The Bishop: Pastor, Minister and Ordinary

The constitutional functions of a bishop are now the subject of much detailed statutory regulation.  There is also much commentary and case law to be found on the subject in the older ecclesiastical law.  However, the three functions are helpfully outlined and summarised in the revised Canons of the Church of England, principally Canon C18.


The bishop is ‘the chief pastor of all that are within his diocese, as well laity as clergy’.  He therefore has a direct pastoral responsibility for both clergy and laity. 

The pastoral function towards the laity is known as the cure of souls.  This is shared with the incumbents of benefices.  The shared cure of souls is made clear by the traditional wording of the bishop’s deed of institution to a new incumbent ‘habere curam animarum, et accipe curam tuam et meam‘ (quoted in Phillimore’s Ecclesiastical Law, 2nd edition 1895, at p.354).  Incumbents are assisted in their pastoral duties by other priests, also by deacons and lay ministers.  In Bishop of Winchester v Rugg (1868) 2 Admiralty and Ecclesiastical 247, the Court of the Arches suggested that the Bishop ‘has cura curarum animarum within his diocese’ (p.252).

The bishop’s principal duty as pastor of the laity is to supply them with clergy.  Only a bishop may confer holy orders, and no minister, ordained or lay, may minister within the diocese without the bishop’s authorisation.  Canon C18(6) therefore requires the bishop to ‘be faithful in admitting persons into holy orders and … [to] provide, as much as in him lies, that in every place within his diocese there shall be sufficient priests’.  There is no express requirement on the bishop to supply lay ministers.

The bishop’s pastoral responsibility towards the laity also includes consecrating new churches, churchyards and burial grounds (Canon C18(4)).

However, the bishop is also pastor of his clergy, as Hooker says, ‘a pastor even to pastors themselves’.  Canon C23(1) provides that the rural dean (or area dean) has particular responsibility to advise the bishop of ‘any case of serious illness or other form of distress among the clergy’.

The bishop has a pastoral responsibility for both clergy and laity who are opposed to women priests.  The 1993 Episcopal Ministry Act of Synod requires him to ‘make pastoral arrangements so far as possible within his diocese for appropriate care and oversight of the [opposed] clergy and parishes’ (s.3). 

A diocesan bishop may be assisted by one or more suffragans, and also by bishops specially appointed under the 1993 Act of Synod to care for opponents of women priests.  The word ‘suffragan’ is derived from the Latin word suffragari ‘to help’.  Canon C20 suggests that the suffragan’s relationship to the diocesan is analogous to that between an assistant curate and an incumbent.  It rather labours the point:

‘(1) Every bishop suffragan shall … execute such things pertaining to the episcopal office as shall be commissioned to him by the bishop of the diocese …

(2) Every bishop suffragan shall use, have  or execute only such … authority … as shall be licensed or limited to him … by the [diocesan] bishop’.

As chief pastor the bishop is generally required to reside within his diocese.  However, unlike other clergy, senior bishops have a constitutional responsibility for the governance of the secular state.  Canon C18(8) therefore provides that the bishop is permitted to reside in London ‘during his attendance on the Parliament, or on the Court, or for the purpose of performing any other duties of his office’.  Such absence in London is deemed to be residence in the diocese.

According to Canon C17(4) the Archbishop is the principal minister of the province.  However, the Archbishop is not the chief pastor of the province.  Thus there is no pastor superior to the bishop.


What is the purpose of the bishop’s pastoral duties?  It is the administration of the Divine Word and Sacraments.  This ministry is the raison d’etre of the bishop’s office.  The bishop’s pastoral function is not an end in itself.

The words pastor and minister are often used interchangeably but they have different meanings.  Canon C18 rightly draws a distinction between the bishop’s pastoral and ministerial functions.  ‘Pastor’ implies leadership or oversight of a community.  ‘Minister’ implies a responsibility for the thing, or things, that are administered. 

The bishop is ‘the principal minister’ of his diocese.  He possesses the ‘fullness of ministry’ (or fullness of priesthood), since he alone may administer the ‘sacramental’ rites of confirmation and ordination (Canon C18(4)).  Otherwise, his ministerial function is shared with all ordained and lay ministers, though administration of the sacraments is reserved to ordained ministers.

The most important ministerial acts of a bishop are confirmation and ordination, but he has certain other ministerial prerogatives.  The bishop traditionally preaches in his cathedral on the great feasts of Christmas, Easter and Pentecost.  Canon C18(4) suggests that the bishop also has the right to officiate at divine service in any church or chapel within his diocese, ‘save in places … exempt by law or custom’.

Archbishops have the particular ministerial function of ordaining new bishops (Canon C17(4)), though with the assistance of other bishops.  The Archbishop of Canterbury is, of course, the minister of the ancient rite of the coronation of the Monarch.  It seems that the Archbishop of York has the right to crown a Queen Consort.


Canon C18 confirms that the bishop has ‘jurisdiction as ordinary’ within his diocese.  The bishop’s function and raison d’etre as principal minister of the diocese requires a power of governance. 

‘Jurisdiction as ordinary’ means immediate, ex officio jurisdiction.  These characteristics distinguish ordinary authority from delegated authority, which must be specifically conferred on the delegate by the ordinary.  The delegation of authority by the ordinary must in turn be distinguished from the ordinary’s taking advice or assistance when exercising authority personally.

The ordinary power of governance, unlike the bishop’s pastoral and ministerial functions, is not generally shared with other clergy and lay ministers.  Among the diocesan clergy, only the archdeacons share the bishop’s ordinary authority. 

