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EPISCOPAL WISDOM

I would commend reflections on the Bishops’ Statement by Bishops Pierre Whalon and the new bishop of Tennessee. They stand out from most other comments published on-line by our Ordinaries in that they demonstrate a command of the subject, a facility of language and the type of civility once associated with Anglican discourse. The Bishop of Tennessee found the patriotic language in the Statement as hard to justify as I did. I’m a Brit! Bishop Whalon rightly drew attention to the lack of even-handedness present in the Primates’ communique. The Episcopal Church is taken to task for its allegedly inadequate response to the Windsor Report by General Convention while those who have intruded into the territorial jurisdiction of TEC are lightly tapped in the wrist.

Neither bishop mentions that which I believe to be the crux of the matter. At the heart of our crisis is theological ineptitude. The Bishop of Tennessee notes that there seems to be general ignorance of an adequate ecclesiology. I think the problem to be wider than merely our doctrine of the Church and the churches. But ecclesiology is a good place to start.

Anyone with any sensitivity to the Doctrine of the Church must shrink and shiver when seeking to define just what our bishops meant by “the church” as they reflected about the nature and reality of The Episcopal Church and what is contemplated by those who make exclusive claims for that church, its definition and autonomy.

The bishops seem to anchor their doctrine of the Church in reflections on its organizational creation at the end of the 18th. Century with particular stress on the creation of General Convention. In that General Convention is the creation of the Episcopal Church and of its Constitution and Canons, its fairly recent definition of TEC’s relationship to and with the Anglican Communion contained in the Constitution is regarded as self-definition. There is no “other.” There’s something Humpty Dumpty about it all. Words mean what we mean them to mean! No more and no less.

For convenience sake I use a capital “C” when referring to the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church and a small “c” when referring to a particular or local church or province. Granted such a usage isn’t entirely clear of obvious. Most Anglicans refer to four levels of communion and fellowship. There’s the Church Catholic, the church particular and the church at diocesan and parochial levels. I list them in order of importance. The bishops seem to have a different list. At the top they place a particular church and then the province or diocese, and then the parish and far off in the distance a vague notion of Catholicity.

Our bishops in their Statement seem to place enormous stress on particularity and on the human genesis of such an organization. In common with the Anglican Reformers, our bishops seem to embrace a doctrine of the Invisible Church, “the blessed company of all faithful (and unfaithful) people” from whom God chooses the elect who reflect the reality of the Church Catholic. Such a definition is largely Protestant in origin; a denial of the doctrine of a God-created visible Church marked by those elements defined and limited by the Lambeth Quadrilateral for instance.

Only such a viewpoint permits the introduction of secular political theory as a justification for a particular form of ecclesiastical polity. The bishops seem to suggest that the Episcopal Church and its polity were created by enlightened “men” who employed the principles which created the Articles of Confederation and pre-federalist American political theory and practice. To my knowledge such a polity was tested neither by Scripture, the Tradition nor sanctified Reason. No linking reference was made to the pre-Revolutionary Anglican Church in America. PECUSA was sui generis a Church enjoying all the rights normally ascribed to the entire Church of God It was created by and through debate and the adoption of motions by a majority of legislators themselves elected by originally self-appointed diocesan conventions.

Indeed the historical creation of the Episcopal Church is unlike any other Anglican Province in the Communion. In the case of almost all other Provinces there was either clear Apostolic continuity or a process whereby a “mother” church created its “daughter” church. True the Scottish Episcopal Church was formed by people who fled the Church of Scotland. The Church of Ireland succeeded the Irish Church, founded by St. Patrick, in apostolic succession and structure. The Australian Church has its roots in the work of missionaries sent to “civilize” convicts. Most African, Asian and Caribbean provinces began with missionary bishops and other clergy who organized themselves into dioceses and then provinces. The Episcopal Church is alone in appealing to legal documents and actions as foundational material. The New Zealand church, for instance organized itself into a General Synod some sixty years after PECUSA and its General Convention were created. Bishops elected by ballot in local Conventions and a General Convention governing an entire Church were unique. Perhaps there remained some precedent in the Early Church although this is not entirely clear. Election of bishops by the local constituency enjoyed some Early Church precedent although again this is not entirely clear.

What seems to be clear is that ECUSA was a novel experiment, novel in its origins and in its history.

The puzzle remains that for most of its history the Episcopal Church remained unimpressed by its historical origins or at least saw no obstacle preventing its enjoyment of Communion with the other more normal Provinces of the Communion.

What now seems obvious in the light of the recent Primate’ Meeting, is a pressing need for the Episcopal Church to justify its unique nature by reference to a robust Doctrine of the Church founded in Scriptural norms. It won’t do merely to note TEC’s particularity and its American political roots and deduce that there is something in TEC’s DNA limiting mutual interdependence and magnifying its autonomy.

Such a deduction requires of TEC a defining construct based on a classical Anglican ecclesiology and nothing less. This brings me to the question of a revived Anglican scholarship. We will tackle that subject in my next Blog.

One Response

  1. Tony,
    The ecclesiology of the Episcopal Church is a topic worth pursuing. To the narrow question, “can the HoB approve the Pastoral Scheme?”the anwer is obviously “no,” because of the requirement for conformity (Article VIII). This does not mean that I am not wondering about our polity. The idea to have the HoD vote on the PB candidates as well as the HoB is another place to begin to ask questions. The basic ecclesiological issue is, what is the concept of episcopacy in TEC?

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