February 22, 2011

Taking a Constitutional

I am happy to see that a group of diocesan chancellors has issued a response to the claims of the ACI and South Carolina that Title IV grants unconstitutional powers to the Presiding Bishop. I am also pleased to see that even as a legal amateur I anticipated a number of the arguments in defense of the authority of the PB that appear in this paper. The strangest of these claims by the ACI and SC is that the Presiding Bishop requires permission to exercise tasks assigned to her in the Constitution and Canons, based on the restriction of bishops’ exercise of their office to the diocese for which they are consecrated. The present paper defends the PB’s right, and indeed duty, to carry out these responsibilities, and there is no indication that permission is needed to do something mandated by law.

Good work. (Note, the link to the paper in the Episcopal New Service release is incorrect. Use this one.)

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


Tom Sramek, Jr. said...

I'm always struck by the irony that ACI folks apparently want the Anglican Communion to be MORE of a hierarchy than it is and the Episcopal Church to be LESS of a hierarchy than it is. They apparently want the Instruments of Communion to have powers over the various provinces that they do not wish to allow their own provinces to have over dioceses.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, Tom. This is the "obedience skips a beat" dance. It is very popular in some venues.

Michael said...

Fr. Sramek's quip is rhetorically pleasing, but its implications cut against both groups. By the same standard, the dominant movement in the Episcopal Church is ironic: the non-ACI folks apparently do not wish the Instruments of Communion to have powers over the various provinces that they wish to allow their own province(s) to have over dioceses.

Both sides have outcomes they are interested in promoting through and debates about church tradition and what policy initiatives are consistent with it. The Episcopalian majority has pressed its advantage where they are strongest: at home. The Episcopalian minority has pressed its advantage where they are strongest: abroad.

Perhaps the minority's arguments are wrong or unwise. But this does not mean that the minority is inconsistent and willful whereas the majority is obedient and principled, as Fr. Haller's comment suggests.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Michael, the issue for me is simply that I believe in the rule of law -- whether I agree or disagree with the law at hand. There are legitimate ways to work against laws with which one disagrees. There is, at present, no "law" at the communion level -- hence the move to a Covenant of some sort. The "principle" is that of submission to actual authority -- and until there is a real international authority, the highest level of governance in Anglicanism is the national or provincial church. It is on this that the ACI and SC lack a clear "principle" as they are arguing proleptically for an authority that does not exist while rebelling against an authority to which they have (at least the clergy) sworn obedience and conformity.

Michael said...

Fr. Haller: Fr. Sramek's gentle mockery was that ACI et al. "want" hierarchy in one place but not in another, which displays humorous inconsistency. If your subsequent affirmation amounts to, 'Well, the desires for that arrangement of hierarchies may be consistent, but that arrangement is being pursued unlawfully at the parish and diocesan levels', I don't see how Fr. Sramek's joke works.

On the substance of your kind reply: Bishops and even a learned synod are not authorities unto themselves (with the tricky exception of Ecumenical Councils and perhaps of Popes speaking ex cathedra). Yes, during the Presentation and Examination, those being ordained priest in the Episcopal Church promise to obey their bishop. But bishops in their Presentation and Examination likewise promise to obey Christ and guard the faith. (There is a remnant of priests and bishops who would have sworn to the 1928 BCP’s punchier language “to banish and drive away all erroneous and strange doctrine contrary to God’s Word”, etc.)

The difficult question, which your reply to me sidesteps, is what to do if your local Bishop or Synod errs significantly in discerning the will of Christ on doctrine or morals. If the dissenting Episcopalians are in rebellion against their bishops and synods, it is because they believe their bishops and synods are in rebellion against Christ and the Church universal.

Framing the disputes in terms of inconsistent desires (Fr. Sramek) or of unlawfulness and rebellion (you) is unhelpful. Neither side is a bulwark of integrity and charity.

Christopher (P.) said...


Not that I would stand in for Fr. Haller, but your note prompts me to respond, only because your reasoning is one with which I've grappled, and one which my rector consistently uses. But this line always seems to me to beg the question!

