher examined Ignatius, Polycarp, and Clement and concluded that a “central but cooperative” role of bishops and presbyteries existed in the early Church. This was to be the key insight that governed Ussher’s case for a revitalized episcopacy for the seventeenth century.
Ussher’s irenicism and careful method coalesced in his work The Reduction of Episcopacie, first published as a pamphlet in 1656, the year of his death. The first subheading of the work provides us both with a summary of where his thoughts will go and also the reason why he has been misread as seeking a compromise sometimes called “prescopalian.” That subheading reads: “Episcopal and Presbyterial Government conjoined.” Contrary to what some have claimed, Ussher was not seeking to make the Church of England presbyterian in its form of government. Ussher’s “reducing” of the episcopacy was, instead, his attempt to account for the episcopacy, in spite of the synonymity of presbyters and bishops in the New Testament but in keeping with the Church of England’s Ordinal. Ussher found in the writings of Cyprian and others confirmation that bishops were biblical and catholic but that they ruled with their presbyteries. Ussher’s work concludes by offering some practical, pastoral suggestions for how his “reduced” episcopacy might work in practice.
Blair’s little book (it’s only about 60 pages) is a readable summary of an important point of Church government presented by an Anglican divine worth reading again in the twenty-first century. The book is thorough enough to present Ussher’s thought with sufficient detail for the reader to comprehend Ussher’s line of argumentation, but without so much detail that it’s destined to be a book relegated to the libraries of narrow academicians. Blair concludes by offering clergy, in particular, two helpful hints about how they might profit from Ussher’s works on episcopacy.
Let us hope that Blair’s re-introduction to Ussher’s views of episcopacy might be read by many and strengthen the view of Anglicans and others on the biblical case for episcopacy: may it also challenge them to re-think how episcopacy might best serve the Church in the twenty-first century. Along the way, we might also be hopeful that in reading Ussher, we are not only convinced by his arguments about episcopacy but won over by his excellence of scholarship and his peaceful and uniting spirit.
Fr. Charles Erlandson is the assistant rector at Good Shepherd Reformed Episcopal Church in Tyler, TX. He is a professor of Church History and Pastoral Theology at Cranmer Theological House. He holds a Ph.D. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (U.K.) and is the author of Love Me, Love My Wife: Ten Reasons Christians Must Join a Local Church, Orthodox Anglican Identity, and Take This Cup: How God Transforms Suffering into Glory and Joy. More important to him than all the books in the world, however, are his wife, Jackie, and their six children.