The season before the Lambeth Conference is now consigned to the “dead” past in many of our memories. Many TEC pundits on the “left” were then insisting that TEC was a unique Province in the Anglican Communion. They contrasted the alleged “prelacy” of overseas Primates and lauded, in contrast with “other” Provinces the essential democracy of the American system. Much of the rhetoric was based on scant information of the sort that suggests that the Queen (of the UK) rules rather than reigns. The very title “Archbishop” raised the hackles of good republicans.
Yesterday some Communion Partner bishops signed a statement which argued that TEC is indeed one of a kind, a confederation of sovereign dioceses which compact to live in unity, but retain essentially sovereignty. Much of the argument was based on examining the Constitution of TEC in the light of the history of its adoption and the opinions of some of the people who were involved in its framing. One is reminded of the squabbles between political Conservatives who insist that the American Constitution must be interpreted in the light of the intent of its framers, and those who believe it must be construed in the light of development and present circumstances. One might deduce that those who have signed the Bishop’s statement on TEC Polity are “strict constructionists.”
As in all such arguments what is afoot at the moment in the Elephant in the room. God help the furniture. Certainly an historic examination of why TEC is as it is: certainly a uniquely structured body among Anglican churches and a church with international pretensions. In that matter no other Anglican Province has its foot in territories apart from itself although the Archbishop of Canterbury (not the CofE) has jurisdiction beyond the boundaries of England. There is something of an irony that TEC claims jurisdiction abroad but objects to the Southern Cone Province in South America now claims jurisdiction in the USA!
The Elephant in the room is named “Identity”. It represents the worry on the part of those Episcopalians who are now on the “far right” of that the church to which they belong may disassociate itself from the wider Anglican Communion or be “disassociated”. These Episcopalians – and I am one of them – reject the idea that TEC is a discreet “denomination” which at present belongs to a fellowship which is worldwide, but from which they draw no essential authenticity and to which they owe no essential reference.
A second distress is present in all this. The way the polity of TEC actually works at the moment, is a “winner take all” system. It resembles nation states in which one party has such a majority in its governing councils that the opposition is impotent. The elected majority is so formidable that it has become an elected dictatorship and in such a position of power experiences no checks and balances to its power. An example is that mirrored in the present South African elections in which the concern is that the ruling party will receive a sufficient majority to make an opposition virtually powerless and in which the majority party may amend the national Constitution at will.
A third concern has been brought to the fore by the attempts of TEC dioceses to depart and the subsequent intervention of the Presiding Bishop in a manner which does not seem to conform to the actual authority granted to our Primate by the Constitution. While the office of the Presiding Bishop has not articulated “legally” a justification of actions taken, the general argument seems to be that TEC is threatened and therefore the executive must be granted extra constitutional authority to deal with “terrorism”. Herein is another irony. Episcopalians who tend to vote Democrat in national elections and who wish to bring to account those who are deemed to have gone beyond the legal authority of government in the Bush administration are supporting the extra-legal actions of the PB and General Convention while those who may well have lauded the Republican government’s allegedly extra-legal actions after 9/11 attack the actions of the TEC government for its extra Canonical activities. It is a rum old world.
An aside here. When TEC was founded it was largely influenced by the American Revolution. Its founders for me most part were utterly against autocracy, monarchy and what they termed prelacy. This Brit will not attempt to describe what was meant by those first two terms, well at least not today, but it is obvious they were not reacting to monarchy and the parliamentary system as it now obtains in Great Britain. But what did they mean by prelacy then? In 1789, to pick a date, the constitutional government of the English church was supressed. The ancient Convocations of bishops and clergy had not met for decades. Bishops and archbishops were appointed by the crown upon the advice of its ministers and were more often than not so appointed because they were safe agents of the government. The Church of England was largely a department of state responsible, ineffectively, for the moral improvement of the population. While Evangelicanism was slowly reviving the English church it had yet no bishops and no influence.
Many “original” Episcopalians were suggesting that just as they had managed without bishops since 1607, they might continue so to do. Yet ironically in the North-eastern states a constituency existed, led by Bishop Seabury who were soaked in Patristic and “High Church” theology who believed “no bishop: no Church.” The English Church couldn’t get its mind around the idea of a bishop who was not appointed by the Crown. Remarkably they were also concerned that the infant PECUSA would be a church weak in Credal orthodoxy with an inadequate liturgy; the draft BCP of the emerging American church was appealing to those who sat lightly on the miraculous, whose God was remote, and whose duty was moral improvement rather than salvation. I find that odd in that so many English Anglicans were similarly “latitudinarian” and yet worried about the orthodxy of American Anglicans. (All the issues about whether the bishop-elect of Northern Michigan is orthodox is very late 18th. Century: there is nothing new under the sun.)
