I wrote an article a while back concerning the polity of the Episcopal Church. The original article was something that I wrote out of curiosity without a clear vision as to what it was that I was trying to prove. Recent events in the life of the Church have led me to return to the subject, specifically in concerning the role of the Presiding Bishop in the life of the Church and the authority of the Diocese in relation to the National Church. I write as a layman not a cleric or canonist. Moreover, I write as someone who is formally trained in linguistics, not canon law, neither history, nor theology, however, as a baptized Christian, I view it as my duty to be informed on matters of faith. I happen find this subject remarkably fascinating, and, at the same time, remarkably frustrating. I write as a "regular" churchgoer, with two eyes and a God-given brain, with these I read and analyze the Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church, relating them to the history of this Church, and the current practice of the leadership of said Church, which, sadly, seems to be promoting a polity alien to its own foundational documents.
While the American Revolution was an interesting and, as its name implies, revolutionary event, perhaps, the ecclesiastical revolution which accompanied the new political establishment was the more radical of the two revolutions. As seen in history, the future of the Episcopal Church seemed bleak at the beginning of our nation. Many loyalist clergy and laity had fled to England, many others gradually drifted away to other forms of Protestantism or irreligion, due to the former's departure. There were no bishops, cathedrals, deans, chapters, provinces, synods, canons, or anything as such to hold together a church and beyond that the prospect of obtaining bishops seemed just as unlikely an event as actually organizing an Episcopal Church in the nascent country. However, through the efforts of one man, William White, a national church was eventually organized as the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America, developing a unique polity expressing a uniquely American approach to episcopacy.
The structures which would eventually come to govern the life of our national church in America have their roots in the anomaly of colonial Anglicanism. When English citizens arrived here in the New World, they brought their religion with them. Puritans and Pilgrims dominated the scene in New England, Quakers in Pennsylvania, and Anglicans in Virginia and Maryland (obviously an oversimplified picture!) which contributed to the religious diversity to which we are accustomed in the US. There were relatively few Anglican parishes in New England in colonial times (and few in some southern colonies like Georgia and North Carolina), however, the Church was established by law in Virginia and Maryland and the number of parishes shows it (the Church was established in many colonies by law but that did not necessarily correspond to an active, Anglican parochial system). The American Church was very autonomous with hardly any interference or intervention from the mother Church. The colonial parishes fell under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of London (being considered part of his diocese), however, no episcopal visit ever occurred. This lack of concern for colonial parishes from the English bishops stemmed from 18th century English conceptions about what a bishop should be (serving as a temporal and spiritual Lord of the Realm, not fit for “mission” work in the Colonies). This is not to say that there was no concern for the colonial church. Most notably, Thomas Bray, founder of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, visited the Colonies around 1700 to investigate the state of affairs in colonial parishes. His “Memorial Representing the Present State of Religion on the Continent of North America,” published in 1701, prompted the foundation of the Society, which worked hard to provide clergy and resources for the Colonial Church. One of the SPG’s main concerns was to acquire a bishop for the Colonies. However, for various reasons this plan failed, “The English Church did not see the need for bishops in the colonies, since they were already under the rule of the Bishop of London, and the S.P.G. (Society for the Propagation of the Gospel) seemingly was unable to argue successfully for Episcopal oversight” (Gundrum 1982:3). One of the reasons was the colonial attitude to bishops, especially when considering the autonomy they had enjoyed without an episcopal presence. This brings to light the power of vestries in the colonial parishes, especially in Virginia, where vestries had assumed a great deal of power in the absence of traditional authority structures in place in England. This was one of the main concerns southern churchmen had with the introduction of episcopacy which would have limited their new-found power.
“The greatest opposition to the episcopacy being established in the colonies emerged, as would be expected, from those areas, especially in the south, where vestries and parishes fairly well “ran their own show”, so to speak, by being able to successfully maintain the right to select and call their own rector… In Virginia, for example, the vestry selected the minister, wardens were the executives of the parish, and the vestry even raised a tobacco tax for church support. In the absence of clergy, they selected lay-readers, many of whom, throughout the colonies, were ordained after being trained in America. The use of lay-readers was a wide-spread custom, but the lay-reader was selected by the vestry to lead the congregation in worship. The powers of the Virginia vestries over clergy presented what seems to many a new and lasting type of clerical- lay relationship” (Gundrum 1982:3).
