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Non-Episcopal Ministries

I concluding his excellent and utterly honest historical study of the origins of the episcopate in the church, Francis Sullivan makes this statement which I found quite encouraging as a non-Roman Catholic.  I’m curious what other Roman Catholic Christians would think of it.

I believe that we have sound reasons to hold that Christian ministry, in order to be fully valid, must be related to Christ and his apostles through the historic succession maintained in the college of bishops.  At the same time, I believe that we have tended to pay too exclusive attention to the conditions we believe are required for the validity of ministry and have not sufficiently explored the implications of the fruitfulness of a ministry which may not meet all the conditions we believe are required for validity.  One implication, which certainly needs deeper exploration, concerns the ecclesial character of communities that have not retained the episcopate, but which for centuries have led numberless Christians to grace and salvation through the effective preaching of the Word of God and a fruitful pastoral ministry.  I do not believe we have done full justice to such communities when we simply declare that they are not churches in the proper sense.

–Francis Sullivan, S.J., From Apostles to Bishops: The Development of the Episcopacy in the Early Church (New York: The Newman Press, 2001), 236.


  1. freder1ck wrote:

    This is interesting, Halden…

    If effective preaching the word and fruitful [lay] pastoral ministry are the criteria, then why would such justice only pertain to non-Catholic communities? Why are the Jesuits not a church? They’re larger than many denominations, they’ve had lots of effective preaching, and have exercised fruitful pastoral ministry. Many parishes have had effective preaching and fruitful pastoring. And what about prayer groups?

    That Fr. Sullivan has not anticipated such possibilities suggests that he’s proposing a two-tiered usage of the term church: one for the traditional churches of East and West and another for the sociological realities of Protestantism. The critical question a Protestant needs to ask when approaching ecumenical Catholics is: when they use the term, church, does it mean something different when applied to Catholics and Protestants? So, I would be especially interested in Fr. Sullivan’s ecclesiology…

    As absurd as this may sound, it’s not a reductio ad absurdum. It’s a way of testing whether ecumenists are being entirely straightforward.

    When ecumenical realities are applied internally, it raises provocative questions. Many Catholic parishes have a Stephen’s Ministry program (essentially a lay diaconate that developed in Lutheranism, I think). Essentially, it means that you have a lay diaconate existing parallel to the ordained diaconate.


    Sunday, November 25, 2007 at 2:08 pm | Permalink
  2. Dennis wrote:


    In reading this passage, I am 100% in agreement. What’s important is not if you’re Catholic or if you’re Calvinist or Arminian.

    What’s important is a constant conversion to God. What’s important is to know Christ Jesus in everything.

    I once asked a friend of mine what’s better: A nominal Catholic or an overzealous Protestant. After some thought and discussion, we both agreed that it’s an overzealous Protestant.

    What’s important in everything is the Truth. I believe that the Catholic Church holds the complete fullness of the Truth whereas all Protestant groups hold various degrees and elements of it. To deliver the Truth either in whole or in part to a world so desperately in need of hearing it is a great thing.

    Sunday, November 25, 2007 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

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