Statement in Response to Father Mark Harris

Written by:
Thursday, April 23rd, 2009

Fr. Mark Harris has published today a further article on his blog, “Preludium,” concerning the “Bishops’ Statement on the Polity of The Episcopal Church,” published yesterday by the Anglican Communion Institute, Inc.  Fr. Harris is a member of the Executive Council of The Episcopal Church.

Fr. Harris had previously disclosed on his blog obviously confidential communications, including material protected by the attorney-client privilege, concerning the Bishops’ Statement.  Today, in addition to defending his publication of the privileged communications, Fr. Harris also criticizes the Bishops’ Statement itself, in part by criticizing my own prior work on this topic.

Since Fr. Harris has discussed my paper, “Is The Episcopal Church Hierarchical?” on several occasions before today, he is aware that my answer to the question posed in the title of this paper is “yes,” but that TEC has a dispersed rather than a central hierarchy.  The hierarchy is dispersed among the many dioceses that are TEC’s constituent members.  This is revealed in the first paragraph of the paper and summarized in the introduction for those who do not wish to read the entire 89-page document.  Indeed, Fr. Harris’s own reaction on reading the paper last September was as follows: “I still have the sense that in the narrow sense from which he is working he may be right, and indeed I agree we are not a very hierarchical church.” (Posted by Fr. Harris in a comment on his blog on September 11, 2008 in reply to Prof. Christopher Seitz.)

Fr. Harris has raised again today a point he has made before on his blog by noting the reference in Title IV (the disciplinary canons) to TEC as a “hierarchical Church.”  I would direct Fr. Harris’s attention to three facts.  First, this language occurs only in a canon labeled “General Provisions Applicable to This Title.”  “This Title,” Title IV, is of course the disciplinary title that pertains primarily to diocesan, provincial and ad hoc processes, not General Convention.  The fact that this characterization occurs only in this place and is expressly applicable to that one title serves to highlight, and indeed emphasize, the fact that this characterization is not used elsewhere. In particular, it is not used in TEC’s Constitution and is not used to distinguish General Convention from TEC’s constituent dioceses.  The fact that this language occurs here and nowhere else is legally significant.  Second, no canon could amend the “basic” governance stipulated in the Constitution itself, which makes the Bishop and Standing Committee “the Ecclesiastical Authority” in the diocese and grants no hierarchical priority to General Convention.  Third, this canon describes well the dispersed hierarchy among dioceses that I argue for in my paper.

Fr. Harris has also referred once again to Dr. Joan Gundersen’s critique of my paper.  As he certainly knows, there are a number of serious errors in Dr. Gundersen’s piece, including misunderstandings of basic legal terminology.  She also had quite obviously not read my paper carefully before commenting on it.  ACI pointed out these errors immediately upon the publication of Dr. Gundersen’s paper, including in comments on Fr. Harris’s own blog by Dr. Ephraim Radner the morning her paper was released.

Surely fairness would require a link to my response to Dr. Gundersen published by ACI on September 19, 2008, the day after her critique was published and immediately publicized by Fr. Harris.

I am sure Fr. Harris is well aware that the articulation of TEC’s polity in the Bishops’ Statement is hardly novel, but has long been the standard understanding of our governance.  See, for example, the widely-used series on “The Church’s Teaching” by Dr. Powel Dawley of GTS, the work by Dr. Daniel Stevick of EDS on Canon Law and the article by Dr. Robert Prichard of VTS, one of TEC’s leading historians, in the current issue of “Anglican and Episcopal History,” who reviews this history and my paper and concludes that my work is “cogent and based on good historical argument.”

Finally and most importantly, none of this should deflect attention from the Bishops’ Statement itself.  It is what it is says it is: a statement by fifteen bishops of this Church, including a candidate for Presiding Bishop in 1985 (Bishop Frey), a candidate for Presiding Bishop in 1997 and one of the three Senior Bishops of the Church who exercise canonical responsibilities under Title IV (Bishop Wimberly) and the immediate past president of the Presiding Bishop’s Council of Advice (Bishop MacPherson).  I urge Fr. Harris and others to focus on this Statement by fifteen distinguished Bishops rather than discuss obviously confidential emails that should never have been made public in the first place.

April 23, 2009

April 23 2009 05:46 pm | Articles