“Diﬀerences about episcopacy reﬂected more fundamental churchmanship divisions. In Pennsylvania and the south, low-church views, inﬂuenced by the moderate Enlightenment, prevailed; many of the laity, and indeed the clergy too, could be categorised as Deists. In New England, by contrast, the clergy were predominantly high churchmen – many of them converts from Congregationalism who had come to believe in episcopacy. Their high churchmanship was sustained by their close connection with the high-church Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (Podmore 2008:135). These differences in churchmanship and perhaps a bit of politics delayed the consecration of a bishop for the colonies until after the Revolution. This sense of autonomy would permeate the foundational documents of the Protestant Episcopal Church (a name first used by the Church in Maryland in 1780 ).
The American Revolution nearly destroyed the Colonial Church, most notably in its strongholds in Virginia and Maryland. Many thought that Anglicanism would perish with the small band of parishioners left after the independence of the Colonies was secured from Great Britain. However, one man would galvanize remaining Anglicans into organizing a national church in the United States. White’s plan for the organization of this Church would differ radically from the mother Church in England. Perhaps its boldness can be seen by first briefly examining the structure and organization of the Church of England. Fundamentally, the Church of England differs from the Protestant Episcopal Church in one key aspect, that being its origin. The Church of England was established by missionaries who established episcopal sees which later came to house a diocesan cathedral. English dioceses are named after the see of the bishop and from his episcopal office stems the entire identity of the diocese, “. An English diocese has no separate existence from its bishop: the deﬁnition of a diocese is that it is the area in which a bishop exercises his ministry” (139). Early missionaries established sees and from that central location sent further missioners to establish parishes under the pastoral care of the bishop. This is a fundamental difference which must be grasped for it comes to dominate the structure envisioned by White in his proposals for the organization of the Church in America. The most fundamental difference, however, differs in a parish’s identity. In England, a parish is a “subdivision of a diocese” and without this connection to the diocese, it cannot exist as a parish (Podmore 2008:135). As we shall see, this was not the case in the Episcopal Church. Besides the fundamental distinction between the diocese as the main unit of the Church in England (and as we shall see) the parish as the central unit in America, there is the issue of the equality of dioceses. The English Church is a metropolitical Church, meaning that authority stems from a central location and flows down. In the case of the English Church, this temporal and spiritual authority rests in the Crown, as the Supreme Governor of the Church. The next in the line of authority is the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Archbishop of York, heads of the two Provinces of the Church of England, organized on the ancient pattern centering on the metropolitan (being Canterbury and York in England). The authority flows down through diocesan bishops and eventually ends up at the parish level in the parish priest. The structure of the Episcopal Church is completely different in outlook as we shall investigate here.
The differences are in stark contrast, primarily due to the way in which the Church functioned in the colonial period, largely operating under a congregational polity. Parishes were not tied to a diocesan bishop, except loosely the Bishop of London, who most colonists never saw. Podmore adds, "In America, by contrast, the original state churches existed before they had bishops, and at ﬁrst they were not called dioceses or required to have a bishop at all; they were certainly not deﬁned by having a bishop. The bishops took their title from the state, rather than having a see that would give their diocese its name" (139). It was this reality in which William White wrote his famous, “The Case of the Episcopal Churches in the United States Considered,” published in 1782, “America was still at war with the English and it preceded the signing of the preliminary peace treaty on November 30, 1782, which became final on September 3, 1783. Adding to this picture of the fast-moving events, by act of Parliament, English bishops were able to ordain colonial aspirants after August 13, 1784, and all congregations and clergy were freed from all controls of state legislatures by 1784” (Gundrum 1982:5). White dismisses the (then) popular notion that the Episcopal Church could not survive without the rule of Great Britain, “A prejudice has prevailed with many that the episcopal churches cannot otherwise exist than under the dominion of Great-Britain. A church government that would contain the constituent principles of the church of England, and yet be independent of foreign jurisdiction or influence, would remove that anxiety which at present hangs heavy on the minds of many sincere persons” (2). The following is an excellent summary of White’s plan,
“White’s plan, as set forward in the Case, was simply that the American Church should build from the bottom to the top, rather than from the other way around as in England, i.e. from parish to diocese. White’s ideas were in complete agreement with those of the Revolution, that people’s interests and good government are the same, and the very best way to insure this ideal was to allow and provide for people to have maximum input into the creation and formulation of that free government…
From the Case, William White, later Bishop White of Philadelphia, produced six fundamental principles:
- The Church is and ought to be free and independent of all foreign authority, ecclesiastical or civil;
- The Church in The United States should have full and exclusive power to regulate concerns of its own communions;
- The doctrines of the Gospel as then professed by the Church of England and uniformity of worship be continued, as near as may be possible;
- The succession of ministry in three orders:
And the rights and powers of the same shall be ascertained and exercised according to reasonable law to be duly made;
- Canons shall be made by no other authority than that of a representative body of the clergy and laity, acting co-jointly; and
- No powers shall be allocated to a general ecclesiastical government except such as cannot be conveniently exercised by local congregations.
