What Then Shall We Do? A Note on the upcoming General Convention of the Episcopal Church

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Wednesday, April 29th, 2015

It is not with forms of government, as with other artificial contrivances; where an old engine may be rejected, if we can discover another more accurate and commodious, or where trials may safely be made, even though the success be doubtful. An established government has an infinite advantage, by that very circumstance of its being established […]To tamper, therefore, in this affair, or try experiments merely upon the credit of supposed argument and philosophy, can never be the part of a wise magistrate, who will bear a reverence to what carries the marks of age; and though he may attempt some improvements for the public good, yet will he adjust his innovations, as much as possible, to the ancient fabric, and preserve entire the chief pillars and supports of the constitution. (David Hume, “The Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth”)

There are times in the life of individuals, institutions and communities when they are faced with questions for which received wisdom has no ready answers. As loyal members and Priests of The Episcopal Church (TEC), we find ourselves in precisely this position. As our General Convention approaches, changes are afoot within TEC that either have or soon will alter the worship, common life, governance and identity of our church in ways that render all of them in fundamental ways unrecognizable as continuations of what went before. There are forms of change that constitute evolution and there are forms that result from revolution—the elimination of what went before and the establishment of a new thing. It is this latter form of change that appears to be in process, and we find ourselves without an obvious way to respond. Our purpose in the following is to indicate the nature of these revolutionary changes, the dubious means now being deployed to bring them about and the extraordinary challenges they present to Priests like ourselves who have argued over a significant span of time that neither departure for another church nor schism provide an adequate Christian response to the deformation of the church in which God has placed us. The changes of which we speak can be usefully summarized under three headings—Constitution, The Book of Common Prayer and Mission.

Constitution

The place to begin is with TEC’s constitution. It is here that the revolutionary character of the changes now in process becomes most obvious. No constitution is in itself a “supreme authority” for the simple reason that it is incapable of rendering particular and final judgments in the ordering of common life. Rather, constitutions provide authoritative boundaries within which members of a polity are to engage one another in ordering common life. A constitution, TEC’s included, functions to lead the members of a polity to make decisions in ways that order common life but leave no room for abuse of power, absolutism, arbitrary rule, whimsical change, or indifferent disregard of others. Because it establishes no office or legislative body that has governing authority throughout its various dioceses, TEC’s Constitution provides especially powerful protections against the abusive exercise of authority (Is The Episcopal Church Hierarchical). Obviously, The General Convention (GC) can change the Constitution.  Nevertheless, it is constitutionally difficult to do so, for just the reasons that make a constitution desirable. It is, however, astonishing and depressing that some are proposing that GC not only change the constitution, but do so precisely in a way that would centralize authority in the GC, the office of the PB and the Executive Council and in so doing make abuse of power, absolutism, arbitrary rule, whimsical change, and indifferent disregard of others easier and more likely.

GC has in fact already worked successfully in this direction. First, it has passed canonical changes in Title IV that concentrate disciplinary powers vis a vis clergy in the office of individual bishops, and disciplinary powers vis a vis bishops in the office of the Presiding Bishop (Title IV Revisions: Unmasked). Both of these moves have in fact significantly tilted procedural force in the direction of abuse of power, on a diocesan and on a national level. We have examples of this abuse already having happened in, for example, the treatment of Bp. Mark Lawrence, whose constitutionally incoherent conviction of “abandoning the church” of which he was still an active bishop in fact led to the departure of the Diocese of South Carolina from TEC; the mistreatment of the six bishops who, having sworn an oath to uphold the order of TEC, signed an Amicus Brief in Texas stating their understanding of the Constitution; and numerous individual priests, believing they were also so obliged, being subject to arbitrary accusations.

Second, GC has simply ignored the Constitution altogether by “authorizing” multiple liturgical forms that in fact it has no authority to promulgate. This is now even admitted by official TEC committees like the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music (SCLM). That commission has recognized the need to regularize past egregious flouting of the Constitution in this regard; although, as Seitz and McCall point out (The Episcopal Church and the New Episcopal Church), the SCLM’s solution is, rather than calling for renewed respect for the Constitution, to propose instead that GC weaken the Constitution in the direction of whimsical change and indifferent disregard. Hence, their proposal aims at removing the two-convention rule now in place for revising the BCP, and allowing for changes to our worship at a single sitting of the Convention. This proposal is surely a recipe for the BCP’s complete dissolution as the center of our common life and Christian formation.

Book of Common Prayer (BCP)

We confess Jesus Christ as our Lord, and we seek to follow him in humble faith, bound to our fellow Christians. But our confession and discipleship is ordered with them in the church. In matters of doctrine or authoritative teaching, among Anglicans throughout the world, supreme authority is accorded to Holy Scripture – the “rule and ultimate standard of faith”, as the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral puts it. That is, for Anglicans all doctrine must be in accord with the Scriptures. Further, in so far as doctrine is articulated for the church, Anglicans assign authority to the Book of Common Prayer (BCP). However, the BCP is not an active authority, one that makes decisions and executes them. It simply states and embodies the Church’s authoritative doctrine in the form of verbalized worship. The Constitution defers to the BCP in this regard, and the rubrics of the BCP reflect this ordering of authority. But the fact that the BCP is only a document, not a legislator or executive, means that its authority is apprehended through the stability of its verbal form. Unless the BCP is allowed to mean what it says, and to have what it says stand as the “saying” of the Church, it is a meaningless authority.

