A hot, hefty plate of ecclesiological conversation

The House of Bishops Ecclesiology Committee, the existence of which came as a surprise to me, issued a report on how the church governs itself at the House of Bishops meeting in September. That document, entitled A Primer on the government of The Episcopal Church and its underlying theology has since been revised and was published on the day before Thanksgiving.

The document is only 11 pages, and the text on several of those pages is shortened by footnotes, so even if you didn't wake up this morning eager to dig into a hot, hefty plate of ecclesiology, it is worth a few bites. Late it the report, come two paragraphs that help elucidate the primary tension in church governance, at least as I have experienced it in ten years of watching from relatively close range:

Episcopalians have, since 1785, consistently assigned final authority and function in our church to the General Convention itself. In between Conventions, there is an elected Executive Council whose task is to carry out the policies and budget set by Convention. It is presided [sic] by the Presiding Bishop, elected by the House of Bishops and ratified by the House of Deputies. The vice-president of the Council is the President of the House of Deputies, elected by the Deputies. However, major decisions must await the judgment of the General Convention through the agreement of both Houses.

The Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church functions somewhat differently from most such “metropolitical” figures in the Anglican Communion. The Constitution and Canons of the General Convention define the roles and functions of the Presiding Bishop. The direct power and authority of the office are situated within the parameters set by the Convention. Nonetheless, as a peer of the archbishops in the Communion, the Presiding Bishop has carried since the 1982 Convention the title of “Primate” (as well as “Chief Pastor”). In a real sense, the title indicates a “first among equals” understanding of the office.

The nature of the authority vested in the Presiding Bishop and the Presiding Bishop's staff in relation to the authority vested in the General Convention, but especially in the Executive Council when the convention is not in session has been the source of most of the conflict in the church that I have witnessed or been involved in. It is my hope that the Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church can help to clarify the matter. It is also my hope that it does not do so by vesting more authority in what the language of the U. S. Constitution would refer to as the Executive Branch.

Though it was released at a time when the minds of most in the church were on Thanksgiving and the First Sunday of Advent, the report has come under some quick criticism on social media, primarily for asserting that clergy handle matters "spiritual" while laity deal with matters "temporal."

The Rev. Tom Ferguson, dean of Bexley Hall, part of Bexley Seabury Federation has done a close reading of the report on his blog The Crusty Old Dean. While he praises parts of the report, he too is troubled by the attempt to divide the church's labor into "spiritual" and "temporal" spheres:

Efforts to create ordained and lay shtetls, where clergy are defined by responsibility for doctrine, teaching, and sacraments, and lay persons for finances and property, is simply incomprehensible to Crusty. It flies in the face of our actual governance – where clergy and lay people have equal say at the General Convention in all decisions, whether spiritual or teomporal – and of our baptismal ecclesiology, where in baptism we all share in Christ’s eternal priesthood – and of our ordination rites, where the ministry of deacons, priests, and bishops is grounded in the ministry of the church as a whole.

Of all the elements in the Primer, this effort to argue that clergy should be primarily responsible for spiritual matters, and laity for temporal matters, is not only historically untenable, but an affront to our actual polity.

Comments (4)

When Bishop Mark Hollingsworth (OH) was the Archdeacon in Dio. Mass he had a bumper sticker which read "There is no secular world"

I am not nearly as learned as Crusty Old Dean, but I share his frustration with the segment of the report that attempts to delineate the roles of the ordained and the laity. The narrow definition of the role of laypersons is not only contrary to the actual governance of the Episcopal Church in practice, but it also does not conform to our catechism's rather broader view. I find the location of responsibility for worship with clergy exclusively particularly galling; what's the Daily Office for, anyway?

To be a little more specific, a few years ago I found myself as senior warden of a parish without a priest and with no financial means to responsibly call a new rector. We were fortunate to have several retired clergy in the parish, and eventually a part-time interim priest, to keep the sacraments going.

But in trying to motivate a demoralized congregation I repeatedly would point out that you really only need a priest to show up to do a fairly narrow set of things. In the worship and life of the Episcopal Church, laypeople can do *almost* everything. I was deliberately overstating things, of course, but I think it was an important message for our congregation, which had been described with some measure of accuracy by our bishop as excessively rector-centric, to hear. And looking at an extended period of rebuilding of leadership, budget, you name it (it was nearly 3 years between our previous rector's retirement and our current rector's arrival), it was that message, supported and reinforced by our interim, that enabled us to call a priest into a place with an engaged, excited congregation, and a balanced budget to boot.

In the end, this document doesn't matter very much. Inasmuch as it misstates history and expresses some misguided opinions about clergy and lay governance roles, it sows some confusion. But the constitution is still the constitution, the catechism is still the catechism, and the rubrics are still the rubrics, and those, fortunately, are what matter for the actual governance of the church.

Brendan O. Hale

This is a pretty obvious attempt to put out an official looking document that will assist TEC's litigation strategy. A response by the Anglican Communion Institute is here: http://www.anglicancommunioninstitute.com/2013/11/polity-primer-aci-response/
Therein, it's interesting to note some of the claims the preparers of this "primer", (most of whom are involved in TEC litigation), attempted to pass off as official TEC polity before being forced to pull back by the House as a whole...

John Campbell

A few points:

The role that the Lay Order plays in our governance is essential, and is well covered in the Primer. The "spiritual/material" division of labor is one of practicality, not a theological qualification. It is based on the canons.

The authors of the Primer have had no part in the litigation. The members of the Committee itself wrote it. Obviously, we had to ask historians for help, which makes for interesting questions for historians to argue.

Of course, the Church's attorneys had to review the piece, but they asked for no changes other than minor canonical corrections. The House of Bishops members made several comments and corrections, which were incorporated in the final version. A few dates are erroneous, and I take responsibility for them not being changed in the proofing process. Elizabeth's Prayer Book came out in 1559, not 1558, for instance.

The purpose of the Primer is to be an historical narrative, a prologue, on which an ecclesiological study can be written — what is the nature of the Episcopal Church as a church? It is not intended to be used in litigation. We did think it would be useful to release it as a widely-available study document.

Pierre Whalon (added by editor)

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