April 22, 2009

BS from ACI

The self-styled Anglican Communion Institute has issued a Bishops' Statement designed to bolster the notion that the individual dioceses of the Episcopal Church are not only independent, but "autonomous." Isn't it strange for those so keen on limiting provincial claims to autonomy to so willingly parse it down to the next level?

For, the claims of the long and tedious paper notwithstanding, there are different levels. The General Convention is superior to any given individual diocese, and establishes laws that limit what the dioceses can do. The fact that this limitation comes about because of the agreement of the dioceses acting together in Convention is not an indication of their individual autonomy -- as the paper suggests -- but is rather proof of their submission to the jointly taken actions of the whole body. This is really a basic principle, well laid out in Hooker's Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. Once the larger body has taken a decision, dissent is quelled. (See especially the Preface, "Of the need of some kind of authority.")

This is what a hierarchical entity looks like: the constituents agree to be bound by the decisions of the group, even when they are in the minority, and disagree with the decisions. They relinquish their autonomy in order to be part of a larger entity, to whose decisions they submit.

The paper also makes the curious argument that because the dioceses (then states) that formed the original Episcopal Church were independent prior to entering into union with each other, they somehow maintain that independence. This neglects the significance of what union means. One might just as well say that because a couple were single before marriage that they retain their independence afterward. It can also be pointed out that the Constitution of the US also lacks reference to its own indissolubility -- and uses the same word, union, to capture that concept, a concept later proved on the battlefield and in the courts.

The paper also ignores basic facts concerning the government of the Episcopal Church that do not fit its thesis. For example, the disciplinary canons' list of offenses makes violation of the Constitution and Canons of the General Convention an offense, and any clergy person, including a bishop, is amenable to trial on that account. In the case of a bishop, the trial necessarily involves the larger church, outside the confines of the diocese. The court structure itself is plainly hierarchical, and higher courts can overrule lower courts. When it comes to matters concerning the trial of a bishop, the General Convention may "establish" an "ultimate" court of review in matters of doctrine, faith and worship. How can something be "ultimate" if there is no hierarchy?

Given the many authorities constitutionally assigned to General Convention in relation to the admission, division, and so on, of dioceses, it seems to be kicking at goads to say there is no authority implied in language such as consent, accept, prescribe, approve, &c., on the side of General Convention, and of accede on the side of the diocese. The article tries to make a case for unqualified accession meaning something other than "to become a party to an agreement without reservation." The fact that the term is used in treaties and other serious contracts in no way lessens its force as signifying assent and acceptance of the terms!

When we look at the worship and doctrinal life of the Episcopal Church, it is abundantly clear that dioceses are not autonomous in either regard, except in very narrowly prescribed limits: and it is the Constitution and the General Convention that set those limits. This is a clear indication of hierarchy, which includes the mandatory use of the Book of Common Prayer as adopted by General Convention, not to be amended or altered by diocesan authority (though a bishop may supplement it in specified circumstances.)

In short, the idea that dioceses are autonomous, and not part of a clearly defined hierarchy, is entirely specious. That our hierarchy is not as rigid or monolithic as that of, say, the Holy Catholic Church of Rome, and has a more federal1 structure, in no way alters the fact that there is a central governing body, which, even if it be made up entirely of representatives of the several dioceses, is a body to which those dioceses covenant to submit themselves, without qualification. After all, an individual diocese cannot even elect2 a bishop of its own without the consent of the rest of the church, either through General Convention, or (apart from its sessions) by a vote of the other diocesan bishops and standing committees.

One of the most significant facts the paper neglects is that most of the original dioceses (or "states") that went to form the Episcopal Church at the outset, did not have bishops at the time -- with a few exceptions they were "dioceses" in formation, lacking the episcopate which would only come by later action of the Episcopal Church, once they were part of it. (Surely it is strange to find scholars with such a high view of the episcopate argue that a diocese can really be a diocese in the fullest sense without a bishop! Yes, there is an ecclesiastical authority in a bishop's absence -- but one that is sorely curtailed from exercising any and all of the episcopal functions that reside in a person, not a committee.)

