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OF POLITY

While I’ve been dozing in Paradise –Maui – the Executive Council has met. My good friend Fr. Dan Martins has effectively dealt with the Council’s findings in response to the Primates’ Communiqué. Mind you the word “effectively” is relative. We’ve reached the spot where who you are perceived to be rather than the cogency of argument presented counts for all. To a conservative the ability of a liberal to accurately tell the time of day will still be suspect and vice versa. We have returned to Babel.

The assertion that the polity of TEC differs so much from the polity of other Anglican Provinces that it is not able to enter into authoritative dialogue with them seems daft. If it were so our Ecumenical Office would have to be dismantled. Yet, in a sense, there is a grain of truth in the concept.

All Anglican Provinces have legislative bodies which probably owe a great deal in form and procedure to the secular governmental models in force, or once in force, in the countries or regions at hand. The General Synod of the Church of Ireland, for instance, “sounds” and works like a Victorian version of the British House of Commons. The English General Synod hears cries of “Order, Order” as the chair for the moment brings the members back to business. Those who watch Question Time on CSPAN will be familiar with that bit of parliamentary ritual. I imagine the same holds true in Africa, Australasia and everywhere else. Probably the Synod of the Hong Kong church is a great deal more democratic than its secular counterpart nowadays.

When TEC restored the idea of separate Synodical government to Anglicanism it was natural that its founders –organizers might be a better term – would reach to an emerging secular model for guidance. There’s nothing novel in such an approach as we have seen above. The history of the episcopate is a story of such a process. Bishops have adopted the roles of philosopher kings, Roman consuls, feudal lords, Elizabethan courtiers, Whig magnates, Victorian gentlemen, and modern CEOs and whatever comes next. Despite all the nonsense talked about contemporary Primates, most automatically assume the role of constitutional monarchs, seeking, in various degrees of success or intent, to exercise impartial pastoral “authority” among comprovincial bishops, their clergy and the laity. This model owes as much to the “constitution” of the (British) Commonwealth and the role of the monarch as to any ecclesiological doctrine. That some African Primates seem to be somewhat less than constitutional in their monarchy is to be understood in that their secular counterparts in government have often been muscle flexing types and even dictators.

Tyranny and democracy are not always opposite practices, as Isaiah Berlin often warned. In any system, sacred or secular, in which minority groups are ignored or trampled on, tyranny exists. The fact that the term “tyranny” sounds like an over-statement only points to the subtlety of majoritarian rule, when exercised by “true believers” whose conviction is that all others are bigoted, wrong-headed, antiquarian, or in corrupt liaison with erroneous beliefs and practices popularly embraced by unenlightened people. Contemporary American practice presents an effective model of leadership in this regard. The American Head of State is not only the county’s leader but also the leading spokesman of a political “cause”. Except in moments of national tragedy, it is difficult for an American president to be an adequate, effective, or intentional symbol of national unity. Indeed the opposite often obtains.

Over the past few decades the office of Presiding Bishop has been invested with Primatial rank. There was a time when our PBs were merely “Right Reverend” and like their Scottish counterpart merely presiding officers of meetings of bishops, and by courtesy those who take order for and act as chief consecrator of other bishops with limited rights to make “visitations” to dioceses other than their own; the latter two functions being the only vestiges of Primatial authority preserved from older models. PBs were to be “elder siblings” rather than Metropolitan Archbishops.

It is perfectly true that recent developments in the provision of adjectival descriptions to the office of Presiding Bishop have not afforded greater formal powers to the office. Yet in practice the aura of greater authority has presented itself. As TEC primacy has evolved, its executive responsibilities have increased, its leadership of faction has become more effective or at least obvious, and the “bully pulpit” a PB occupies becomes more evident. There is a certain irony about the accusation leveled by our church to the effect that overseas Primates are “prelates”. Indeed in style and title they may well seem to be. Prelacy is very old-fashioned. The practice of Corporate leadership is contemporary. The first points to a power once exercised and now limited; the latter to a power now exercised. Thus those styles and titles and the manner of behavior expected of contemporary “prelates” often makes it the more difficult for them to become the spokespersons of a “cause” or ascendant faction in the Anglican spectrum of belief and practice. There’s nothing “prophetic” about a prelate, although of course people like Desmond Tutu speak to the good a prelate may do. +Desmond after all was one of those foreign prelates with high sounding titles as Lord Archbishop of Capetown and Metropolitan of Southern Africa.

It is true that our PB does not enjoy the powers of an American President or the styles and titles of a Southern African prelate. However as head of a bureaucracy divorced from the real jurisdiction of pastoral ministry, elected largely by the present “cause-majority” because such a person is associated with such a “cause-majority” and afforded a “bully pulpit” from which to proclaim the platform embraced by the majority, or at least the majority of bishops and deputies elected to General Convention, a contemporary PB may well in practice at least symbolize the real authority present in TEC. Such an authority is that present in a denomination or sect occupied by “particular people” rather than that present in a Church in which all the baptized have place and honor. That’s a story for another day.

On the other hand the nature of Primatial office held by the Primate of All Ireland, or for that matter of All England, despite or indeed because of the styles and titles enjoyed and their constitutional history and precedence hinders such persons from exercising or expressing the opinions and policies of an ascendant ecclesiastical faction, whatever their “cause”. Whatever +Rowan things about same sex unions, he is not free to advocate them simply because he is a “Primate of All England” in the Anglican sense and practice symbolized by the term and not the head of Affirming Catholicism. An American PB has the opportunity to advance cause and the policy of ascendant faction, because the office occupied has evolved to afford such real power in practice rather than in theory. Lacking the restraints of constitutional authority, the office of PB is plastic and open to be modeled by the personality of the office-holder. (Please, gentle reader, this is not an attack, veiled or otherwise on any contemporary PB as a person.)

