August 24, 2007


a thought:

Some of the Primates appear to think the TEC House of Bishops has the kind of authority they think they have.



Anonymous said...

What authority do you think a bishop, or body of bishops, has (if any)?

Do they have a teaching authority, or is their function purely that of governing and sanctifying?

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...


The very concept of authority within the church is problematical, seeing that Jesus told the apostles not to have it! ("The kings of the Gentiles rule over them... but with you it shall not be so.) The primary function of the office of bishop is to serve, not to rule.

I think that our ordinal spells this all out fairly clearly. The ministry of service comes with the diaconate. The ministry of teaching and blessing is conferred in the presbyterate. Additionally bishops are conferred a scope to exercise a particular ministry of governance and leadership towards the end of unity, in ordaining other ministers and encouraging all the baptized in their life in Christ, and in the maintenance of sound teaching. They do not have the authority, on their own or as a body, to establish doctrine; though of course they are free to express their opinion, and to regulate the opinions of others. They do have certain explicit "powers" spelled out in the canons.

In The Episcopal Church the House of Bishops is empowered to issue pastoral directions but not -- On their own -- to establish legal limitations.

Bishops (and Primates) in some other parts of the Anglican Communion have significantly more power within their own churches. As a body, however, the Primates have been given only very limited capacity, and some of them have assumed much more than they have been given.

Anonymous said...

who does establish doctrine in TEC?

Anonymous said...

Tobias gave a great answer, and that is probably the right answer. But, it should also be said that the bishops only have the authority we give them. Sure, they can teach. But, will anyone listen? We know they like to pontificate,but does anyone care?

Our bishops have broken trust with the rest of the church. Whatever they say is not for teaching and most certainly not for sanctifying. It it for preserving their own status and position. To ascribe higher and nobler motives is to ignore the facts.


Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

The short answer is that Doctrine in The Episcopal Church is established by the General Convention by amending the Book of Common Prayer. The Canons define Doctrine (for disciplinary purposes) as follows: "As used in this [Disciplinary] Title [IV], the term Doctrine shall mean the basic and essential teachings of the church. The Doctrine of the Church is to be found in the Canon of Holy Scripture as understood in the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds and in the sacramental rites, the Ordinal and Catechism of the Book of Common Prayer."

Bishops are authorized to express opinions on and teach about the doctrine of the church, in pastoral letters. Disciplinary ecclesiastical courts have a process for charges and presentments for those who teach contrary to the doctrine of the church.

Thanks, Lindy -- this is precisely why we don't give bishops more authority than we do. The input of the clergy and laity is an intrinsic part of our polity in governance and in the development of doctrine.

Anonymous said...

"this is precisely why we don't give bishops more authority than we do."

So do I understand you correctly that the bishops' authority is given to them by "us," the people, in the same fashion that political authority is understood as delegated by the voters, and that there is no grant of authority in apostolic succession from Christ and the apostles independent of what "we" confer?

If so, in your opinion, is that pretty much the majority understanding of Episcopalians?

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...


As I say, I'm reluctant even to use the word "authority" as it suggest a kind of autonomous power. I would suggest rather that ordination to the episcopate carries with it certain "faculties" or "charisms" -- and these do indeed stem from the apostolic fellowship; that is, the faculty to ordain, for example.

But I do not believe, and I think most Anglicans probably also believe -- at least it is part of our tradition enshrined in the Articles of Religion -- that bishops (and councils) are not given any kind of supernatural immunity from falling into error. The exercise of their charism is balanced at every point through the assent of the larger church. (And even that doesn't prevent error!)

All clergy function only with and by the consent of the people of God -- in the Episcopal Church the laity have a voice at every level of decision in all aspects of the church, including the election of bishops and their consecration, and in the development of all doctrinal formulations. The bishops have no autonomous function apart from the body of the church. This is the ground, by the way, for the rejection of the validity of the ordination of the Philadelphia 11: the bishops who performed the ordination, in acting outside the church, were unable on their own to confer a grace to exercise a charism within the church.

Anonymous said...

I don't see that the idea of authority implies autonomy; if anything, it requires a relationshop between the person exercising authority and the person under authority.

Nor do I see much how Jesus' notion of being a servant excludes the notion of authority. Plato argued in parallel fashion in the first book of the Republic that a true ruler serves the good of the ruled and not that of himself.

You are a member of two Episcopal orders, a Benedictine order and an Order of St. John Hospitaler. Have the oaths of obedience been abolished? If not, is not the superior one in authority, and is that inconsistent with his being the servant of all?

