Ordination Vows: Do Bishops Pledge to Conform to Unconstitutional Canons?

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Tuesday, September 28th, 2010

It has become commonplace for those supporting the current majority in The Episcopal Church to claim that a bishop’s ordination vow, particularly what is called the “Declaration of Conformity,” is a vow to accept the majority’s interpretation of TEC’s polity that would grant unfettered supremacy to General Convention’s actions. For example, Fr. Mark Harris made this argument when criticizing proposed resolutions in the diocese of South Carolina:

Now, lets see: The Constitution of The Episcopal Church says this: I do believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation; and I do solemnly engage to conform to the Doctrine, Discipline, and Worship of the Episcopal Church.” (Article VIII of TEC Constitution)

Perhaps Bishop Lawrence doesn’t get it. “Doctrine, Discipline, and Worship” includes the Constitution and Canons.  This so called “oath of conformity” is paralleled by the one required of a new diocese. “After consent of the General Convention, when a certified copy of the duly adopted Constitution of the new Diocese, including an unqualified accession to the Constitution and Canons of this Church, shall have been filed with the Secretary of the General Convention,” the new diocese is admitted into union with the General Convention.

Get it?  The conformity, by the Constitution of TEC, which Bishop Lawrence claims to uphold, is to the Constitution and Canons of TEC, not the Constitution alone. The authority for this is the Constitution of TEC.

Perhaps if we do not “get it” it is because Harris himself gets it half right and half wrong in his argument, which one can see at a glance is a complete non sequitur as worded.

The part Harris gets right is that the “discipline” of TEC to which bishops vow to conform in ordination includes matters covered by TEC’s Constitution, which says in its Preamble that it “sets forth the basic articles for the government of this Church.” The part Harris gets completely wrong is the suggestion that one article in that Constitution, the one specifying procedures for the “admission” (not “creation”) of dioceses (already constituted) and requiring the newly admitted diocese to accede at the time of joining to both the Constitution and canons of General Convention, exhausts the “basic articles” of governance of TEC and supersedes other constitutional provisions.

To begin, the accession provision Harris cites would apply on its face only to a bishop of a diocese seeking to join TEC by being admitted under the terms of that provision. There is nothing in that provision (or elsewhere) even suggesting that existing member dioceses must adopt such an accession or refrain from modifying one already adopted. This is not a tendentious, legalistic reading; several dioceses, including the diocese of Washington, do not have accession clauses at all and others accede only to the Constitution, not to the canons. And still others assert the right not to follow canons of their choosing, such as the canon limiting Holy Communion to those who are baptized. Moreover, if the accession given by new dioceses dictated the scope of the bishop’s vows, the act of the special General Convention in 1969 that “acceded and subscribed” to the constitution of the Anglican Consultative Council would extend the meaning of the vows to include the acts of the ACC. Plainly, one cannot read such an isolated provision out of context.

More fundamentally, however, the “discipline” of TEC, including the “basic articles” of governance set forth in the Constitution, is much broader than procedures for admitting new dioceses. Most fundamental of all is TEC’s legal structure as a voluntary association of dioceses that maintain their own governing structures. This legal structure determines the respective rights of member dioceses and central bodies and offices, both as a matter of TEC’s Constitution and as a consequence of the civil and United States constitutional law governing associations. Even if the article Harris cites were applicable to existing dioceses, that accession provision would have to be interpreted in the context of the basic governance required by TEC’s Constitution as a whole together with the civil law requirements governing associations.

I have addressed on other occasions the civil law aspects of TEC’s legal structure and will not repeat that now. Suffice it to say, Harris’s simplistic reading of one article of TEC’s Constitution ignores the legal context in which associations operate in this country. By relying solely on one clause in the Constitution (taken out of context) to support his contention that all bishops vow to conform to all general canons, whether constitutional or not, Harris (with others) implicitly concedes that there is no other support for such an interpretation of the ordination vows. And on this point, a careful examination of those vows is most instructive. Do the vows themselves contain any pledge to obey all canons of General Convention irrespective of diocesan rights or to submit to a central body or office?

On this question, the place to start is to note that the vow to conform to the doctrine, discipline and worship of TEC does not pledge or even evidence any recognition of the “supremacy” of General Convention or the priority of its canons over diocesan canons. That body is not mentioned at all in the vows. Thus, the argument that the declaration of conformity is submission to all canons of General Convention is merely question begging: it assumes what must be proved. If General Convention is indeed the body that has supremacy in the matter of doctrine, discipline and worship, that fact would not derive from this oath but from a stipulation of that supremacy elsewhere. If on the other hand, the doctrine, discipline and worship of TEC are also determined by Scripture, tradition, the bishops as “guardians of the faith,” ecclesiastical common law or diocesan bodies, this oath promises conformity to the doctrine, discipline and worship as established by those sources. Whatever one’s position on this question, the vows themselves do not provide an explicit answer. And making the assumption that they do is not an argument.

But the wider context of the ordination vows does suggest an answer that is not at all what Harris presupposes. In particular, it is helpful both to compare TEC’s vows with those of churches that clearly require submission to defined central hierarchies, and then to look more broadly at TEC’s ordination rites.

First, consider the vows taken by bishops in other episcopally led churches. For example, when TEC was organized in 1789, the Church of England required (and still requires today) oaths from its bishops recognizing the supremacy of the monarch as “supreme governor” of the church and of “due obedience” to the archbishop and province in which the bishop will serve. These oaths are models of hierarchical oaths. For example, before a prospective bishop can be installed in his see, he must pay personal homage to the monarch, kneeling before the Queen, in these words:

I A.B. having been elected, confirmed and consecrated Bishop of C. do hereby declare that Your Majesty is the only supreme governor of this your realm in spiritual and ecclesiastical things as well as in temporal and that no foreign prelate or potentate has any jurisdiction within this realm and I acknowledge that I hold the said bishopric as well the spiritualities as the temporalities thereof only of Your Majesty and for the same temporalities I do my homage presently to Your Majesty so help me God. God save Queen Elizabeth.

