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SOVEREIGN DIOCESES

Traditionalists are advancing the concept of “sovereign” dioceses in attempts to justify schism at the worst, or a modern collective version of passive obedience at best. It seems to me that what is being proposed is defended on grounds of history and law, but raise questions relating to practice.  “Practice” is a very important factor in Anglicanism. By “practice” one means how things are managed or done. If one considers the sentence “In theory this is the case, but in practice..” one gets the point.

In writing this essay I in no way intend to suggest that traditionalists haven’t been pressed beyond the limit, their principles derided, their historic place in the church ignored, and their safety placed in peril. TEC isn’t a safe place for traditionalists.

Yet a solution to these problems which involves stretching theory to its ultimate absurdity is no answer at all.  When overseas Anglican churches began to emerge the only pattern available was that of a “national church”, the form and shape of English Anglicanism. Now one may reject some of the arguments advanced by the Anglican reformers to justify a national church’s sovereignty (under the Crown) and be amused by invocations of Old King Coel and Gog and Magog, legendary creators of an English “Empire” and thus, like Rome and the East entitled to an Imperial Province. However that theory prevailed in England and Ireland, with the quaint arrangement of two geographical provinces in one nation forming the national church.

It was natural that in the creation of both the US, the concept of nation and “national” church would prevail, of sovereign states ceding sovereignty to a nation state and “sovereign” colonial churches to PECUSA ( a sovereignty exercised in but a brief period as jurisdiction transferred from Canterbury and London and from the ex-colonial church to a national church.)

Now it is true that the measure of such a transfer was only sorted out at the end of the Civil War for the nation and was limited in both theory and practice in the polity adopted by PECUSA.The USA advanced from confederation to federation to union, while PECUSA patterned it’s defuse authority on that of confederation.Obviously I do not mean the term as defined by the South in the Civil War. Thus PECUSA adapted the ideal of a national church, of which it had formed a part in colonial days, and created a polity which assigned to various “bodies” authority and jurisdiction. These bodies originally were the diocese and its  bishop and balancing standing committee, the General Convention and in a very limited manner the office of Presiding Bishop.  Over the years a number of auxiliary bodies emerged, such as the executive council, the board of Examining chaplains and the transformation of the office of the Presiding Bishop into an elective executive office but one lacking episcopal jurisdiction, except in Europe and a few islands in the pacific!

It is important to note that at least in theory these different “centers of authority” did not create a hierarchy, but simply located specific authority in different “places”, exercising what we term diffused authority based on the obvious competency of a specific agency to exercise that authority. In this PECUSA was unique in Anglicanism. For over a century it had no primate, merely the senior bishop, of advanced age, who tottered to his chair in the House of Bishops and kept order, and laid hands on new bishops. General Convention spend most of its time on missionary work at home and abroad, on funding the DFMS and in doing those collective things which dioceses could not do themselves.  In theory, except for beefing up the executive authority of the PB over staff and of the executive council in making sure that decisions of General Convention are carried out, nothing has changed, at least in theory.

If TEC is a hierarchical church it is one in which hierarchy is diffuse and not in ascending order of authority. It has never either “practiced”  diocesan or national “sovereignty” but rather depended on a not entirely tidy or logical compact which relied on each center of authority not to “muscle” in on the competence of another.

Where the place of US history as a reference may now be placed is in the Civil Wat period, during which the power of the federal government and the presidency was advanced, often without legal precedents in the face of states claiming an original sovereignty as supreme and thus the right and power to secede. Neither the developments of the central government nor the intention of the seceding states were based on original intent or legal competency. Rather in the heat of conflict both claimed a necessary authority and in the end the victor won not only the spoils but union trumped states rights for ever.

We are in the midst of a struggle in which both sides reach for a necessary authority which advances the claim of one center of authority over all others. The practice of polity gives way to theories justifying such a necessary authority and coercion replaces compact.  Nor may the claims of necessary authority advanced by left and right be considered merely in the context of the present controversy. The victory of either theory would undo the polity of TEC. It is high time that our bishops, clerical and lay leaders take a clear and objective look at what is occurring and take steps to restore TEC’s polity and practice.

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