That is, to what authority do you appeal in your determination that the local Bishop or Synod has erred significantly in discerning the will of Christ in doctrine or morals? Must it not only be your personal judgement, which amounts to setting your judgment against the judgment of the Church? You have the right to do so, for the sanctity of the individual conscience is an important part of our polity. But, if you are in orders, you have taken an oath to submit to the will of the Church in your ministry, even if your conscience tells you otherwise. I can't see any way out of this, short of anarchy, the erosion of the good order of the Church.

Now the Church may be wrong. But it seems to me that prayerful reasoning by the body of Christ is the best path that we can take. Further prayerful reasoning may have the Church reach another conclusion in the future. But as an institution, even a holy institution, what better course is available? And given that the issues are around blessing same-gendered unions, which are parochial matters, and electing bishops in such unions, on which the entire Church judges, I fail to understand the continued plea that this path is not only wrong, but a world-wide threat!

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Michael, it seems to me the issue Tom raises is not about rightness or wrongness, but about the structures of authority at play. (I also don't think he is joking!) The irony is that the ACI wish to deny the authority of General Convention and affirm the authority of some kind of "superior synod" that does not in fact exist as a constituted body. (Hence the pressure for the Covenant, especially in a stronger model.)

Your difficult question is answered by obedience. We have structures by which we determine, for the Episcopal Church, its doctrine and discipline. One is, of course, always free to exercise ones conscience and disagree with decisions of the Church's governing bodies; but there are appropriate means to address those conscientious qualms, including bringing the matter back to the Synods and Conventions. I may well think an Canon is badly written or faulty, or a liturgy inconsistent with the faith -- but I am not (nor is a diocesan Convention!) free simply to ignore the law of the church or declare it will not follow it. Ultimately, I am free to renounce my participation in the church -- if it is such a weighty matter.

South Carolina was given ample time to address the concerns about Title IV in General Convention, in an extensive review process that lasted for years. I don't recall their having done so, but I may not have been aware of it. But ultimately the law was adopted by a majority at General Convention, and until it is changed by that Convention it is the law of the church (or will be, on its effective date.)

I think I did answer your difficult question, which is about a refusal to accept a real authority at one level by an appeal to a fictive authority at another level. Strength of conviction is no proof of rightness. As Richard Hooker puts it:

To small purpose had the council of Jerusalem been assembled, if once their determination being set down, men might afterwards have defended their former opinions. When therefore they had given their definitive sentence, all controversy was at an end. Things were disputed before they came to be determined; men afterwards were not to dispute any longer, but to obey. The sentence of judgment finished their strife, which their disputes before judgment could not do. This was ground sufficient for any reasonable man's conscience to build the duty of obedience upon, whatsoever his own opinion were as touching the matter before in question. So full of wilfulness and self-liking is our nature, that without some definitive sentence, which being given may stand, and a necessity of silence on both sides afterward imposed, small hope there is that strifes thus far prosecuted will in short time quietly end. (Laws, Preface 6.3)

Those who do not like the decisions of General Convention are free to continue to advocate for change, or to abdicate and remove themselves (as individuals) from this church if they cannot abide its laws. Either of those would be actions of integrity and charity. Simply pretending to place themselves in judgment over the institution of which they are pledged to be a part is an exaltation of private conscience to a place it ought not go. As Hooker says, if everyone did that, there would be no end of strifes.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thank you, Christopher P. We were writing at the same time!

Marshall Scott said...

I think, Fr. Michael, we can add one other point. Christopher and Tobias have spoken of obedience to the acknowledged councils of the Church - in this case, the Episcopal Church, and so the General Convention. We must also note that there is no reason a cleric, or lay person for that matter, could not bring a charge against a bishop of teaching a doctrine not accepted in the Episcopal Church, or violating the discipline of the Episcopal Church. Indeed, as I read the revised Title IV, it's easier to bring an issue. Previous canons required ten persons, clergy or lay; or three bishops. Now an individual - virtually any individual, as near as I can tell - can bring a concern to the Intake Officer appointed by the Presiding Bishop. The Intake Officer may not be convinced that the bishop is in fact in breach of accountability; but an individual can at least raise such an issue.