I suppose the area in which nationalism and ecclesiology most clash in the Episcopal Church is in the matter of polity. General Convention is a hallowed institution produced by many of those who were present at the creation of the new Republic. It’s form, structure and purpose is to be democratic in the manner in which that word was interpreted at the end of the Eighteenth Century. That interpretation was as complex and illusive as it is today. One may see this in the conviction of the present administration that the introduction of democracy overseas is the precursor to the establishment of a brave and free new world.

What is often forgotten is that democracies are also capable of initiating totalitarianism. One sees this in Italy and Germany after the First World War. The mere fact that an institution is democratic does not mean that it is fair or just or merciful. When voters give to a party a dominant role in a legislature over a number of years Lord Acton’s aphorism enters the picture. “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Corruption does not necessarily entail graft or nepotism. It may demonstrate itself in contempt for the minority stemming from a burning conviction that the party knows best.

Again an institution created at one stage in a society’s history, if it is not open to structural and procedural revision, may evolve into something inefficient and obstructive. It may cease to be able to get the job done. When General Convention first met the House of Bishops had a potential of four members, while about one hundred and four were members of the House of Deputies. Even then to a European, the Episcopal Church’s territory was vast, stretching as it did from the Canadian border to the border with Florida, and edging over the Piedmont hills to the mysteries lying beyond the mountains.

Although the American Church was a cobbled together union of widely differing parties and views, the unifying factor was survival. Could a church, tainted with royalism and the Establishment survive? Its unity lay in a common love of its heritage and worship and was expressed in its form of government. That form of government left most things to the “States” as dioceses were first described and a few things to General Convention. There was no bureaucracy, no 815, and a structure aimed at promoting decency and order and expansion.
Contrast this with Own Chadwicks description of Archbishop Michael Ramsey’s reaction to his visit to General Convention in Seattle in 1967 another period of tension and division:

“The General Convention at Seattle he did not like…”The vastness of it, the separate sitting of the houses which meant that the clergy and the laity did not hear the bishops discussing matters, nor did the bishops hear the clergy and laity discussing them, the concentration of power in this body meeting every few years, without fuller synodical discussions in the provinces themselves”…left “an appalling impression.”

Nearly forty years later +Michael Ramsey’s successor as Archbishop of York, in an address to the English General Synod echoed and expanded on Ramsey’s experience:

“God of mercy! Didn’t the 75th General Convention of the Episcopal Church need this! (gracious magnanimity) A Convention which was full of life, fun and joy in the Lord, with uplifting worship and Bible studies. A Convention which clearly demonstrated that the Episcopal Church is committed to mission, to the Anglican Communion, and to the Archbishop of Canterbury. A Church that takes the Millennium Development Goals seriously. Poverty, world peace, HIV/AIDS, the living wage, young people, equality for all, are at the top of the agenda.
And yet in spite of the hard work of the Legislative Committee, and its numerous hearings, the Convention failed to meet the precise request of Windsor. It left too much room for doubt and didn’t stop the rumour and impression of doing ‘our own thing’.

Nine days at the Convention taught me that this rumour and impression unfairly tarnishes all Episcopalians with a kind of arrogance which the present US administration displays through many of its actions. But it’s true to say that Oneness in thought and life is trumped by so-called democratic processes and thereby weakens the Church’s oneness and witness in Christ.
The Legislative Committee took the recommendations and invitation of the Windsor Report seriously. But the Convention’s legislative processes – modelled on the House of Representatives and the Senate, and acting like them – are not fit for the purpose of engendering good conversation (which comes from the same root word in Latin as conversion) and in the end they fell short. As Don Curran, a delegate from Central Florida said: “We have been asked to build a bridge. The bridge is one thousand feet long. If the bridge is only 950 feet long, it does not work. It’s useless.”

It is impossible to be graciously-magnanimous when the book of practice and procedures is regarded as the last word.

