March 22, 2010

Is My Communion Leaving Me?

One of the rationales given by some who have parted fellowship with the Episcopal Church over the last few years is summed up in the sentence, "I didn't leave the church; the church left me." While I find the rationale less than compelling (and far less than exculpatory in those cases where it has led to bad behavior) there is some truth to the claim: there have been a number of fundamental changes in the Episcopal Church over the last 50 years. Just as there have been fundamental changes in the church as a whole over the last 2000 years.

A sea-change seems to be afoot in the Anglican Communion, at least as it is being urged in some circles — and a sea-change being afoot is not a very good idea unless you can walk on water. This change is summed up neatly in Canon Michael Poon's recent essay on the Anglican Covenant, in which he sees its particular utility in providing "a canonical structure that unites the Churches of the Communion to be "Church". (¶ 54)

Transforming the Anglican Communion in this way marks a fundamental change in its polity — which from the beginning has stressed the autonomy and integrity of individual national or provincial churches: with strong resistance to meddling by bishops from other churches. Whether one approves of this change or not, it is important to note that it is a significant change.

The parallel with changes within a national church, and the dissatisfaction that breeds in some, breaks down almost immediately, however. For the changes within the Episcopal Church (with which some have taken issue) were undertaken with and through the canonical mechanisms already in existence: no new entity was created or granted power in order to adopt and ratify these changes by majority action and due process —at least not since 1789 when the Episcopal Church gained its constitutional form, and at that time stressed its continuity with the traditions it inherited from England, including the importance of the autonomy of the national church enshrined in the Articles of Religion.

The change to the structure of Anglicanism that Poon reads into the Anglican Covenant (whether it is really there or not is another matter) is dramatic, and false to this rootstock of Anglican identity. While I am not opposed to some formalization of relationships within the Anglican Communion, or even some spelled-out rules of procedure for addressing difficulites which might arise between the members of that "fellowship of autonomous churches" (which is my most generous reading of the proposed Covenant), I have absolutely no wish to be part of a "world church" with a central command. I would truly hate to see the essence of Anglicanism boiled away, and the remainder reduced to a mess of pottage that is not even a good imitation of Rome.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


June Butler said...

Two thoughts:

In 2003, the Episcopal Church (USA) appointed a priest in a committed same-sex relationship as one of its bishops.

Canon Poon still doesn't understand how our bishops are chosen. I despair of the English clergy ever understanding our polity.

I would truly hate to see the essence of Anglicanism boiled away, and the remainder reduced to a mess of pottage that is not even a good imitation of Rome.

Who amongst us of sound mind would want to imitate Rome at this particular time?

One more thought, which would add up to three: As I see it, the body in question can be in "ecclesial deficit" only if the body is a church, which the Anglican Communion is not - at least, not yet.

MarkBrunson said...

Well, the IRD couldn't turn TEC as it did with the Baptist church, so it went after the communion. It looks like it's succeeded, and in so doing will gain nothing but a shaky vestigial tail of Empire.

Deacon Charlie Perrin said...

Amen, Fr. Haller, Amen.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, GM, Mark, Charlie. I've tried to boil my exasperation down into a haiku as a new post!

Anonymous said...

If I understand the Anglican Curmudegeon correctly, no new canonical entity needs to be created since 815 is a virtually lawless entity not adhering to canonical procedures in deposing clergy, ordering adherence to a "Dennis Canon" of dubious effect, etc.

It looks to me as if the Anglican Communion is trying to formulate some new canonical way of existing together while TEC is formulating a new way of existing together (i.e. as a centralized body with a true Primate with supreme jurisdiction in the office of the Presiding Bishop) with novel interpretations of canons.

I could care less whether TEC or the AC gets more or less centralized, but IMHO the movement toward centralization of ecclesial power exists in both TEC and the AC. The difference lies in the means used.


Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

FrM, I realize you are an outsider in this, and as a Roman Catholic, certain values of Anglicanism will be foreign -- and may seem wrongheaded -- to you.

Thus, the apparent contradiction between greater centralization at the national level and less at the communion level may seem odd to you, but represents the high value placed on the unity within and among the dioceses of the individual national or provincial church -- such as the Episcopal Church or the Church of England -- and the high value placed on the autonomy of each such church from foreign interference -- and both of which values served as the bases in the foundation of each Church.