I think its perhaps true that the significance on the American Constitution in advancing the power of the central government over the States was not settled by the Constitution, but by the Civil War and by decisions which have been made during the past fifty years. A concept evolved.
My main quarrel with the Bishop’s Statement is not that it is defective in its assessment of what was envisioned when PECUSA was established but rather its silence about what has evolved subsequently. Like it or not, the powers of the diocese in the matter of church property and the election of rectors has evolved, most particularly in the past 35 years. In part it is framed in the Dennis Canon which seems to claim ownership of church property by the diocese rather than the parish and by the national church over the diocese. It is also suggested by the creation of local diocesan laws which have largely taken away the rights of parishes to call rectors. A miriad of diocesan regulations have emerged, ironically on the grounds that dioceses have the right to establish methods of rectorial election, unsupported by national Canons. In short both the National Church and the dioceses, and diocesan bishops now claim authority far from that claimed by the founders of PECUSA. In some areas this has established laws far beyond those our founders granted to the National Church, and dioceses have established regulations which have limited parochial rights as established by the Canons. In short both the National Church and the Diocese assume to theirselves authority far beyond the intentions of the founders or the text of the Constitution and Canons.
Our founders were persons who believed that rational people could compact a union which permitted each level of organization to function at that level with little coercion. People of good will might be trusted to act as rational human beings. It was perhaps a Utopian ideal but one which inspired the creators of the United States. Subsequently a more cynical/practical view emerged, reacting to what was perceived to be abuse of power at differing levels. Thus, at least to my mind, it is not sufficient to evaluate TEC solely in the light of “original intent.” Yet I would suggest that a contemporary evaluation cannot lose sight of original intent and in this context the statement of the Communion Partners Bishops is a valuable recall to that intent.
To my mind, the present solutions to the anger of a perpetual and virtually impotent minority in TEC has been thoroughtly and practically eronious. It has attempted to enforce conformity to majoritorian rule by coercion and has created the dictatorship of the majority and overthrown the essentially Christian -non-legalistic – notion which inspired our ancestors to create a church which was closer to the model of the Early Church and unlike the Ersatian model presented by the Church of England as it was then seemed to be.
I would be more inspired by the Idaba model proposed as the pattern for our next Geneal Convention if those of us struggling to be loyal to TEC, yearning to remain part of the Anglican Communion in the fullness of its Compehension, liberal, moderate and traditional were given a voice and potentially an influence based not on electoral tallies, but on our place as a legitimate and equally historical presence in the Anglican spectrum and tradition. We represent nothing new. We represent an authentic presence within Anglicanism, both here and abroad. We are loyal to the formularies of our church, to the Scriptures, Creeds, General Councils and to the clear words enshrined in our Liturgy and the Catechism. Such a claim is a fomidable appeal to respect and incorporation rather than to perpetual and disenfranchised minorititarianism and an eccentric perceived identity.
Yes, we are a nuisance. But we claim the right not merely to be a scantly tolerated personality rather like a rather daft relation asked to Thanksgiving dinner. Yes some of us are an embarrassment and some of us seem to want to create an alternative “meal”, but most of us are not self-seekers, or destroyers. We claim no individualistic “prophecy” to alter or overthrow the church we love.
When trust dissolves no law may succeed. Only a willingness to walk in each other’s shoes and to examine objectively why we believe what we believe and why we really believe that we are authentic Episcopalians simply because we may accept the words enshrined in the proposed Covenant in their intentional meaning. Like our founders we agree to the Scriptural, Credal, Conciliar, Patristic foundations of Anglicanism without crossing our fingers. And this no longer is about TEC’s majoritarian views about sexual unions and expression. That issue is merely one symptom among many. How that issue is to be resolved is yet to be revealed. What is at stake is the crucial issue centered in what it means to faithful to the doctrine, discipline and worship of the Church as the Anglican fellowship of churches has received it and to which we have pledged our fidelity as baptised Christians and for some of us by our ordination vows.
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