April 22, 2015

The Authority for Worship Forms

My earlier ruminations (in blog post and comment thread) on the subject of how liturgies of the church apart from those in the Book of Common Prayer are approved, and my critique of the allegations by ACI authors “The Reverend Canon Professor Christopher Seitz and Mark McCall, Esq.” that such liturgies are “unconstitutional” has drawn their attention. As with much of their argumentation, the bulk takes the form of mere dismissal or contradictory, “Yes, it is!” so I will do a bit more in terms of a response than a simple, “No, it isn’t.”

Let me first acknowledge that they were correct in finding me mistaken concerning their ignorance of the history involved. However, the reality is much worse than that: it is not that they are ignorant of the history, but that they do not accept the importance of the historical record for the matter under discussion.

Seitz and McCall make a very serious charge: that the General Convention has been acting unconstitutionally for many years by authorizing non-BCP liturgical texts apart from the mechanism laid out in the Constitution Article X. The problem with this line of argument is that the mechanism laid out in the Constitution doesn’t concern such texts. It only applies to the BCP and its revision in whole or in part, not to the various offices and rites that General Convention has been authorizing for centuries. These go back to the beginning with the first Book of Offices from the turn of the 18th century, containing the Ordinal and the form for the consecration of churches; these rites were later included in the BCP itself (as has often happened with such extravagant or occasional liturgies.) The Book of Offices went through many revisions and expansions, the first modern version being put together by the House of Bishops in 1917, later amended in 1937, 1940 and 1949. (I was received into the Episcopal Church using the rite from one of these books provided for Reception, which was lacking in the 1928 BCP). The Book of Offices was superseded by the Book of Occasional Services in 1979, since amended several times. Backing up a bit, 1964 saw a period of trial use for a book of Lesser Feasts and Fasts, also later amended and expanded, including such iterations as Holy Women, Holy Men. Dare I also mention the Hymnal, a cornerstone of our worship, nowhere mentioned in the Constitution. In addition, in more recent times we have seen five volumes in a series called Enriching Our Worship, and most recently a provisional rite for the blessing of a same-gender couple. Obviously the latter may be seen as the last straw, which has drawn the fire and ire of those eager to brand the whole lot of them “unconstitutional.”

It is of course quite true that the Constitution makes no mention of any of these liturgies or resources. That in itself does not make them unconstitutional, unless they violate some constitutional principle.

Seitz and McCall raise two objections to my arguments in favor of such authority.

First, that my argument that continued practice of the church indicates the General Convention believes itself to hold such a power is “naive” — they argue that long misuse does not constitute a norm or render something legal if it isn’t. They dismiss the argument from silence as not convincing.

Second, they challenge that if what they refer to as “purported authorizations” were legitimate people would not keep trying (as in the current A066 proposal) to amend the Constitution to cover these liturgies.

Their first objection begs the question, in that it assumes the action constitutes a violation, and its repetition cannot legitimize it. This objection is only correct if the action does constitute a violation, which is the question. The "unpersuasive" argument from silence is another matter, and I will turn to it below.

A response to the second challenge is twofold.

First, the desire to have a set process put in place need not stem from a realization that the current practice is illegal (though the Explanation for A066 wrongly implies that, which I have noted to the SCLM as well). In earlier motions for change (for example 2006.A078) the explanation was given that a more orderly process needed to be set into place — not that the current practice was illegal, but that it was not systematic. (My response would be to suggest that such nuts and bolts policies and practices belong in Title II of the Canons, not the Constitution, if they need to be set in place; just as the detailed process for “trial use” is currently so enshrined.)

Second, and more importantly, the same General Convention sessions that refused to amend the Constitution to “allow” for such provisional rites were perfectly happy to authorize them for use. So General Convention clearly believed itself to be competent to do that which the ACI claims requires the constitutional support that it lacks, while doing nothing to supply that lack -- something they were and are fully competent to do.

