On the Communion Partners Bishops Statement on the Polity of the Episcopal Church
By The Rev. Dr. Leander S. Harding
With the help of the Anglican Communion Institute the Communion Partners Bishops have produced an extremely important document. It is the most lucid and succinct account yet given of how the polity of the Episcopal Church applies to the current debates about the relationship of the Episcopal Church to the Anglican Communion. I heartily recommend a detailed reading of this important document. The text may be found here http://www.anglicancommunioninstitute.com/?p=391.
The publication of the document was preceded by the release of a series of confidential emails between Dr. Christopher Seitz and other correspondents from among the Communion Partners. The flap about these unguarded communications is an unfortunate diversion and in my view does not detract in any way from the serious and well prepared statement the Communion Partner Bishops have produced. The theme that ties all the emails together is that of a group working hard to show Episcopal Church parishes an option other than knuckling under to non-canonical authority or leaving the Episcopal Church. It is certainly no secret that this is the longstanding public policy of the Anglican Communion Institute.
The document itself is a closely reasoned and fully documented précis of the historical development of the polity of the Episcopal Church. In a painstaking way the statement shows that the General Convention of the Episcopal Church is a creation of the dioceses and that “ordinary” power resides in the dioceses. The office of Presiding Bishop is not that of a metropolitan but of a presiding officer with roles delegated by the constituting dioceses gathered in convention. Neither the General Convention nor the Presiding Bishop has by canon or by custom any governing role within the life of a diocese. The claim that the Episcopal Church is hierarchical in the sense in which this term is normally understood in legal documents is shown to be without foundation in the constitution and canons of the Episcopal Church. The careful historical and theological commentary given in the Bishops Statement shows beyond any reasonable doubt that the lack of hierarchical language in our church’s founding documents is not by oversight or ignorance but is deliberate and intentional and in the face of counter-examples in the contemporary founding documents of other churches in the United States. It is important to note that there is nothing new here. The history and polity described in Bishops Statement is the traditional and standard account in the major histories of the Episcopal Church but it is put forth here in very lucid and comprehensive form. (The Statement quotes Canon Dawley’s work. See also Robert Prichard, A History of The Episcopal Church)
A particular point of interest is the discussion of the vows which Bishops make in their ordination service to “conform to the doctrine, discipline and worship” of the Episcopal Church. The Statement notes that this oath appears in the founding documents of the Episcopal Church as a substitute for the oath of submission to the Monarch and the authority of an archbishop. The Communion Partner Bishops affirm that, “our episcopal vows contain no pledge of obedience to a higher office or body, as do churches with metropolitan hierarchies, but we do hold our apostolic office in trust. We understand our vow to require conformity to the doctrine and worship we hold in trust and to the discipline of The Episcopal Church as set forth in this (Communion Partners) statement.” It is very important and a major contribution that it be remembered that the context of the ordination vows is doctrinal and that the doctrine referred to is the doctrine of the catholic church as received from the Church of England and sustained by communion with the See of Canterbury. The Communion Partners are right to stress that the oath is not an oath of personal loyalty such as a feudal prince might extract but an oath of loyalty to a body of doctrine which is expressed both liturgically and canonically. To conscientiously object to actions by either the Presiding Bishop or the General Convention that subvert this tradition of doctrine, liturgy and canon law could in certain circumstances be exactly what is required by such an oath and this seems to be the position of the Communion Partner Bishops.
The Bishops assert that they are “committed to remaining faithful members of The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion.” But they reserve their right the right of their dioceses to participate in and eventually sign the Anglican Covenant. The Statement notes that the constitution of The Episcopal Church “identifies constituent membership in the Anglican Communion as one of the fundamental conditions on which our governing agreement is based.” In other words the General Convention of The Episcopal Church was created and is sustained by the dioceses on the basis of a common commitment to continue as constituent members of the Anglican Communion. Actions which bring into jeopardy the continuing membership of The Episcopal Church in the Anglican Communion create a constitutional crisis for The Episcopal Church. As the statement forthrightly puts it, “It is an elementary principle of law that agreements can be terminated in the event of material breach or repudiation by another party or by fundamental changes of circumstances.” The Statement continues, “Failure to sign the proposed covenant would be decisive in this respect. And were The Episcopal Church to attempt to change its constitutional governance to restrict diocesan autonomy, particularly in the case of an Anglican covenant, it would constitute a material breach or repudiation of its “basic” governing agreement.” Finally, “We must speak plainly here. Any attempt to prevent willing dioceses from signing the covenant would be unconstitutional and thereby void.”
This is a very forthright document by Bishops who are trying to keep The Episcopal Church together but are not willing to do so at the price of cutting themselves off from the Anglican Communion or acquiescing to novel interpretations of the constitution and canons of The Episcopal Church. They are in effect insisting that The Episcopal Church be The Episcopal Church and act in accord with its own law and traditions. This is precisely what Bishops ought to do when they intend to be faithful to their vows.
There are a lot of questions raised here for future discussion. I am completely convinced that the Statement is an accurate description of the polity of The Episcopal Church as it has ever been and as it now stands. Our polity is indeed unique but not for the reasons usually put forward about the participation of the different orders in decision making but rather because it envisions a provincial structure with a level of diocesan autonomy unparalleled in most other Anglican jurisdictions. Unlike most provinces we have no archiepiscopal order. It remains to be seen how this order can be integrated into a true communion of churches. The proposed Anglican Covenant is a step in that direction and would represent for Communion Partner Bishops and their dioceses a willing surrender of some aspects of their present autonomy for the sake of the ongoing unity and communion of the church.
There is also the very pertinent question of how the instruments of unity in a church whether they be the instruments of unity of the Anglican Communion or of a local diocesan synod or convention are actually and practically in the service of unity in faith, witness and mission. In the American scene there have been countless actions including the election of Gene Robinson which have been arguably legal and canonical but which have undermined unity and have not been the result of patiently building up the mind of the church over time at all levels including at the congregational level. There has grown up in the American church a penchant for extra-canonical legislation in the form of policies for ordination and the clergy calling process among other things which are simply promulgated by Bishops and various committees and commissions without any sort of canonical process and which ride roughshod over the prerogatives of local congregations. There has grown up a style across the theological spectrum of outfoxing the folks and slipping things through the convention when no one is looking. As we work our way out of this particular crisis of authority in the church it will be important that we abide by the full measure of our constitution and canons and that we do so with a genuinely Christian spirit of charity and mutual submission truly seeking the mind of Christ in His church and not narrow political victories. Polities can be more or less susceptible to subversion by the unscrupulous but there is no Christian polity which can succeed in its purposes without the ongoing conversion of its constituents.