And the oath of due obedience is as follows:

In the Name of God, Amen. I, N., chosen Bishop of the Church and See of N. do profess and promise all due reverence and obedience to the Archbishop and to the Metropolitical Church of N. and to their Successors : So help me God, through Jesus Christ.

Following the American Revolution, the primary imperative driving the Anglican churches in America to break formally with the Church of England was these oaths. They are the paradigm of legal language recognizing and submitting to a hierarchical body: allegiance is pledged to the British monarch as the “only supreme governor” of the church, and obedience is pledged not only to an archbishop, but also to a “metropolitical church.” American clergy were both unwilling and unable to give these oaths. One of the main tasks of the early general conventions was to obtain the agreement of the Church of England bishops to consecrate American bishops without this oath. Between October 1785 and October 1786, no fewer than six letters were exchanged between the General Convention and the English bishops on this topic. The agreement reached was that these oaths would be replaced for American bishops by the following recital, “I do solemnly engage to conform to the doctrine and worship of the Protestant Episcopal Church….” Submission to a hierarchy, the monarch, the archbishop and the metropolitical church, was explicitly replaced not by submission to a different hierarchy, General Convention, but by a pledge of doctrinal conformity. On this basis, after much negotiation as to what that doctrine really was, the British Parliament passed an act expressly exempting “for the time being” American bishops from the Oaths of Supremacy and Due Obedience.

If Harris (and others) are correct that the ordination vows constitute a recognition of and submission to General Convention’s authority, it would have been a very simple thing to modify these vows from the Church of England only slightly and require the ordinand to recognize General Convention as the supreme governor of the church and promise “due obedience” to the “metropolitical church of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States.” But they did not do that, and it is obvious that this omission was intentional given the precedent from which they were explicitly deviating.

Indeed, the original model for the TEC vows was that in the pre-existing canons of the state church in Virginia, which prior to the first meeting of any “general convention” already had a canon requiring the following:

Every person hereafter to officiate in this church as a bishop…shall take the oath of allegiance to the commonwealth, and subscribe to conform to the doctrine, discipline and worship of the Protestant Episcopal Church of Virginia.

When TEC adapted this vow for general use it would have been a simple matter to require “allegiance” to a central governing body if the founders had intended to do so.

The episcopal vows in other churches also reflect clearly both the hierarchical nature of the church and the identity of the hierarchical body or office to which the ordinand submits. For example, Serbian Orthodox bishops swear an “Episcopal-Hierarchical Oath” that they will “always be obedient to the Most Holy Assembly,” the very body identified in that church’s constitution as “the highest hierarchical body.” Similarly, Roman Catholic bishops are required to answer in the affirmative the following questions:

Are you resolved to build up the Church as the body of Christ and to remain united to it
within the order of bishops under the authority of the successor of the apostle Peter?

Are you resolved to be faithful in your obedience to the successor of the apostle Peter?

Second, in addition to comparing TEC’s vows to those in other churches, it is also instructive to look at TEC’s ordination rites as a whole. One can see at a glance that TEC’s vows are the exact opposite of these hierarchical oaths in other churches. In the Examination of the TEC episcopal candidate there is no mention of General Convention, the Presiding Bishop or the Executive Council.  The Presiding Bishop is mentioned in the rubrics only as presider, but this role can be and is assigned to another bishop. Indeed, the TEC candidate is presented for consecration as “bishop in the one, holy catholic, and apostolic Church” and later as “bishop of the Church of God to serve in the Diocese of N.” The Examination of the candidate begins by emphasizing that “with your fellow bishops you will share in the leadership of the Church throughout the world.”  There is no mention of General Convention; instead the emphasis is on “fellow bishops” and “the Church throughout the world.”  There is no vow of obedience to a metropolitical church or the Presiding Bishop as there is to the Archbishops or Pope or Holy Assembly in the oaths of the other churches.

So, what is the discipline or polity to which the bishops vow to conform? The Examination points to it: to share with “fellow bishops” in the government of the “Church throughout the world,” the “Church of God,” the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church”.  These vows thus suggest a truly episcopal church, not one in which a provincial convention is the supreme or metropolitical authority. Indeed, it would be surprising if the General Convention were to be the highest authority when the episcopal ordination vows do not mention General Convention at all.

As a final comparison, the TEC ordination rite for priests is instructive because it does contain a promise of obedience. The candidate is presented to the bishop, who is identified as “Bishop in the Church of God.” The candidate then gives the oath of conformity, but there is this significant addition:

Will you in accordance with the canons of this Church obey your bishop and other ministers who may have authority over you?

Later in the Examination, the candidate is asked:

Will you respect and be guided by the pastoral direction and leadership of your bishop?

Two things are striking about these vows. First, there is no reference to General Convention or any central body. Obedience is pledged to the bishop. Second, the inclusion of a vow of obedience in the rite for the ordination of priests only confirms further the intentional omission of any such vow in the ordination of bishops. Priests make the same declaration of conformity as do bishops, but added to this is a promise of obedience to a hierarchical authority. And that authority is the bishop.

To conclude, it is erroneous to suggest any violation of the ordination vows in the context of the diocese of South Carolina’s proposed resolutions. When these vows are properly understood, it is apparent that bishops have not only the right but the duty to protect the constitutional integrity of TEC and oppose unconstitutional acts by General Convention.

September 28 2010 04:37 pm | Articles