So while it is true that the Episcopal Church has a kind of democratic (or republican) hierarchy -- but it is hierarchical: the dioceses do not rule themselves -- that is, they are not autonomous.

So let's stop all this nonsense about free-floating dioceses, please.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

Updated clarifications:

1. Note that I say more federal. Dr. Dator has argued that our structure is even more centralized and unitary than federal. I use the term here only in the sense of strongly centralized.

2. Consent is required both for the ordination of bishops, and, in the case of coadjutors (which is now more the rule than the exception) for permission to hold the election itself. I have conflated the language a bit here, but the fact is that no one becomes a bishop in the Episcopal Church without the consent of the wider church.


June Butler said...

Just because the bishops of the ACI want something to be so, doesn't make it so, not even if they say it over and over. Tobias, you call this statement from the ACI exactly what it is. I'm quite relieved that Bishop Charles Jenkins did not sign the document.

Muthah+ said...

I am always amaed at when these bishops want total authority in their own dioceses but are unwilling to be limited in the whole of the church. This is like some of the independent churches whose pastors name themselves bishop because they started the congregation. TEC is the epitome of an heirarchical church--Rome and ORthodox not withstanding. We merely elect our heirarchy.

Thanks, Tobias for this cogent addressing of this amazing idiocy.

Brother David said...

You are a naughty boy with that title, Father!

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Dah-veed, I've long been known for my sassy headlines. I hope, in this case, the substance of what follows makes up for any frippery. But, let's face it, the headline is accurate, and comes Mimi-certified!

Brother David said...

I knew that BS = Bishops' Statement, but it is so easy for other things to come to mind.

Abuela Mimi is more naughty than you. She curses in her posts and comments. She is let off the hook for her age and because folks are afeared of her swamp majik!

In addition to the BS, the ACI released a swipe at Father Harris. It is amusing how these folks start calling other people's honor into question when it is they who were caught being dishonorable. They also accuse him of releasing the emails publicly. He spoke of them and some of their content, but has not published the actual electronic mail. The email has been published by the Gay Publication, The Washington Blade.

And I thought that Father Mark was busy at General Council.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Nuestra Abuela is not someone to cross, for sure.

It appears to me that Fr Mark did publish a tiny excerpt from the conspiratorial email thread -- without identifying the author, and thereby protecting his clandestine role. It was others who published the whole thing. But then, who could accuse the ACI of accuracy after reading the BS?

Anonymous said...

I also think it is interesting that in their discussion of how a new Diocese is admitted, they use the example of one that starts out as "unorganized territory." I am pretty sure that most of the present Dioceses were not formed from "unorganized territory," but were created by splitting off parts of existing Dioceses (such as my Diocese, Pittsburgh - I think you have probably heard of it).

Bill Ghrist

Counterlight said...

Splendid commentary.

As I recall, North Carolina once considered itself "autonomous" within the Union of the States, and claimed the right to nullify any federal law it didn't like. Another Southerner, Andrew Jackson, strongly disagreed, and threatened to send in federal troops if North Carolina failed to obey the law.

We all know what happened when North Carolina claimed the right to dissolve its ties to the Union.

KJ said...

All together now!

"There's no nonsense, like church nonsense, like no nonsense I know!"

Thanks for the commentary, Tobias, and making it a much more interesting read than the BS (Bishop's Statement, of course.).

There are many Protestant traditions with congregational church polity to which those seeking autonomy can flee. (Of course, they may be required to leave their collars and BCPs behind.). I am frequently amazed that these leaders seem to be caught by surprise by information, polity and canon regarding which I as newbie seem to have greater knowledge. Have I fallen through the looking glass?