Canon C22(2) provides that ‘Every archdeacon within his archdeaconry exercises the jurisdiction which he has therein as an ordinary jurisdiction’.  However, C22(4) makes clear that ‘Every archdeacon shall … carry out his duties under the bishop and shall assist the bishop in his pastoral care and office’.  The archdeacons are therefore the assistant ordinaries of the diocese. 

Trollope succinctly summarised the constitutional relationship between bishop and archdeacons in The Warden: ‘when a bishop works, archdeacons have but little to do, and vice versa’.

The chancellor also has ordinary authority in the diocese at common law.  The dean and chapter are the ordinary authority of the cathedral.  Thus there are four diocesan ordinary authorities at common law:

(1) the bishop

(2) the archdeacons

(3) the chancellor and 

(4) the cathedral chapter.

Although they share his ordinary authority, the archdeacons may not share the bishop’s pastoral ministry, because they are not ex officio parish priests.  Thus Halsbury’s Laws suggests that it is ‘doubtful whether the archdeacon as such has a cure of souls’ (4th edition, para 496).  Cathedral canons have no cure of souls for the same reason, though the older ecclesiastical law understood that the dean has the cure of souls of the chapter and of other cathedral officeholders (Phillimore Ecclesiastical Law, 2nd edition, 1895, pp.130 and 140).  

The traditional expression of ordinary authority in the diocese is the archdeacon’s annual visitation of all the parishes in the archdeaconry.  Canon 60 of 1603 provided that the bishop should visit his diocese once every three years and use the occasion to administer confirmation.  The archdeacons only visited two years in every three.

The revised Canons relieve the bishop of the duty to make a triennial visitation.  (A visitation is no longer necessary for the bishop to administer confirmation.)  However, Canon C18(4) affirms that the bishop has the right to hold a visitation of his diocese ‘at times limited by law or custom’.  Canon G5(2) provides that when the bishop holds a visitation the ordinary jurisdiction of the archdeacons is automatically suspended or ‘inhibited’.

Canon E1(4) confirms that the churchwardens are the officers of the ordinary within the parish.  As his officers, the churchwardens traditionally flank the bishop in procession when he attends their church.  The rural dean (or area dean) may also be a kind of officer of the ordinary, having the responsibility to ‘report to the bishop any matter within the deanery which it may be necessary or useful for the bishop to know …’ (Canon C23(1)).

The pastoral arrangements made for those opposed to women priests do not impair the bishop’s ordinary jurisdiction.  The 1993 Act of Synod confirms that the bishop continues as ordinary of his diocese. 

Canons C18(3) and C22(3) provide that a bishop or archdeacon may delegate his ordinary authority, in the bishop’s case, to ‘a vicar-general, official or other commissary’, and in the archdeacon’s case, to an ‘official or commissary’.  However, the revised Canons provide no definition of a ‘commissary’.  Canon 128 of 1603 was rather more specific, providing that ordinary authority could only be delegated to a beneficed priest or a suitably qualified ecclesiastical lawyer.  The grant of marriage licences is delegated to officials known as ‘surrogates’, who are usually senior parish clergy.

Suffragan bishops are not ordinaries at common law, nor indeed in statute law.  Their original function was to assist the diocesan bishop with his pastoral work, usually by ordaining and confirming, while the archdeacons assisted with jurisdiction.  Today, however, the distinction between suffragans and archdeacons is becoming increasingly blurred (perhaps to the point where the distinction can no longer be justified). 

The Dioceses, Pastoral and Mission Measure 2007 continues the modern trend towards the sharing of episcopal functions, both of ministry and governance, within the diocese.  Under s.13 of the 2007 Measure the bishop may delegate to a suffragan or assistant bishop on an ongoing basis.  The 2007 Measure does not turn suffragan bishops into ordinary authorities.  However, a permanently delegated authority is, in practice, hard to distinguish from ordinary authority.

The functions delegated under s.13 must be specified in the instrument of delegation.  Any and all episcopal functions may be delegated except

(1) the power under Canon 4(3A) to request permission to ordain a divorced person and

(2) any power to refuse to permit women to be ordained or to officiate as priests within the diocese.

Episcopal functions may be delegated subject to conditions and may, but need not, be limited to a particular area of the diocese.  The instrument of delegation may provide for functions to be shared between the bishop and the suffragan.  A delegation under s.13 must normally be approved by the diocesan synod, but in a case of urgency the approval of the bishop’s council will suffice.  The diocesan bishop may vary or revoke a delegation, again subject to synodical approval.  The instrument may provide for its own termination after a specified period of time.

While the bishop and archdeacons exercise ordinary jurisdiction in the diocese, the Archbishop exercises metropolitical jurisdiction over the province.  The nature of this jurisdiction is explained by Canon C17(2):

‘The archbishop has throughout his province at all times metropolitical jurisdiction, as superintendent of all ecclesiastical matters therein, to correct and supply the defects of other bishops, and, during the time of his metropolitical visitation, jurisdiction as ordinary …’.

Canon C17(3) confers a similarly vague power of delegation on the Archbishop to that conferred on bishops and archdeacons.

The wording of Canon C17(2) makes clear that the constitutional relationship between the Archbishop and the diocesan bishop is not analogous to that between the bishop and the archdeacons.  The bishop’s authority does not automatically yield to that of the Archbishop.  Metropolitical jurisdiction is only engaged for some specific reason connected with the bishop’s inability to exercise his ordinary jurisdiction effectively. 

Thus in 1996 the Archbishop of Canterbury held a metropolitical visitation of Lincoln Cathedral in response to the unseemly squabbling there.  Recently there has been a metropolitical visitation of the Chichester diocese.