If only the Convention has heeded the wisdom of Rev. John Danforth, an Episcopalian priest and former Senator and US Ambassador to the United Nations. In a public lecture he said, “Sexuality is the most divisive issue. The Episcopal Church needs to remember that 99 percent of Americans are not Episcopalians. Sexual Orientation must not be the centrepiece of the Episcopal Church. We have a higher calling, a more central message: that God was in Christ, was in the world, reconciling the world to himself. And he has entrusted to us the ministry of reconciliation.”

He urged his audience to look to Christ and be reconciled. “Articulate reconciliation; roll it out; act it out. Stay with the message – and it is long-term. If we can’t be united and if we offer a broken Church, this is a broken answer to a broken world. A broken Church is a sad Church. Don’t build a mortuary before it is necessary. Shift from the divisive issue of sexuality to ministry of reconciliation.”

Note particularly these words:

“But the Convention’s legislative processes – modelled on the House of Representatives and the Senate, and acting like them – are not fit for the purpose of engendering good conversation (which comes from the same root word in Latin as conversion) and in the end they fell short.”

The Archbishop puts his finger on the problem. How is it possible for an assembly of huge proportions –Bishop Michael Marshall said to me that the House of Deputies looked like the Supreme Soviet –to hold good conversations? This is particularly so when by-laws and rules, produced to consider legislation are called to moderate discussion. As the Archbishop of York put it, It is impossible to be graciously-magnanimous when the book of practice and procedures is regarded as the last word.

A legislative body didn’t create a body of law called the Windsor Report and send it to the American General Convention to act on. A committee report, endorsed by the Primates and the Anglican Consultative Council was sent to the American Church for consideration and reaction. Because the only way we seem to know how to address such a request is within the forum of a legislative assembly, no meaningful conversation was possible. Certainly General Convention has a final role in speaking for the American Church, but when it speaks for the church it better be sure that the church has been in effective conversation.

If we are to become a church of reconciliation we have to develop institutional ways to further conversation which avoids the “winner takes all” methods of our present system. Whether we are ready to take the giant step of examining our structure, not as some hallowed piece of Americana, but as an efficient synod of the church is quite another matter.

Nor are our structural problems confined to an obsolescent form of central government. Ma
ny of our smaller dioceses are bowed down by the expectations of the past, and the financial and organizational responsibilities of the future. The whole matter of the present viability of some small dioceses is something difficult to address at a moment of crisis and disunity.

The survival of the Episcopal Church nearly three hundred and twenty years ago was in such question that the practical question of the future succeeded in bringing together a people divided by their recent past and by their own visions of what Anglicanism was and how it should look in a new nation. If the Archbishop of York’s vision of Anglicans acting on Philippians 4: 5 isn’t compelling enough, perhaps the repetitive evidence of a continued and significant loss of parishioners will shortly bring us to our senses.

How often during these past thirty years or so of change have we been told that change is good? We changed the liturgy, changed how the church looks, changed our doctrine of baptism, changed in enabling the ordination of women, changed in opening our doors to gay and lesbian people, changed our views about total ministry. But dare we bring the winds of change to our hallowed structure?

3 Responses

  1. I watched and followed GC2006 on the internet. There seemed to me to be ample discussion of all of the issues and concerns. Those discussions take place largely in committees some of which meet for many months before getting to the floor for a debate.

    Our system of government, in TEC, and our decision making process is very different than the one in the church of England and is not easily compared. The quotations you made clearly reflect a lack of understanding of our polity. These men were frustrated by their failure to understand what we were about.

    We did respond to the Windsor Report in an adequate manner when we turned A161 down. When the House of Dupties voted to break their rules, at the behest of the Presiding Bishop, and voted to affirm BO33, then we not only establish a president, that may haunt us in the future, we passed a resolution which was counter to our reply to the Report. That resolution was very painful for many people, may drive some out of the church, and is worded in such an ambiguos manner that it is a blight on the church. It will haunt us for more reasons than the hurt and pain caused to the TEC.

  2. Tony,

    Great post. It raises serious questions for us to address. I asked them of my bishop shortly after GC 2006 and got a reply much like the one posted by Ann Drake above (except for the third paragraph).

    But as you say, simply saying we are democratic doesn’t protect us.

  3. lets go herd!

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