I think that it is important to note that there are times when "union" vs. "autonomy" is inconvenient depending on one's leanings regarding a given issue. For example, the matter of electing a bishop in Northern Michigan seems to be raising the cry for autonomy from some (i.e., the diocese should be allowed to elect whomever they see fit). Again, that would be true if our polity were congregational. However, our union, or interdependence, which is Episcopal buy design, is an attempt to be one, even if that is, from time to time, quite messy.

Or, am I way off base on that?

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Bill G., I've not done a count, but that sounds right. New York alone went from one diocese in the days of Hobart to six at present, and Pennsylvania from one to five. And some of those that started as missionary dioceses have since split into twos, threes, and more.

Thanks, Counterlight. But wasn't it South Carolina? Not that NC didn't have troubles too...

KJ, not only on base but I think you're home safe. The polity of the Episcopal Church does not favor partisan interests of any kind, though it protects minority views to some extent. It takes a long time to get anything changed through General Convention -- apparently at least a generation on some issues.

Counterlight said...

You are right! I stand corrected. I can't keep my Carolinas and Dakotas straight anymore.

Christopher said...

This is all very bizarre, but nothing secret shall remain so, I guess. Our Church seems to be in trouble both within and without. This is sheer power politics in the guise of concern for the Church. More, having become an amateur student of our Constitution and Canons, this is a direct attack on our polity and is rather selective history, to put it charitably.

Also, given what I've seen of late in terms of theological and liturgical innovations, time to sift across the whole Church (and in convseration with our sister Churches) is incredibly important, and that requires a polity with a bit of a "conservative" bent. Personally, for example, given some of the innovations of late, I'm willing to suggest holding off change of the BCP for another generation.

Unknown said...

The ACI reading of our history is pure fiction. The Episcopal churches on these shores were never "independent" of each other.

In the colonial period, all our churches were integral parts of the Church of England, under the ultimate authority of King and Parliament and under the immediate episcopal authority of the Bishop of London -- albeit a lightly exercised authority, given the realities of distance and the stalemated high church/low church factions in Parliament, but under their authority nonetheless.

Indeed, every priest or deacon on these shores had to be ordained in England (a long and dangerous journey), including the Oath of Conformity to the King, and commissioned by the Bishop of London to serve here. Essentially, every Episcopal church here was part of the Diocese of London.

The American Revolution made that continued governance impossible by ending the authority of King and Parliament over these lands. Remember that in those days, there was no First Amendment, and no separation of church from state. Ecclesiastical law was fully enforceable in the King's royal courts as the law of the land. So the Revolution ended their ecclesiastical authority as well as their civil authority, leaving a big gap in the governance of our churches.

Our newly independent forbears responded to this problem by electing a free, valid, and regular episcopate for the existing Episcopal churches in this country, capable of sharing in ecclesiastical governance with our clergy and laity in a form compatible with the republican and democratic character of our civil government.

I will lightly disagree with Tobias's otherwise excellent commentary on one point: The Episcopal Church does not have a "federal structure." Our Constitution & Canons establish a unitary government in which all authority -- executive, legislative, and judicial -- ultimately rests in the General Convention of the House of Deputies and House of Bishops. For practical reasons, the exercise of much of that authority is delegated to the Presiding Bishop, the President of the House of Deputies, the Executive Council, the Dioceses (i.e. diocesan conventions and/or standing committees), and to individual bishops, deacons, priests, and lay people (the latter when holding office or licensed for particular ministries). But that delegated authority remains under the ultimate control of our General Convention, as defined by canons binding on all who exercise authority in the name of The Episcopal Church.

If you're really curious, and a bit patient with reading a poor quality scan, the 1959 thesis by James Dator, available on the Diocese of Washington web site, goes into great detail on these things.

Christopher Hayes
(Not the same as the "Christopher" who posted previously)

Brother David said...

One other very obvious tact in this is an attempt to sow doubt in the minds of the judges in the current property cases, especially the one in Virginia.

That TEC is a hierarchal church has been upheld by the courts of your nation all the way to the federal high court. But any judge at any time can choose to revisit that body of evidence, and hear other arguments. This begins to establish such arguments, at least in the minds of those fostering these ideas.