Without question, White intended to present a plan which fully preserved the faith, doctrine, and worship of the Church of England while changing the form of governance of the Church for the circumstance found in the United States. His changes in government followed a contract-theory of government, and the de facto recognition that local government was already the fact; there
was no existing domestic episcopacy; and there had been no dioceses formed; thus leaving the parish as the basic unit of the Church in this country” (Gundrum 1982:6).
Gundrum also adds,
“White’s changes in governance, mitigated by the American circumstance, has:
a) Clergy and Laity – meeting and voting in one body;
b) No area of Church government is beyond the authority of such a gathering of clergy and laity, and individuals do not possess a veto;
c) Every communicant or member of the Church has a right to participate in the development of Church government through the parish delegate to the diocesan convention;
d) Bishops should continue to serve as a rector, confined to a small district; and
e) No power shall be given to any diocesan, regional, or national Church, except those which cannot conveniently be accomplished by the clergy and laity in their respective congregations”(7).
In brief, “White’s proposal was that the congregations should unite, in ‘voluntary associations’, and accordingly they formed state churches (later called dioceses), which in turn united in the General Convention,” which could have been adopted due to the nature of how the Episcopal Church had been organized, largely as autonomous parishes without a bishop or diocese. The pre-existence of parishes before the creation of dioceses, shows the parish to be the basic unit in the Episcopal Church and similarly, the pre-existence of dioceses before the General Convention presumes certain autonomy on the part of the dioceses. White’s plan was enshrined in our Constitution, as Podmore notes,
“The Constitution of the General Convention still treats dioceses seeking admission into union with the General Convention as pre-existing entities. According to the Constitution, the new diocese is formed ‘with the consent of the General Convention’, and the relevant canon speaks of the formation being ‘ratiﬁed’ by the General Convention, but both forms of words make it clear that it is not the General Convention that creates the diocese. A ‘primary convention’ of the new diocese adopts a diocesan constitution, and the new diocese is then ‘admitted into union with the General Convention” (131).
Part of White’s plan seems to have been motivated by a desire to return to a more primitive model of episcopacy, “The primitive churches were generally supplied by popular elections; even in the city of Rome, the privilege of electing the bishop continued with the people to the tenth or eleventh century” (3), contrasting with England, where, “bishops are appointed by the civil authority.” Gundrum confirms that this would have been less suspicious to Americans, who had grown weary of English prelacy, “The idea of a “primitive episcopate” in no way brought forward the kinds of emotions and fear as was provoked by the English style of episcopacy” (2). In his “Case,” White provides a sketch of his ideas about what the structure of the Church should look like. White’s ideas gave birth to the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States, as Podmore notes, “‘Episcopal’ was understood in a very limited sense. White envisaged that each convention would elect a ‘presiding minister’, who would continue to be a parish priest (because the congregations would not be able to pay for a separate presiding minister). He understood a bishop as being a priest to whom the power of ordination and conﬁrmation was given, together with certain administrative duties. In the early Church, he believed, ‘the bishop was no more than a president’. Bishops should be elected by the clergy and laity and could be tried, and if necessary deposed, by those who elected them” (135). And in White’s own words, “the very name of “Bishop” is offensive; if so, change it for another; let the superior clergyman be a president, a superintendent, or in plain English, and, according to the literal translation of the original, an overseer.” Similar Low Church views were expressed by the Church in Virginia at their convention in 1785, which defined the duties of a bishop as, “ordaining, conﬁrming, superintending clergy conduct and presiding at ecclesiastical meetings; the power to suspend or dismiss clergy, including the bishop, should rest with the convention”(136). Perhaps colonists were reacting against the worldliness of English bishops, but whatever the cause, episcopacy was not something early American Episcopalians considered all that important in the life of the Church,
“By and large, the office of bishop was defined in the early American church as being no different from that of any other clergyman, except that he could ordain, confirm, make clerical visitations; and finally by 1789, was given permission to serve as the presiding officer of ecclesiastical assemblies. In all of this, the primitive aspect of the episcopacy, not the princely aspect of the office, was put forward, always with care to separate church and state while stressing the servanthood of the office” (Gundrum 1982:2).
