Recently a number of folks have tsk-tsk’d the appeals to polity made by the House of Bishops, in confessing their inability completely to comply with the requests of the Dar es Salaam Primates’ Communiqué. Surely, they seem to say, preservation of the communion is more important than polity.
First of all, what is the communion apart from polity? Not a few on the conservative side of the spectrum already refuse to recognize our communio in sacris, the unity we share in Christ and celebrate in the Eucharist. And others are proposing a new political structure in the form of a Covenant — which is nothing less than a form of polity for the Anglican Communion.
Secondly, polity is important; it is the law of the church. The matters before us touch upon some significant features directly addressed by that law. Bishops are not only pledged to preserve the unity of the church, but to abide by its discipline, and that discipline is embodied in these laws.
What bishops can and cannot do
The House of Bishops, acting alone, can pass a “mind of the house” resolution by which the House agrees “it” will not consent to the election of any bishop who might be offensive to the wider communion; or not authorize any novel liturgies in their dioceses.
What the House of Bishops, acting alone, cannot do, is make such actions binding upon all the individual bishops with jurisdiction, since the right and responsibility to grant or withhold consent, or to authorize liturgies, is a canonical right or responsibility belonging to each of them individually. (Article II.2, Canon III.11; Article X)
This is all tied up with the legal principle “What touches all shall be consented to by all” — and “all” means “all” — that is, a decision abrogating the legal rights and responsibilities of a member of an assembly can only be made either by a change in the law that grants or requires those rights or responsibilities (which the House of Bishops acting alone is not competent to do, since a change in the law of the Church requires concurrent action by the House of Deputies) or by unanimous consent (of which they are competent, but which is unlikely). And even unanimous consent does not have legal force in terms of compliance. This is part of the ABC of the laws governing assemblies.
At the same time...
As I have observed in the past, if enough of the bishops with jurisdiction voluntarily withhold consent to an election, then consent will fail. The same applies to diocesan authorization of liturgies: bishops can agree among themselves not to authorize novel rites.
Practically speaking, if such “mind of the house” resolutions were to be passed at the next session of the House of Bishops (with the understanding that under our canon law individual bishops will, and must, remain free to exercise their consciences on how they deal with the matters in their own dioceses) it would very likely be enough to satisfy the more irenic among the Primates, including the Archbishop of Canterbury.
In doing this the bishops will in fact be doing as much as they can do, under the law of the church, which they are sworn to uphold.
But should they take such a course, which will be seen by many as inadequate, others as cynical, and some as hypocritical? It is abundantly clear that nothing short of a complete and iron-clad reversal will please the more irate among the Primates. The CAPA-commissioned “Road to Lambeth” (September 2006) went far beyond the requests of the Windsor Report and called for “the resignation or removal from office of Gene Robinson and the passage of legislation which would bar any similar ordinations of priests and consecrations of bishops.”
There was an opportunity for at least the latter to happen at General Convention 2006. It didn’t. And it is not going to happen; not in September (where it cannot) nor at the next General Convention (where it will not). A number of Rubicons (perhaps one should say Potomacs) have already been crossed, and any number of dies cast. And although Bishop Robinson has not been invited to Lambeth as a participant, it has been mooted that he might be allowed to attend as a guest — surely a compromise that leans well towards the liberal cause rather than against it; especially considering the demands from the “Global South” that no Bishop who either consented to or participated in the consecration of Bishop Robinson be allowed to attend. Archbishops Akinola and Orombi are on record as standing by “The Road to Lambeth.”
At the other extreme, some liberals have suggested that the bishops stand in solidarity with Bishop Robinson, and refuse to attend. Although I understand the impulse and resonate with it, it seems to me that doing so would be to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory — although taking this position does have its advantage in the delicate game of brinksmanship.
But it seems to me that now is not the time to issue ultimatums as resounding echoes to the trumpets from the “Global South.” It seems to me that wisdom and shrewd thinking are called for here, and a bit of common sense; and above all to trust that the Episcopal Church is, after all, right in its actions. The wind from the South has largely spent itself — though a bit of tacking will still be necessary as we chart our course for the coming years.
I will, in suggesting this, no doubt be accused of being too political. But then, it’s all about the polity.
Tobias Haller BSG