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.