I have doubts that all the bishops who have allowed their names to be attached to this document have thought through all of the possibilities this touches upon. They were told it was for staying in the AC by signing the blasted Covenant. They read it that way, and proly did not give it another thought.

"I can't keep my Carolinas and Dakotas straight anymore."

Counterlight, Dakotas are usually much younger than Carolinas!

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Dear [Other] Christopher,
Thanks for this reminder of both the history (about which I plan to write more, as the meaning of "states" is an important as the various meanings of "church" in the founding period of TEC.)

Also for the reminder of the Dator paper, which I have not read since first seeing it a few years ago. I should perhaps have said that TEC is at least Federal in structure. Clearly it is in fact unitary -- for instance, in comparison with the US, there is no requirement that the Governors of each state must be consented to by the Governors and legislatures of a majority of the other states; while TEC bishops (as otherwise analogous to governors) must be so approved. This is perhaps the clearest sign that we are unitary, and that the dioceses do not, and cannot, stand apart from the church of which they are a part.

I also plan to address the fallacy that the PB has to ask permission to function in another bishop's diocese -- in fact, that Article only applies to bishops limiting their activity to the diocese to which they were elected -- and the PB is not elected to a diocese.

Anonymous said...

Damian Thmpson posted this today in his Telegraph blog, supposedly leaked to him. Take it with as much salt as necessary!

That Anglican Communion Rescue Plan in Full"Mea culpa. Yesterday I made fun of a plan to create a "multi-layered Anglican communion". Now that I have been leaked fuller details of the proposals, I can see how ingenious it is. You'll recall that the covenant, by virtue of a quasi disciplinary process, is likely to create a multi-layered communion, with the "conservative" provinces in the inner circle, with full voting rights at all the communion bodies, and the pro-gay liberals on the outer circle and presumably some rights removed, if they insist on consecrating more gay bishops or sanctioning gay marriage.

What I didn't know is that the proposals are tied to an intricate scale of "degrees of communion" - full, impaired, partial and broken - that will ascribed to different provinces by a Lambeth Communion Review Commission, which will itself be multi-layered, supervising Review Sub-Committees based on the Indaba model that will ascribe State of Communion Assessments to individual dioceses, non-territorial episcopal oversight areas and parishes. It would, of course, be inappropriate for the same Review Sub-Committees to cross the boundary between inner and outer circles of the Anglican Communion, and so - in a radical proposal drafted by Dr Rowan Williams himself - the Lambeth Communion Review Commission will divide into inner and outer circle Areas of Special Responsibility that will shadow each other's assessments.

The obvious snag here is that non-territorial oversight could be compromised by this process of shadowing, so the Review Commission will create what are, in effect, "episcopal no-fly zones" covering provinces in partial - but not impaired or broken - communion with Lambeth. Meanwhile, a Lambeth Communion Appeals Tribunal will be set up to negotiate boundary disputes between provinces (and, in exceptional circumstances, parishes) which receive alternative oversight within the inner circle. Boundary disputes within the outer circle will be referred to an independent tribunal accountable to the main Commission, except where the degree of impairment is sufficiently grave to qualify for a special appeal to those Primates of the Anglican Communion who have signed up to the original covenant."


Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Anglican, my blood pressure just rose, due to the amount of salt with which I had to take that story.

Only a Layman said...


I don't intend disrespect, but I think the polity statement is the most brilliant thing in the Anglican world since Hooker, or perhaps since the sermons of Dean Swift and Bishop Hall.

Though the short-term effect is to raise a lot of hackles, the authors deserve gratitude and kudos for so expertly clarifying the issues. The long-term result may be a better way through or around the crisis.

Liberalism has one besetting flaw, that of chronic myopia. Too many of--I should say "you"--are convinced of your own righteousness and the inevitability of your success. Neither is a guarantee.

