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 What is the function of the historic episcopate in the 21st century?

One assumes that the historic episcopate holds a function and purpose beyond the simple passing of apostolic authority from one generation to the next. (Or, to put it another way, that this apostolic authority needs to be actually constitutive of something.) To reply that its function lies in the preservation of doctrine seems problematic insofar as there presently seems to be as much diversity of opinion within the historic episcopate (which after all contains both John Shelby Spong and Benedict XVI) as there is outside it.

My intuition is that the historic episcopate acts as an extraordinary (there's a pun in there somewhere) sign to the world of the unity and catholicity of the Church of Christ. But how and why this is so I find myself, for the moment, unable to fully articulate. 

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"This is my prayer: that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best."
-- St. Paul's Epistle to the Philippians 1:9-10

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