Nevertheless, despite the universally recognized theological authority of the BCP, it is now proposed that GC eviscerate that authority. The proposals before GC this summer do this in two ways. First, there is the proposal to adopt canons which say that what the BCP describes as marriage is not in fact authoritatively meaningful; such a canon, it is believed by the proposers, will permit same-sex marriages to be performed in our church. This proposal for a new canon that alters the BCP’s stated meaning, even without revising the BCP itself, derives from a desire to skirt the constitutional process required for prayer book revision itself. After all, at present, it takes two GC votes, of a certain form and majority, to change the BCP; and it seems that the proposers cannot wait this long or that they fear this constitutional process will stymie their aim Therefore, they propose a canon that asserts that the BCP, in the marriage service, does not mean what it plainly says but may mean other things, or may simply be ignored as to its meaning when it is used.

Second, there are proposals before GC to authorize, and in some cases by implication to demand acceptance and promulgation of, liturgical usages that are not only not BCP liturgies but in fact contradict the rubrics and meanings of the BCP (something forbidden by the Constitution itself). These proposals come down to demoting the BCP altogether as the doctrinal authority of the Church. In place of this authority, obviously, GC would put itself. This also is an opening for abuse of power, absolutism, arbitrary rule, whimsical change, and indifferent disregard of others from which TEC’s constitutional ordering has sought to protect the church.

Coupled with other proposals in the recent TREC report to reorganize TEC’s structures of governance by consolidating the powers of the Presiding Bishops (PB), dissolving the bicameral ordering of GC (thus subverting the long-standing supervisory role of the “historic episcopate” within our church) these moves seek to dismantle the decentralized character of TEC as a people gathered under Scripture through the common prayer of the Church and under the authority of their diocesan bishop who meets in synod with colleagues at home and abroad.

Mission

The Episcopal Church was founded through the sacrificial ministry of Church of England missionaries. The same sacrificial ministry has been behind all Anglican churches in the world, and missionary devotion and fervour now constitute the bloodstream of global Anglicanism. Historians of TEC have made much of the fact that the sole legal corporation of the national church today is in fact an organization called The Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society (DFMS) of the Protestant Episcopal Church. At a key point in the DFMS’s history, in the 19th century, all the members of GC were board members of DFMS, which acted as the single missionary society of the church, raising funds and supporting mission work in America and elsewhere. Other Anglicans in the world were impressed by this centrally organized work for mission, and noted the way that, at least symbolically, it made the “whole church” a missionary group.

Since then, of course, the DFMS has evolved into a legal place-holder for TEC, with its missionary origins and purposes basically lost in the business and bureaucracy of overseeing the large organization known as “815” – the Office of the Presiding Bishop, and various offices related to GC’s commissions and financial needs. The missionary center of TEC, once admired around the world, has simply disappeared.

TEC has been experiencing a period of unparalleled decline, in membership and material resources. Full-time clergy are no longer able to be supported in many congregations; the number of parishes able to train new clergy under supervision has drastically shrunk; seminaries are closing or are in disarray. Some of these elements are part of larger trends that have embraced numerous other Christian churches in N. America; some are peculiar to TEC. But they all add up to a failure to address the missionary vocation of the church more broadly. TEC has, without much success, struggled for several decades to train, support, and engage leaders, lay and ordained, who can pursue primary evangelism. The drastic disappearance of younger members from TEC churches is disturbing. Outreach to the large immigrant communities of the US has gone almost nowhere.

In the face of these negative trends, GC and its Executive, have focused their energies on policies and actions that have only exacerbated the decline. They have pressed forward with decisions that deeply alienated many of their own membership; they engaged in acrimonious litigation that has cost tens of millions of dollars from the “mission funds” of TEC; they have chosen to ignore numerous requests from world Anglicans, including many of their former mission partners, to forgo various moral and liturgical innovations that have been deemed problematic and divisive; they have fostered a spirit of hostility towards their own evangelical members and those of classical Christian commitments in the Communion, as well as towards other Christian churches of classic character; and, as a whole, they have done nothing to further the visible, Gospel-centered, and reconciled unity of their own flock.

Overall, these events and trends manifest an astonishing and ill considered response to the crumbling of TEC’s missionary center, history, and vocation. Episcopalians like ourselves must now wonder, and in a way that was never so acute, whether TEC will remain a historical Anglican church, of constitutional integrity, and capable of taking a responsible place within the Christian world’s missionary life. It was to such a church that we made our vows as priests; it is such a church we have sought to serve faithfully for a combined period of almost 100 years. It is such a church that we have represented in mission work in Africa and elsewhere.

In what way will our General Convention respond to subversion of our church’s governmental forms, common purposes and Gospel character? Viewing these events and trends in the full light of day we are bound to ask ourselves and others the question put to St. Peter by the crowd to which he preached. “Brothers, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37) Peter’s answer was “Repent”—turn around. Given the acrimony and bitterness that now characterizes TEC’s common life it would seem that a turning from our combative ways is certainly called for. As a church we certainly need a fresh start, but a fresh start must begin somewhere. Our analysis of the present treatment of our Constitution and Book of Common Prayer points to this place. Let us pull back and, in the processes of change, adhere to the boundaries the constitution has provided us so that change can come about decently and in order, rather than by slight of hand or the sheer exercise of power. We say this not as a ploy to prevent the blessing of gay unions or changes in the Book of Common Prayer of which we do not approve. We say it for our own common good and for that of future generations of Episcopalians. If, in order to get a result we may want, we disregard the order laid down for us in our constitution we may be certain that at some future date others will come along with a different agenda, and will follow the precedent of lawlessness we will have laid down.

In his play, A Man for all Seasons, Robert Bolt presents a scene between Thomas More and his son-in-law, William Roper. Roper says to More that he would cut through all the law of England to get to the Devil. More responds, “and after you have cut through all the laws and the Devil turns around and there is nothing between you and him, what then son Roper, what then?” Bolt’s point is germane. After we have cut through the restraints of the Constitution to gain an end, what then? Where is our protection from grotesque abuses of power and all their bitter fruits?

April 29 2015 12:55 pm | Articles