As already explained, Prelacy is that system of Church Government which is dispensed by archbishops, bishops, priests, deans, deacons, and other office-bearers. It is exemplified in the Church of Rome and in the Church of England, both of which are prelatic in their government; the difference being, that the prelacy of Rome vests the ecclesiastical supremacy in the Pope, while the prelacy of England vests it in the reigning monarch. With this exception, the two Churches, however widely they may differ in doctrine, are, in every important point of government, the same.
As many may be disposed to consider the prelacy of a Protestant Church much less objectionable than the prelacy of Rome, and as we have neither necessity nor desire to take any unfair advantage in argument, we prefer to bring the prelacy of Protestantism into comparison with the apostolic standard.
The fountain of jurisdiction in the Church of England is the monarch for the time being, who inherits the throne by hereditary descent, and who, irrespective of all character, is, by act of Parliament, the only supreme head of the Church of England and Ireland (37 Henry VIII., chap. 17). No person can be received into the ministry of that Church till he subscribe this article: – “That the king’s majesty, under God, is the only supreme governor of this realm, and of all other his highness’ dominions and countries, as well in all spiritual, or ecclesiastical things or causes, as temporal” (Canon 36). The appointment of all the archbishops and bishops is vested in the Crown, which is guided in the selection by the political administration of the day – a body composed of persons of every hue of religious profession, and only kept in its place by the majority of votes it can command in Parliament.
The highest ecclesiastical officebearers under the Crown are the archbishops, of whom there are two in England – the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, and two in Ireland – the Archbishops of Armagh and Dublin. Each of these has under him a number of suffragan bishops, and each bishop has under his care the inferior clergy of his diocese, who preach and dispense the ordinances of religion to such inhabitants of their parishes as are pleased to receive them. The parish clergy are, in some instances, appointed by the Crown, in others by the bishop, in others by a lay patron, and sometimes in a mode still more objectionable. Such is Prelacy in its most favourable form, as presented in the Protestant Establishment of England. Let us compare it with the system of government which we have already ascertained to exist in the Apostolic Church.
In the Apostolic Church, the office-bearers were chosen by the people; but, in the Church of England, archbishops and bishops are chosen by the Crown, and the subordinate clergy are appointed to their charges either by the diocesan, or by some landed proprietor, or by some civil corporation. The people of the Apostolic Church exercised the privilege of electing an apostle; the people in the Church of England have not power to elect a curate.
In the Apostolic Church, the office of bishop and elder was identical; the elders of Ephesus were the bishops of the flock; but, in the Church Establishment, it is very different. The apostolic elder, being a teacher and ruler of a congregation, resembles more closely the parish clergyman than any other office-bearer in the Church of England. But it is very evident that, in that Church, a parish clergyman holds a position widely different from a bishop. The rector wields the jurisdiction of a parish; but the bishop governs a diocese, that usually includes a whole multitude of parishes. The one presides over a single congregation; the other, over many congregations. The one exercises authority over the laity, but a Church of England bishop is the ruler of a band of clergy. If, then, the parish clergyman correspond to the presbyter or elder of apostolic times, it is very clear that, in the Establishment, the bishop and elder are not identical in office. In the Established Church every elder is subject to his bishop; but, in the Apostolic Church, every elder was a bishop himself.
In the Church of England each congregation is under the care of one presbyter. When a second is called in, he is a mere curate in the employment of another, and void of all ecclesiastical jurisdiction. It is not very common, and certainly not essential to the system, to have more than one presbyter or elder in each Church; whereas, we have seen that, in each Church of apostolic times, there was a plurality of elders.
In the Church of England ordination is an act exclusively performed by a prelate; he may ask others to unite with him, but it is his presence not theirs that is essential to the act: whereas, in the Apostolic Church, it was the practice to ordain men to the office of the ministry with the laying on of the hands of the presbytery.
In the Church of England, no matter what ecclesiastical grievance may exist, there is no power of appeal except to the courts of law, or the Queen’s Privy Council, or some such tribunal. The practice is unknown in the denomination of bringing any matter for consideration before the assembly of elders for them to decide upon, in accordance with the apostles’ word. But this, as we have seen, was the mode in which affairs were managed in the Apostolic Church.
In our Protestant Establishment the monarch is, by act of Parliament, head of the Church, and to the king or queen, as the case maybe, the 37th Article informs us that “the chief government of all estates of the realm, whether they be ecclesiastical or civil, in all causes, doth appertain;” whereas, in apostolic times, the Church had no head but Jesus Christ.
We have thus examined and compared the two Churches as closely and candidly as it is possible for us to do, and we feel ourselves forced to the conclusion that, of the six great principles of ecclesiastical government that met in the Apostolic Church, there is not one embodied in the Prelacy of the Church of England. We infer, therefore, that, while that Church may be entitled to great respect as a human system, maintained by act of Parliament, and numbering in its ranks many estimable people, there is no ground whatever for regarding it, in point of government, as an Apostolic Church. At the peril of excommunication we feel bound to declare our conviction that the government of the Church of England is repugnant to the Word of God. (No. VII. of the Constitutions and Canons Ecclesiastical, agreed upon with the king’s license in 1603, and republished by the Prayer-Book and Homily Society (1852), is as follows: – “Whosoever shall hereafter affirm, That the government of the Church of England under his majesty by archbishops, bishops, deans, archdeacons, and the rest that bear office in the same, is anti-Christian or repugnant to the Word of God; let him be excommunicated ipso facto, and so continue till he repent, and publicly revoke such his wicked errors.”)