I’ve been doing some work in +Arthur Michael Ramsey’s neglected The Gospel and the Catholic Church, specifically to his elucidation of the evangelical necessity of the bishop. For Ramsey, the absolute foundation of the Church lies only in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, but we participate in these historical events ever anew, especially in the sacraments. (He is here, it should be noted, decades ahead of contemporary biblical scholarship that sees participation as one of the fundamental realities of Christian life, as in the work of Michael Gorman and Douglas Campbell.)
Nevertheless, following Ephesians, Ramsey traces the place and function of the apostles in the New Testament where most clearly they are understood as the foundational authorities of the Church. He sees that St. Paul “has an office of ruling and integrating” and the apostles were “a ministry, restricted in numbers and of definite authority, not attached to local churches but controlling local churches on behalf of the general church.” This “rootless” authority is an embodiment of the concrete unity given to the Church in the passionate flesh of Jesus, who himself gathered and commissioned the apostles. They represent to congregations all the other congregations and act for and over all of them; thus by virtue of their office they enact the unity given in the Spirit and the Passion.
The question he then asks is this: Does the “more developed” episcopal theory of St. Ignatius fall in line with this?
“The [episcopal] ministry is important as linking the Christians with the historic events of Jesus Christ, since Christian experience is not a spirituality unrelated to history, but bears witness to its derivation from Jesus in the flesh…Thus the Church is one Body; its members glorify not themselves and their experiences, but the one historic Christ. And its worship is one; the Eucharist is not the act of any local group, but of the one Body, represented by its organ of unity in any place. Hence the Eucharist is to be celebrated only by the bishop [and those authorized by the bishop].”
His answer is yes, the bishop “succeeds” the apostles in function; the primary difference is now that the bishop is local, but as Florovsky says in Sobornost, “in its Bishop every single church transcends its own limits and comes into contact with and merges into other churches, not in the order of brotherly love and remembrance alone, but in the unity of mysterious and gracious life.” So even this “localism” only has significance via the one Gospel, the one life of the Spirit, and so is also universal, a token of the unity that does not depend on the episcopacy but is expressed through it.
So Ramsey can go so far as to say that “the Episcopate is of the esse of the universal Church,” but only inasmuch as it expresses the unity of that one life given first in the flesh of Jesus and then in the Spirit through baptism – It does not constitute the Church. He would no doubt agree with Bulgakov, “First Church, then hierarchy.”