As one could imagine, High Churchmen in the northern Colonies were not impressed with White’s Low Church episcopacy. Contrast White’s statements with this statement from Bishop Hobart (obviously not writing at the same time),
“The Church is a divinely constituted society, of which Christ is the Head. Its officers must derive their commission from him its Head. This commission [27/28] is transmitted through a superior order of the ministry, among whom ranked Timothy and Titus, subsequently called Bishops. By union with the Church the mystical body of Christ is our union in the exercise of penitence and faith to be maintained with him its Head. Union with the Church cannot exist where we are not in union with the ministry deriving their power through the legitimate channel from the Head of the Church. The Churchman believing that this order is the order of Bishops, would think that, in separating from their ministrations, he cut himself off from the communion of the Church, and was guilty of the sin of schism” (The Churchman).
The convention of clergy in Connecticut met in March 1783 to discuss White’s “Case” and also elected Samuel Seabury (1729-1796) to be their bishop, and the first bishop on American soil. They wrote to White, “We think an Episcopal Church without Episcopacy, if it be not a contradiction in terms, would, however, be a new thing under the sun… Nothing can be more clear than that our Church has ever believed bishops to have the sole right of ordination and government, and that this regimen was appointed of Christ himself” (Podmore 2008:136). The story of Seabury’s consecration does not concern us here but perhaps a brief summary will remind the reader of some interesting bits of history. Seabury left the States to acquire consecration of English bishops in London but due to complications arising from the oath to the Crown in the English Ordinal, they were unable to perform consecration (they would change their opinion later and consecrate Provoost and White). Seabury, either acting on his instincts or “Plan B,” headed to Scotland and was consecrated by Scottish bishops. This act created a special relationship between the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States and the Episcopal Church of Scotland, even influencing our liturgy (hence why our Communion Office resembles the Scottish Liturgy and not the English). Bishop Seabury was not impressed with White’s plan and would not lead the Connecticut Church into participating with the other churches without some modification to the plan. “The government of the Church by Bishops, we hold to have been established by the Apostles, acting under the commission of Christ, and the direction of the Holy Ghost; and therefore is not to be altered by any power on earth, nor indeed by an angel from heaven” (Seabury, 137). He was principally concerned with White’s appropriation of the term “bishop” to someone who did not hold episcopal powers, according to the plan, “The rights of the Christian Church arise not from nature or compact, but from the institution of Christ; and we ought not to alter them, but to receive and maintain them, as the holy Apostles left them’. Furthermore, the episcopal oﬃce was one of government: ‘If a man be called a Bishop who has not the Episcopal powers of government, he is called by a wrong name, even though he should have the power of Ordination and Conﬁrmation” (Seabury, 136). Seabury was able to change the initial plans of White. White had originally envisaged a unicameral legislature for the Church comprised of bishops, clergy, and laity. Through Seabury’s protests, the plan was amended to include two houses, one for Bishops and one for other clergy and laity.
As history can prove, the 19th century would be a century of immense change in the Protestant Episcopal Church, stemming from the Tractarian Movement growing in England and influencing the Church by the 1840’s. Before the Oxford Movement, however, there was an indigenous, High Church movement, led by Hobart, which led to emphasize the Episcopal office against the Latitudinarian character of the early Episcopal Church here. Bishop Hobart led this indigenous movement from his parish in New York City as a parish priest and later as Bishop of New York. These High Churchmen were committed Protestant Catholics (explored elsewhere on this blog) but they did not like the approach to bishops embedded in the Constitution. Most notably, Hobartian churchmen influenced the thinking surrounding the foundation of new dioceses. Rather than following White’s model of a group of parishes forming a “voluntary association” and then electing a presiding minister or “bishop,” future Episcopal Dioceses would be founded in the more traditional sense, flowing from a bishop who would build up a diocese around him. The Hobartian churchmen also influenced one other significant aspect of Episcopal ecclesiology, dealing with the trial of bishops. Up to that point, bishops were tried by their respective state churches. The proposed reform would subject the trial of bishops to the General Convention, thus, at least subjecting bishops to the judgment of their brother bishops and not diocesan conventions (Podmore 2008: 139, 140). This native movement merged with the foreign Tractarianism which had begun to impact the Protestant Episcopal Church by the late 1830’s and has continued to do so until the present day. One of the issues that Tractarianism brought with it was how apostolicity and catholicity were to be understood. Old High Church rhetoric focused on the bishop ruling his diocese as a picture of what apostolicity looked like in an Anglican context. Tractarians had a different point of view entirely, focusing on the sacrificing priest, instead. Podmore quotes R.B. Mullin, “Broadly speaking, if the central image in the high church imagination during the Hobartian period had been the patriarchal bishop governing from his apostolic oﬃce, for later churchmen the central image became the priest serving at the altar . . . [N]ew concerns pointed to a far greater concern for the sacerdotal role of the priest than for the apostolic role of the bishop” (R.B. Mullin on 140). I argue that this change in emphasis (and theology) has led to a constant centralization in the Protestant Episcopal Church up until the present day, which we can see in the legal actions taken against Bishop Mark Lawrence of South Carolina.