I do not pretend to be familiar with the work of Richard Hooker--I've followed and enjoyed the discussion above, but have little to contribute to it. But I have at least taken a look at an old out-of-print anthology of Anglican texts from the seventeenth century, and, reading merely those excerpts of Hooker's on episcopal authority makes him appear to me to hold a more traditional view that the bishop indeeds exercises a certain authority, and that it is the authority of an apostle, exercised through the apostolic succession in the church.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Rick, I guess I'm not understanding your question. Are bishops in the apostolic succession? Yes. Does that give them certain "authority" or power to act in certain ways? Yes.

What I am suggesting is that the power or authority is not personal, but is only exercised within the church, and derives from the church, which is Christ's Body on earth.

Thus, a bishop exercises authority withing very closely defined limits, and as a member of a body -- an "organ" to use more modern language. The bishop functions as "overseer" to coordinate the work of the church, among other things.

I think of it in some ways as the British did in earlier days of "King in Parliament" -- that is, the King has authority, but it is not absolute; but is conditioned by the constitutional limits placed upon the monarch.

The bishop has authority to see to it that the laws of the church are enforced, for example. But as the former head of the R C League of Women Religious once said, "The pope can tell all religious to wear their habits, as this is enforcing an existing rule. But the pope can't tell all the religious they must eat spaghetti every Wednesday." This is in response to your question on obedience. Obedience (which is the flip side of authority) is not absolute. One is obliged to obey the rule as mediated by the superior. But the superior has no absolute authority to demand action contrary to the rule.

I hope this makes sense to you. Perhaps if you could give me an example of something that doesn't fit your thinking it might help me to see what the difference in our approach is, if any?

Anonymous said...

Oh, we've probably come to the natural end of the thread.

You had said up top that the Anglican primates had a different notion of episcopal authority than the U.S. Episcopal bishops. So I asked you what you thought that authority consisted of. (Vatican II setting out fairly clearly for us mackeral-snappers a three-fold teaching, ruling and sanctifying office).

You indicated that "the very concept of authority within the church is problematical," which I took issue with, and at a later point you seemed to suggest that a bishop's authority derived from his representation of the church at large, rather than the contrasting admonition to keep, teach and confess the faith handed down from the apostles. In other words, a bishop is more like a political representative than a shepherd.

Well, these metaphors are inexact, and I'm doubt you'd go along with quite how I've set it out. How does it matter? When opinion shifts (or the flock strays, if we prefer), what is the duty of the bishop? He is of course not autonomous, and he of course should always consult the faithful. But to what extent does he follow, and to what extent must he lead?

Anonymous said...

Does a Bishop have the authority to deny consent to a candidate for Bishop? Does a Bishop have the ability to promise not to do this? If the answer to these questions is "Yes", then the Bishops as a group can promise to deny consent to candidates for Bishop for any reason they agree to. They cannot say who will be approved, but they can say who they will not approve.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Perhaps I'm still not getting you, but I don't really disagree with the notion that the bishop should lead, teach, and sanctify. All I'm saying is that in The Episcopal Church there are certain constitutional limits to what a bishop my legitimately do as part of that leadership. I don't see it at all as a question of "representation" as in politics, but of limitation on the scope of action. Bishops are only authorized to do certain things. The shepherd, for instance, is to tend to the sheep, protect them, etc., not sell them off, slaughter them, or do any of the other things possible given the position he holds. I don't see why you find this notion problematical, and suppose I'm missing something.

My original quote does address the fact that some of the Primates, in their own churches, have considerably more power than Episcopal bishops, as defined in their constitutions. In Nigeria, for example, the bishops alone elect new bishops. Each Nigerian Bishop also has veto power over the deliberations of his diocesan synod. The Primates have also assumed a power that has not been granted to them by any legitimate body (and which has in fact been explicitly denied them) of interfering in the internal affairs of other provinces. This is the source of much of our present difficulty.

Anonymous raises a case in point, which informs this discussion. An individual bishop has the right to withhold consent to the consecration of another bishop. But contrary to what Anonymous has said, this does not automatically grant that the bishops as a group can decide to withhold consent in such a way as to force those who don't agree to do so. If all of the bishops agree, that is not a problem. But if even one objects, the group cannot force him (or her) to withhold consent, as the power to consent is a matter of right, not permission. A majority does not have the right to take away the rights of a minority, and the right to consent, or deny consent, belongs to each bishop individually. It would be like a democrat dominated assembly voting that all member must vote a certain way on certain issues. This is all tied up with the notion of "what touches all must be agreed to by all" about which I've written before.