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
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.