It is true that in largely monochrome Provinces in which one ecclesiastical “flavor” is the only one offered, a Primate such as the Nigerian chief bishop may exercise enormous power and authority, not by virtue of the theory of church governance in place but because the reality of power is there to snatch if the office-holder has the personality and conviction to use that offered by circumstances. For historical reasons, church, faction and cause are synonymous in Nigeria an in other places.In such a respect the real authority exercised by the long-lived liberal Establishment in TEC is there, not by the design of government but
merely because those checks and balances necessary in a comprehensive polity were in former times there by precedence and not necessarily by law. As TEC evolves into a monochrome rather than a comprehensive Province, any concept that primacy in Anglicanism requires the fostering and encouragement of all who participate in comprehension will be further eroded. The process of this development in TEC has been in part the unintentional result of liturgical revision.

In practice the notion of baptismal covenant is advanced by people who in effect deny its reality. Baptism points to inclusiveness, to the mission of Anglicanism to embrace all. On the other hand denominationalism discounts baptism in that the denomination exists for those who believe in its “platform.” Anglicanism’s platform hitherto has been those inherited and vital doctrines and practices of the Church to which the Lambeth Quadrilateral points rather than to the agendas, however virtuous, of selected leaders and embraced opinions however widely accepted at a moment in time.

I do not doubt the integrity of those who advance the notion that TEC has a uniquely democratic polity unlike any other Anglican model. I lament their naiveté. Authority has many expressions and its form is in some manner or other affected by the personalities, corporate or individual, who exercise whatever authority presents itself. On paper, TEC may well be a shining example of 18th. Century pre-Constitutional oligarchy. In practice it has become a shining example of the intolerance of institutional majoritarianism. By skillful use of the power afforded by such a model, despite an alternative historical precedence, much good has been achieved with more speed or dispatch than would have been possible under a truly comprehensive polity. Yet the price has been high and continues to be higher. The dreadful thought remains that in the present climate of politics in America, if our long-standing minority in TEC were to assume power, the story wouldn’t be much different. Given the obvious reality that traditionalists are inherently schismatic, the thought is daft. They couldn’t unite to use the power available if they tried!

The really disturbing element in all this is that our polity is defended not by recourse to ecclesiology and the doctrines, beliefs and practices stemming therefrom, with reference to our history and traditions, but with reference solely to secular political models. I mentioned earlier that episcopacy has put on the guise of available secular models of authority. Yet this obvious reference has not always been salutary. Anglicanism, as +Michael Ramsey reminds us, is designed to be in perpetual reformation. By this he meant that our beliefs and practices are to be tested always by the Scriptures, by the Tradition which informs us how Christians interpret the Scriptures and by our use of sanctified “on our knees” Reason. I challenge our leaders to set about this task in open discussion, debate and prayerful reflection among us before we reject out of hand anything other than that which we deduce by our own synodical legislation. Perhaps I was right when I wrote the essay entitled the “General Convention Church” which you can still read on “Anglicans Online.”

5 Responses

  1. Amen, although I get the impression that the bishops, especially the PB, tend to do a better job of focusing on unity than the laity and the other clergy.

    Jon

  2. Thank you Tony. As I am an outsider and on the blunt end of the “intolerance of institutional majoritarianism” I have tried to enter into conversation. Tragically I have found that this is impossible.

    My reasons are basic.

    We use the same words but with uterly different meanings – such as reconciliation.
    Since I understand our source of authority to be the Holy Scriptures as supported by holy tradition and sanctified reason it is impossible to have conversation with those for whom the Holy Scriptures are merely historical documents.
    The totalitarian bullies who wear pointy hats coupled with the intolerance for dissent has led to actions that have been criminal in their disregard for the integrity of clergy ordination vows to serve God. How then can there be any trust? It is gone and unlikely ever to be recovered in my lifetime.
    The theological ignorance of so many in leadership is stunning and tragic. Having been educated and trained in the C of E, I am utterly dismayed by this ignorance. I suppose this is why they must appeal (falsely) to polity as there is no theological understanding.
    The ignorance of the rest of the Communion and the its concerns is only matched by the arrogance of our leadership as it refers to those in the Global south as uneducated and fifty years in the past.

    I am beginning to rant. Suffice it to say that I have given up. I now await hopefully/hopelessly some real Anglican structure for the US that is not an alphabet of Anglican acronyms to whom I can commit the future of my flock ere I depart.

    Blessings on your healing and ministry – Ian Montgomery+

  3. “it is impossible to have conversation with those for whom the Holy Scriptures are merely historical documents.”

    In response to this bit may I suggest that there are two points that are worth keeping in mind here? First, there are probably a great many people who are liberal on the question of homosexuality who firmly believe that Holy Scripture is God’s Word written. Second, all the books in the bible were written in specific times and places and it is profoundly hazardous to the pursuit of truth to treat them as ahistorical texts that could have been proclaimed from on high at any time in the history of the world.

    Jon

  4. “Totalitarian”? “Bullies”? “Disregard for integrity”?

    If you’re an outsider, how can you even know any of this? How can you use such language? I wouldn’t rant this way about the CofE and how it does things; it’s not my place to do so.

    Thanks to Jon for pointing out a couple of my objections as well. Many times it seems that laypeople have it much more together than clergy do.

  5. BLS seems to desire anonymity. I do not and have served in the USA since 1973. I stand by my comments on teh behavior of the bully bishops in ECUSA

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