By George Clifford
Restructuring the Episcopal Church’s governing process should prompt the Church to rethink the role of bishops and the HOB. Twelve years ago, then Presiding Bishop Ed Browning established an HOB Theology Committee. That committee originally studied an issue only when requested by the HOB to do so and operated with a limited budget and had only a few consultants, no staff. Each triennium, various bodies attempt to thrust an increasing number of issues onto the Theology Committee’s agenda; the Committee understandably and successfully parries some of those thrusts, blunts others, and accepts one or two. Among recent issues thrust in the Theology Committee’s direction are updating Just War Theory, rethinking evangelism in light of religious pluralism, and advising whether the non-baptized should receive Holy Communion.
Concurrently, I hear laments from Episcopalians concerned that their Church sometimes sounds more like a secular debating society or a civic organization fighting for justice and civil rights than the incarnate body of Christ. Bishops should reclaim their historic and biblical teaching function, a role identified in the Book of Common Prayer’s liturgy for consecrating a new bishop. This role, rightly conceived, is neither the Roman Catholic Church’s authoritative teaching magisterium nor the dictatorial powers held by bishops in some of the other provinces of the Anglican Communion. Instead, our bishops should grapple with substantive theological and ethical issues, outlining extant streams of Christian thought, and, if appropriate, suggesting the direction(s) in which the Church might move. Episcopal teaching would thus become a resource to inform and to shape our Anglican Christian thinking and formation without in any way dictating to an individual person, Diocese, or the Episcopal Church.
Emphasizing the episcopate’s teaching function might require the HOB to meet an additional week or two per year. The change would certainly require elevating the importance of the HOB Theology Committee by providing sufficient funding and priority for its work. The Committee’s work should prayerfully build upon the best Christian scholarship rather than popular opinion or prevalent thinking among Episcopalians, Anglicans, Christians, or the wider society. Funding should permit the Committee to work with consultants (biblical scholars, church historians, theologians, and ethicists) who are experts in the subject under consideration. Any Committee staff should perform only administrative or editorial duties, not substantive tasks. The entire process should be transparent, yet not influenced by survey data, petition, etc. Completed Theology Committee Reports should go to the HOB for debate and, if approved, to the Church and its Dioceses for use in Christian formation and decision-making.
Expanding the role of the HOB Theology Committee, all of whose members have and should continue to have, other ecclesiastical duties, will dramatically slow the process by which the Church takes theological and ethical positions. This will also severely limit the number of issues on the Church’s agenda at any one time. Doing so will have multiple advantages. First, this may actually enhance the Church’s influence. The Episcopal Church represents less than one percent of the population. Speaking on too many varied issues in this era of narrow specialization erodes the Church’s credibility. Second, the Church’s gift is its spiritual perspective. Yet recently, the Church has too often spoken in secular language rather than the theological and biblical language true to its identity. This process will reverse that tendency. Third, the change emphasizes that the Episcopal Church values both the moving of the Spirit (e.g., in the selection, gifting, and prayers of bishops) and the best of Christian scholarship. This process rejects rigid authoritarianism, congregationalism, or majority votes among all communicants to determine God's mind in favor of a via media consonant with our Anglican heritage that attempts to balance reason, tradition, and Scripture in light of the Spirit’s witness.
Marion Hatchett has characterized the Episcopal Church as the “flagship” Anglican Communion’s province. He, in a speech at GTS posted on the Episcopal Café and elsewhere, identified points at which the Episcopal Church has provided important leadership: giving voice to clergy and laity in governing the Church, incorporating hymnody in worship, drawing on insights from critical biblical studies, and ordaining women. Now we rightly lead the Communion in offering God's blessing on those entering into committed, same-sex marriages and unions as well as drawing upon the God-given gifts of GLBT persons for ministry. I suspect that our progress toward those goals might have alienated fewer people, cost less in time and energy, avoided some ongoing legal battles, and born better witness to the rest of the Anglican Communion and Christianity if we had a governance process better suited to our identity and more explicitly rooted in theology.
Changing the governance process and re-emphasizing the teaching role of our bishops are tasks not easily accomplished. Nor are those steps a panacea. Yet perhaps the time has come for the Episcopal Church to align its structure more fully with function so that God will account us good stewards of the resources and mysteries entrusted to us. However, the proposals for restructuring the Episcopal Church’s governance and emphasizing the House of Bishop’s teaching ministry offer a starting point for addressing the inherent dysfunctionality of General Convention’s current structure and the need for the Episcopal Church boldly to assert its identity as God's gathered in Christ's name to love God and our neighbor.
The Rev. Dr. George Clifford, Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years He taught philosophy at the U. S. Naval Academy and ethics at the Postgraduate School. He blogs at Ethical Musings.