As to the canons, there have been indeed some novel interpretations, for the most part necessitated by having to deal with novel situations. I have myself taken issue with some of these interpretations and actions; however they by no means represent a wholesale rewriting of Canon Law but a logical extension of the existing law -- in some cases correcting aspects of the law which by simple negligence had not been brought up to date (such as the consents by the "senior bishops" and the changes in meeting schedules of the House of Bishops and the development of "retirement" for bishops -- which did not exist in the earlier period). These canons ought to have been amended decades ago, but the need for declaring bishops to have abandoned communion was so rare (until recently) that these amendments were neglected. The accusation of "virtually lawless" is hyperbole of the most frantic sort.

There is in fact very little desire for a stronger Primate in TEC than we have at present -- though there is a call for greater discipline of those unable to abide by their ordination vows.

As to the Dennis Canon I disagree with my friend the Anglican Curmudgeon, as do the majority of civil law courts. It is the law of the church -- and in nearly all places, the state. It is only fair to call it "dubious" in the minds of those who would like to violate it.

Anonymous said...

Fr Tobias--

I am indeed an outsider to the controversy, and certainly no expert in TEC canon law. I refer to the Curmudgeon since he is the only blogging commentator I can find who seems to practice both civil and TEC canonical law, although I'm not sure that he is a canon lawyer by trade. I certainly would welcome the existence of a progressive blogger with his same legal credentials who would blog with the same detail.

As for your specific points in the last comment:

"As to the canons, there have been indeed some novel interpretations, for the most part necessitated by having to deal with novel situations."

I disagree with this. While the situation of a departing TEC bishops taking a majority of his/their flocks out of TEC was indeed novel, it is apparent that TEC canon law as it stands now could have dealt with the situation. It would have been difficult, but there was a procedure. The Presiding Bishop decided to take the easy, extracanonical way, when what she should have been doing is calling an extraordinary convocation of TEC bishops, active and retired, in order to meet the canonical requirements as they stand.

(to be continued shortly)

Anonymous said...

The Dennis Canon. I would remind you that this is the only thing I am in agreement with the TEC progressives. The idea of an individual congregation of a hierarchical church leaving with parish assets is nothing I support, for obvious reasons.

Nonetheless, the Curmudgeon has argued, to my mind persuasively, that the trusts called for by the Canon were poorly implemented in a way consistent with American property law (e.g. his Statute of Frauds analysis). The crux of the issue is TEC's ability to impose a trust upon parish properties if those parishes never agreed to it. Likewise, there are apparently plenty of TEC parishes that through negligence of their dioceses have never had a trust written into the parish deed. So far it looks like the courts' deference to the hierarchical nature of TEC has trumped a neutral reading of properly law (with the notable exceptions of Virginia and South Carolina). But I think we can agree that TEC should have been far more aggressive after the Dennis Canon's adaption to ensure that all dioceses and parishes were in compliance. Instead, it looks like nearly 30 years went by before everybody was surprised to find that this had not been done consistently around the US.

Anyways, good post of yours to provoke some thoughts in my head.


Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

I have considerable respect for the Anglican Curmudgeon and often agree with him. However, the fact that he is an attorney is no indication that he is necessarily correct. There are competent lawyers on both sides in all cases -- but it is the judge who rules. If you want to see an expert and authoritative legal opinion on the Dennis Canon I suggest you look up one of the decisions, for instance, in the California case, where the Judge issued a long and detailed analysis of the whole history. As I noted, almost all civil courts recognize the Dennis Canon as controlling law. (I find the A.C.'s argument based on the English Statute of Frauds interesting, but ultimately self-defeating as that statute was intended to prevent the very kind of absconding with property at the Dennis Canon is designed to prevent: trustees alienating property from the institution over which they held trust.)

As to your other point, contrary to what you say, it is not a matter of violating the canons but of interpretation of the canons. As a matter of fact, I agree with the A.C. that the interpretations to the procedural elements of the canons (which ought to have been amended long ago) brought forward in order to allow the depositions are strained and contrary to the original intent of the Canon -- but I have to admit both that they are possible interpretations (even as I dsagree with them) and that they are the interpretations that have been applied for over the last 25 years (in the rare cases where the circumstance has arisen, until the recent flurry.)

The history of the abandonment canon is fraught with confusions and fixes, and things not fixed. Moreover, and most importantly, though I tend towards a stricter observance of the letter (in my interpretation of it) aspects of the law in question were merely procedural, since no one denied that the bishops had parted communion with the Episcopal Church: recognition of which is, of course, the sole consequence of the Canon. The 2009 General Convention fixed some of the problems with the Canon --- though I am sorry to say not all.

Perhaps if we had as simple a mechanism as deposition latae sententiae we would be better off!

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Fr. Michael,

I posted my first response while your second was pending, but I see I already addressed the Statute of Frauds argument.

