The House of Bishops met in Executive Session to discuss the meaning of hierarchical church by The Episcopal Church. This was requested by Bishops of Quincy and Fort Worth. Bishop Christopher Epting notes on his blog:
The House of Bishops then spent some time in private conversation requested by the provisional bishops of Quincy and Ft. Worth about just what The Episcopal Church means by being a “hierarchical church.” This is prompted by court cases seeking to reclaim church properties occupied by breakaway, so-called “Anglican” churches. Everyone agrees that while “individuals may leave the Episcopal Church, congregations and dioceses may not.” But the whole question of diocesan autonomy and what power the “national church” with its Presiding Bishop, Constitution and Canons have over diocesan bishops and their own Conventions is more complex than it at first appears. We will continue the discussion this afternoon, but likely not resolve this issue at this Convention.
A complaint has been lodged against 9 bishops for filing a Amicus Curia brief on the side of the former bishop of Fort Worth who alleges he can take the property and assets with him.
The nine bishops have written a letter of response, which says in part:
We can summarize what we were taught years ago and still believe about our governance as follows:
• The Episcopal Church is a hierarchical church and the hierarchical authority for matters within a diocese is the Ecclesiastical Authority of the diocese, which according to our Constitution is the diocesan bishop. Ours is not a metropolitical church, but a church with a dispersed hierarchy. We did not invent this understanding of our governance. It has a long and venerable pedigree. For example, in “The Church’s Teaching” series volume on polity, Canon Powel Mills Dawley of General Seminary (working with a committee of church leaders under the auspices of the Church Center) concluded that:
“the dioceses possess an independence far greater than that characteristic of most other Churches with episcopal polity….Diocesan participation in any national program or effort, for example, must be voluntarily given; it cannot be forced. Again, while the bishop’s exercise of independent power within the diocese is restricted by the share in church government possessed by the Diocesan Convention or the Standing Committee, his independence in respect to the rest of the Church is almost complete.”
• As noted, we are not a metropolitical church. Our Constitution has no “Supremacy Clause”; it specifies no office or body with supremacy or hierarchical authority over the Ecclesiastical Authority of the diocese for matters within a diocese. And as bishops, we take no vow of obedience to any other office or body. Priests and deacons pledge conformity to the doctrine, discipline and worship of the Church and obedience to the diocesan bishop. Bishops only give the Declaration of Conformity. This was a matter of extreme importance to our founders. Church of England bishops give an oath of “Due Obedience” in which they “profess and promise all due reverence and obedience to the Archbishop and to the Metropolitical Church of Canterbury [York] and to their Successors.” Our founders very intentionally rejected such an oath for The Episcopal Church. We pledge obedience neither to an archbishop nor to a metropolitical church. We pledge to uphold the doctrine, discipline and worship of the Church, but each diocesan bishop is the Ecclesiastical Authority in the diocese.
• Under the First Amendment, secular courts may not make extensive and searching inquiries into, and thereby interfere with, church doctrine or polity in order to decide secular legal cases. This is standard Supreme Court jurisprudence.