The founders of what is now known as The Episcopal Church were very suspicious of centralized power. Except for those who followed Samuel Seabury’s High Church views, and they were in a minority, this suspicion extended to their views on bishops and their necessity. These new Americans believed that the English episcopate was primarily an agency and tool of an oppressive, hierarchical government, “Lord Bishops”, who supported the Crown and the current administration from the benches of the House of Lords. These bishops were led by archbishops who exercised “metropolitical” authority. The newly founded Episcopal Church replaced archbishops with presiding bishops, modeled on the office of Primus, in the Scottish Episcopal Church. The primus of that church served as first among equals, as chair of the college of bishops, with few other duties and no other power. The American Presiding Bishop retained only two of the powers exercised by Metropolitan archbishops, the right to take order for the consecration of bishops and preside that their ordinations, and the right to make visitations to the several dioceses in the national church. The power of diocesan bishops was limited by the establishment of statutory Standing Committees, made up of elected clergy and laity, who shared administrative authority with the bishop.

A word about the term Metropolitan. While all metropolitans are archbishops, not all archbishops are metropolitans. Clear? The Early Church grew up in the Roman Empire and adopted some of its structures. Among those structures were Provinces, a grouping of adjacent dioceses, presided over by a bishop styled a Metropolitan because he usually lived n a major city. Over time these officials, personally dubbed archbishops, accrued to themselves a set of duties and job descriptions. They were first among equals among the bishops, due honor and respect, and in certain matters, the obedience of the provincial bishops. They took order for (arranged) the consecration of bishops and usually presided at their ordination services. They had the right to make visitation to the dioceses in the Province, and they presided over the trial of accused bishops and heard appeals against judgements made against bishops and other clergy.

The Episcopal Church, at its founding, decided not to possess its chief Pastor with metropolitical titles and stripped away most of the duties hitherto exercised by a Metropolitan. Our diocesan bishops do not take oaths of obedience to the Presiding Bishop, nor does the Presiding Bishop exercise personal juridical authority. Oddly, our Primate and Chief Shepherd has no jurisdiction at all, as he or she has no diocese. He or she is technically a “wandering bishop.”

I gather that it was suggested to the House of Bishops, as they meet now in Nashville, that metropolitical authority in the Episcopal Church is vested in General Convention. Note there is no mention of such a role for General Convention in the Constitution and Canons. Obviously a corporate body such as a provincial/national synod cannot exercise the duties assigned to a Metropolitan. It can’t take order for the consecration of bishops, let alone consecrate them. It can’t visit dioceses. Our bishops do not swear obedience to the General Convention. The General Convention doesn’t conduct trials as a body, nor does it hear appeals. So what is meant by the claim that for us, General Convention acts in the place of a Metropolitan? One supposes that what is being claimed is that General Convention exercises authority in a unique and final manner, a power which Episcopalians are required to respect and obey. I would suggest that even if this were true, it would be extremely unhealthy not to say unanglican. Anglicanism, even where metropolitical power is invested in chief bishops, and that is in most of the Communion, is a patchwork of diverse, though complimentary authorities, what is known as dispersed authority, each at its own level designed to enable that level of fellowship to function effectively, harmoniously, and in a spirit of charity, mutual respect and concord. One hopes that those members of the committee seeking to examine the structure of our church will take care that their suggestions are Anglican in letter and spirit, within the tradition long established in the Episcopal Church, which distrusts centralized unchecked power and exalts local initiative and freedom.

3 Responses

  1. That sounds very Methodist! Interesting that at the very time the Methodists are adopting Anglican trappings, and calling their ministers “presbyters” and their superintendents “bishops”, some Anglicans, at least, should be thinking of adopting the idea of the Methodist “conference”, the most authoritarian system of all, for it is a faceless authority.

  2. I thought the Presiding Bishop had jurisdiction in the diocese in Europe, and that Bishop Whalon was her suffragan. Is that wrong?

  3. You are correct.

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