I've suggested elsewhere that if the left wing reached out to the conservatives, apologized just for the liturgical insanity, and restored the 1928 prayer book as a universal option (like Rome has done with the old Mass), the other issues would quickly calm down to a manageable level.

Only a Pharisee fears a Samaritan.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Dear Layman,
I've laid out some specific flaws in the document you find so impressive. If you would care to respond to the particulars that would be welcome. I don't see how any of this pertains to the 1928 BCP. I very seriously doubt there are all that many Episcopalians out there who would see its restoration as a universal option as solving all of our problems, though I do think that at the time, a generation ago, greater tolerance of the continued use of the 1928 BCP might have made for a less bumpy transition.

Marshall Scott said...

Tobias, in your estimable work on the history and authority that the ACI statement misses, I hope you'll address the importance of Executive Council in carrying out the metropolitical authority of General Convention between Conventions, and of actions by the Presiding Bishop on behalf of and as President of the Executive Council. It has seemed to me that her actions in San Joaquin, for example, are best understood as "carry[ing] out the programs and policies adopted by the General Convention...[for] the coordination, development, and implementation of the ministry and mission of the Church." (I.4.1.a) by fulfilling out the canons regarding abandoment of cure (independent of consideration of abandonment of communion) by a bishop and by the members of the alternate ecclesiastical authority simultaneously. Those canons are certainly "programs and policies adopted by the General Convention;" and so it is the responsibility of Executive Council, manifest in her position as President, to carry them out. That, then, reflects the source of metropolitical authority in General Convention, and her positional authority to act.

MarkBrunson said...

I'm suspicious of any claims that no disrespect is intended while using words like Too many of--I should say "you"--are convinced of your own righteousness and the inevitability of your success. Neither is a guarantee.I don't know of any of us are assured of our success. Naturally, we are assured of our righteousness - just as the schismatics are.

While the "issues" may be clarified, they were already fairly clear. I'm sorry they don't understand that this is a hierarchical church, and the hierarchical decision-making involves laity, but that's how it is. Losing them will be sad. TEC may fail and fall, but that's part of the risk of faith.

We have nothing to apologize for in terms of "liturgical insanity" as the same "insanity" has provided a gracious place for the Reasserters to shelter. They have chosen to reject that graciousness and make a vulgar power-play. They are reaping what they've sown. The 1928 Prayer Book is no longer our Prayer Book - this is not a congregationalist church. There are plenty, and they're welcome to join them.

You seem to regard your claims as reasonable, and, indeed, in a congregationalist church you would be right. In fact, one might say you even sound convinced of your righteousness :D. However, I - only a layman, myself - joined with eyes wide open and clear on the fact that I was joining a hierarchical church. I accepted the decisions of the church on homosexuality and women's ordination, etc., for some 22 years - though they were often simply wrong. I didn't agitate others like me to cry foul in an attempt to garner public sympathy, I didn't convince liberal priests to threaten and cajole the GC or to call in a separate church to provide us "oversight."

I'm sorry you can't see that this is about neither Pharisees nor Samaritans, but about those who have dealt in good faith, and those acting in bad faith.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, Marshall. Excellent points.

Mark, let me just add that I don't think it is about "victory" -- but it is about change. The trend or arc of history seen in the church is to a greater understanding of the significance of the Incarnation, and of the call not to call others "unclean" -- a movement away from a notion of taboo to a more Christlike understanding of morality. It is a movement towards learning to see the other as supremely worthy, and to live without fear. Perhaps that is a kind of victory -- but it is primarily a victory over fear, not over the other.

KJ said...

Having just finished the book, "The Prayer Book Through the Ages" (Formerly titled: "the Story of the REAL Prayer Book), I got a chuckle out of "Only's" comment that I would not have had otherwise.

Good stuff!

JCF said...

FYI: D Thompson has revealed the above-mentioned article to be a parody (that fact that is was picked up in Anglican blogiverse, he claims as proof that the Anglican Communion is "beyond parody")

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

D Thompson? Say more...