And this brings me to the real issue for ACI: they do not believe that the General Convention is the head of hierarchical authority in the Episcopal Church. McCall in particular has written and testified on the subject, noting the absence of such words as “supremacy” and “hierarchy” from the Constitution. He has failed, however, to note the significance of the word “General” and its implications in an ecclesiastical context. “General church” is a term of art in many legal cases (including SCOTUS) concerning local churches that are part of a hierarchical church, of which The Episcopal Church is one — though the hierarchy is embedded in corporate entities rather than individual persons, much as the English constitution developed the notion of “King in Parliament” so too the Episcopal Church is commonly governed by “the Rector, Vestry and Wardens,” “the Bishop and Standing Committee,” and the General Convention with its House of Bishops and House of Lay and Clerical Deputies.

(Seitz and McCall find it difficult not to ride this their favorite hobbyhorse even in this instance, bringing in another matter on which the Constitution is silent: the departure of a diocese from the Episcopal Church. Employing their own argument from silence, in this case they hold that silence implies consent, but again ignore the historical context and the intent of the founders to form a national church, which provides key to understanding the Constitutional issues at play, in much the same way the silence of the Constitution of the US on the departure of states from the Union was never spelled out as it was deemed unthinkable. History can be very informative. They claim not to rest their case on this "silence" but it is they who bring it up. Their "careful analysis" of the polity of The Episcopal Church has been convincing to a few, but not to most. But this really is a separate matter, and I only cite it here because the ACI folk appear to think it relevant.)

Most Episcopalians understand the General Convention to be the highest legislature in our church, and its governing authority. After all, the General Convention has been authorizing the liturgies of the church from the very beginning: starting in 1785 (prior to the final Constitution) when the first Convention in Philadelphia adopted a “General Ecclesiastical Constitution” Article IV of which declared,

“The Book of Common Prayer... of the Church of England,” shall be continued to be used by this Church, as the same is altered by this Convention...
There was a bit of back and forth with England concerning some doctrinal changes the English (and some Americans) thought went too far, but in 1789 the General Convention adopted a Book of Common Payer and a Constitution which read (Article 8),

A Book of Common Prayer... when established by this or a future General Convention, shall be used in the Protestant Episcopal Church in those states, which shall have adopted this Constitution.
So it is clear that the primary liturgy of the Episcopal Church is established by and in the keeping of the General Convention, and subject to amendment by it (in two consecutive sessions).

My argument on the silence of the Constitution on supplemental, occasional, and provisional rites, and the authority of General Convention to authorize them, is an argument a fortiori — if the General Convention can establish and amend the Book of Common Prayer, how much more ought it be able to authorize secondary and provisional texts, even though this authority is not spelled out in the Constitution?

Moreover, our texts are not in fact "silent" on the matter. This authority is spelled out in the Book of Common Prayer itself, which states on page 13,

In addition to [the Holy Eucharist and Daily Morning and Evening Prayer] and the other rites contained in this Book, other forms set forth by authority within this Church may be used. Also, subject to the direction of the bishop, special devotions taken from this Book, or from Holy Scripture, may be used when the needs of the congregation so require.
The latter clause concerning the bishop is referred to in the Constitution as follows:

Nothing in this Article [X] shall be construed as restricting the authority of Bishops of the Church to take such order as may be permitted by the Rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer or by the Canons of the General Convention for the use of special forms of worship.
But what about the first clause, which I italicized above? To what other “authority within this Church” can the rubric possibly refer apart from the one that has exercised it from the foundation, the General Convention, since the role of the bishop is addressed separately? This is plainly the case, as the history of General Convention action testifies. A more eloquent, and authoritative, testimony than either I or Seitz and McCall can muster lies in the official commentary on the Constitution and Canons from White and Dykman (1982), which notes, concerning the Book of Occasional Services:

Under the rubric of the 1979 Prayer Book (page 13, rubric 2)... the permission of the bishop is not required for the use of forms and services such as these, which are set forth by authority of General Convention. (page 462, emphasis mine)
Now, it cannot be said that Seitz and McCall are ignorant of this rubric. Seitz, in particular, is fond of alleging a “Constitutional” authority to the BCP — a point I deny in terms of law but recognize in terms of practicality, as its rubrics are governing of those matters they address. He and his colleague simply refuse to recognize that it is the General Convention to which this “authority” refers. They want at all points to shift authority to the local bishop, and even object to provisional rites where that regulatory authority is explicitly granted, and raise the specious charge of “unconstitutionality.”

As I say, Seitz and McCall are not ignorant of the rubric. In fact, in their response to me about the failed attempts to amend the Constitution (which they take to be a sign it needs amending) they quote from the 2006 report of the SCLM concerning the subject and their proposal for review. Or, I should say, they misquote from the report. It is a subtle misquotation, as it involves a failure to Romanize the word “and” linking a pair of phrases that in their version appear to bring the diocesan bishop into the “authority” to set forth other forms, as opposed to a bishop’s direction concerning special devotions. I have quoted the rubric above. Here is the version at Seitz and McCall’s ACI blog (as a graphic clipped, lest anyone suggest I’ve tinkered with their text; click to enlarge).

I do not know if their failure to return the word “and” in the fourth line to Roman font (as it appears in the 2006 Blue Book, page 222) is deliberate or an error. Clearly everyone makes errors, as the SCLM did itself in this very text, shortening “within” to “with.” But the incorrect text appears to support the ACI’s larger argument of episcopal limits on General Convention, and when errors tend that way I have to suspend judgment as to the cause of the error.

In summary, my case is that the General Convention has the authority to authorize provisional or supplemental rites, as this is provided for in the Book of Common Prayer itself. The fact that no constitutional procedure for this authorization exists does not render such acts unconstitutional.

And in the end, what if it actually were unconstitutional, not just filling a gap but actually violating some principle? Who is to make that judgment? Everyone is entitled to an opinion, including the ACI and its authors, and as am I, and as are White and Dykman.

But it is well established that the polity of the Episcopal Church lacks any tribunal for the formal judgment of such matters — except the General Convention itself. And that body has shown, by its actions in authorizing liturgical texts for over two hundred years, and refusing to amend the Constitution to make explicit provision for such authorization, to believe itself to possess this power and authority as a native element of its character as the superior synod and government of this church, custodian of its laws and author of its liturgies.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


Marshall Scott said...

There seems in this society these days this conviction that the word constitutional can only apply to the original text of the constitutional document, or perhaps the formal text as amended, without considering the history of the understanding of those words. We might call it the "originalist" position, and we might call it heresy, were the most common use explicitly religious. In civil discourse it ignores (or, choose to ignore when convenient) the history of constitutional law and judicial decisions. It smacks, really, of the a-historicity of some evangelical Christians: as there is no relevant generation or interpretation before what we preach now, there might have been no earlier relevant reflection (as if, to point to the most vocal and public orginalists, there had been no Supreme Court prior to their appointment). The worst recent instance (if, perhaps, unintentional) was the current presidential candidate who said every citizen should have "the Constitution in one hand and the Bill of Rights in the other" - as if the Constitution amended were not still the Constitution.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

So true, Marshall. The Constitution, whether of the Church or the State, does not exist in a vacuum, nor did it emerge from on high as a revelation. There are in both documents a number of things that the founders felt no need to spell out, as they were sufficiently obvious (they thought) given the circumstances of the founding of the entity, as not to require elaboration. As I noted in passing, one of these features is the notion of national unity -- the idea that any entity "so conceived and so dedicated" to union need not add as a provision, "by the way, this means no state / diocese may secede..." It was simply inconceivable.

But then again, it seems that TEC has its own version of the "Tea Party" who think they are supporting the very thing they are tearing down...