The other point you bring up misses on several counts. (1)No trust was "imposed." The trustee relationship concerning church property was there from the beginning in the colonial church, and carried over to the Episcopal Church. That is why it wasn't written into deeds --- it was not needed. The trust relationship derived from the nature of the church -- and this was settled law until SCOTUS introduced "neutral principles," with a very few peculiar exceptions.

(2) As to neutral principles, you're confusing the question with hierarchical structure. The Dennis Canon is -- at the explicit direction of the US Supreme Court, and under its interpretation -- a neutral principle of law. Hierarchy only comes in because this neutral principle can only be employed in "general churches" where parishes belonging come under the Canons or Disciplines of that larger church -- and are bound to abide by them and do not have to "confirm" them independently parish by parish. For TEC, as the trust relationship was already implicit (and in the vast majority of cases so ruled in the civil courts from 1789 to 1979!) the Dennis Canon did not actually change anything but merely codified it -- precisely what SCOTUS requested.

No changes to deeds were necessary under either point 1 or 2, except in those very, very few cases where some peculiar circumstance came into play (property that formed part of a private bequest with some limiting conditions, or a colonial property issue.) (This comes into play in the SC case.)

As to consistency, I think we will see the anomalous Virginia decision overturned.

I'd suggest that while we should all give the A.C. a good listen, we need also to remember that like any lawyer he is arguing a position --- but may not in the end prevail against interpretations of the courts. As I say, I often agree with him, but I find his argument against the Dennis Canon unpersuasive -- and so do most courts.

JCF said...

The Dennis Canon. I would remind you that this is the only thing I am in agreement with the TEC progressives. The idea of an individual congregation of a hierarchical church leaving with parish assets is nothing I support, for obvious reasons.

And back atcha, FrMichael.

When I see faithful RCs, heart-broken because their (unelected) bishop is closing their parish, I SO wish we could offer them the lifeline of wholesale incorporation into TEC: sanctuary, altar, Sacred Heart/Immaculate Heart statues n' all!

...but then of course, I recall that the parish belongs to the RC bishop---even to dispose of, by his uncontested will. It is my sincerest hope that these cast-off RCs will find a Truer home in TEC (I personally know several being received this Easter, Praise Christ!), but it will be w/o their RC accouterments (selling them off to pay pedophile settlements being Priority #1 in so many dioceses at this time).

God is working God's purpose out as year succeeds to year...

MarkBrunson said...

Attorneys are taught merely to argue what is in their interest to argue. Right or wrong, legal or illegal, just or unjust are not issues for them. This is what I've been told by more than one law school professor, so, expert testimony from a lawyer is less expert in the law and more in persuasion.

Ecgbert said...

You're right: Anglicanism like ____ is what it is (and has the right to be as long as others' liberty is kept too); if one doesn't like it, leave. I stopped my whining when I realised I was trying to defend something that wasn't really Anglicanism and left.

I have absolutely no wish to be part of a "world church" with a central command.

Eastern Orthodoxy for example has no central command either, and arguably the Anglican Communion consciously imitated Orthodox ecclesiology, but of course the result in Orthodoxy is very different (not liberal Protestantism), which in part you can chalk up to culture.

Would you oppose having a central command if you (your party, your theology) ran the show as you do Episcopalianism? But you're right that strong national churches and a weak world communion are defensible and arguably the norm in Anglicanism.

I'm with you and Fr Michael on property rights. Thou shalt not steal.

As for disaffected RCs in groups affiliating with the Episcopal Church, it's happened a couple of times but didn't really work from the viewpoints of both the disaffected and the Episcopalians. In the 1920s a few Italian 'independent' parishes joined up (so there was no question of stealing RC diocesan property); they're closed except one but it's conservative, on the other side of your issues (St Anthony's, Hackensack, NJ). Similar story when the Polish National Catholic Church was in intercommunion with you for 30 years. It rescinded that 30 years ago.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Dear Y.F., thanks for dropping by. I agree with the Orthodoxy analogy to some extent, but would point out that the East has its factions and divisions as much as Anglicanism -- so I don't think it can be put down to liberal Protestantism as to the general tendency towards gradation within systems.

As to your question, I would definitely oppose a strong central government of world Anglicanism, even if I agreed with its decisions, precisely because I see the virtue in allowing for breadth of opinion, in the classic structure. (I am a libertarian at heart, and strong believer in subsidiarity as originally conceived -- in which the "higher" entities are only allowed to do a limited number of things!

Thanks again, and happy Easter!