At this point, I would like to review the present structure and organization of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States, also known as the Episcopal Church, which is incorporated in New York State as the Domestic and Foreign Mission Society of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States. We will see that White’s plan, although altered, is still the framework on which the Episcopal Church functions today.
First, I would like to briefly discuss the identity of our church which has been sinking further into confusion since the 19th century. The official name of our Church as said above is the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States, thus highlighting within our name the reformed catholic nature of our Church. Many want to diminish either the Protestant aspect or the Catholic aspect of our Church, which in turn destroys the whole Church. From the Preamble to the Constitution of the Protestant Episcopal Church:
“The Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America, otherwise known as The Episcopal Church (which name is hereby recognized as also designating the Church), is a constituent member of the Anglican Communion, a Fellowship within the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, of those duly constituted Dioceses, Provinces, and regional Churches in communion with the See of Canterbury, upholding and propagating the historic Faith and Order\ as set forth in the Book of Common Prayer. This Constitution, adopted in General Convention in Philadelphia in October, 1789, as amended in subsequent General Conventions, sets forth the basic Articles for the government of this Church, and of its overseas missionary jurisdictions”
Canon 13 deals with parishes of the Episcopal Church, parishes are to belong to the diocese in which they are geographically located. Their status in the diocese allows them all the rights in Diocesan Convention in the diocese in which their clergyman is resident. The geographical boundaries of parishes are established by Diocesan Convention and new parishes established must have the consent of the Bishop and Standing Committee. Every parish must have a vestry elected by law, “In every Parish of this Church the number, mode of selection, and term of office of Wardens and Members of the Vestry, with the qualifications of voters, shall be such as the State or Diocesan law may permit or require, and the Wardens and Members of the Vestry selected under such law shall hold office until their successors are selected and have qualified” (14.1). Likewise the vestry serves as the legal representative of the parish and the Rector should serve as the president of the vestry, unless there are conflicts with law.
The dioceses of the Episcopal Church, especially the oldest members, which predate the first General Convention, were made up of parishes which pre-existed those dioceses. As White termed them, “voluntary associations,” they offer much more power to the laity as opposed to English dioceses. Most notably, Episcopal dioceses all have a constitution and set of canon law separate from the Church’s Constitution and Canons. The General Convention has not historically interfered with diocesan constitutions or canons and it is not required to notify or obtain consent from the General Convention for changing diocesan constitutions and canons.
“The Constitution of the General Convention requires that in each diocese there shall be a standing committee elected by the diocesan convention. Typically, the standing committee (of which the bishop is not a member) has four lay and four clerical members, who choose their own president… The overall impression is not of the bishop as central to the life of the diocese, with a synod to advise him, but of the diocesan convention as central to the life of the diocese and supreme in its power, and of the bishop as its oﬃcer, able to act in many important matters only with the consent of the standing committee that the convention elects” (Podmore 2008:144; compare with Canon 12 of the C&C).
Episcopal dioceses are treated as equal in relation to their representation at General Convention, which is not weighted by size or metropolitcal seniority. Each diocese elects four lay and four ordained deputies for their representation at the House of Deputies. “The Church in each Diocese which has been admitted to union with the General Convention, each area Mission established as provided by Article VI, and the Convocation of the American Churches in Europe, shall be entitled to representation in the House of Deputies by not more than four ordained persons, Presbyters or Deacons, canonically resident in the Diocese and not more than four Lay Persons, confirmed adult communicants of this Church, in good standing in the Diocese” (Article 1 Sec.4). Likewise there are no metropolitical sees as in England, with Canterbury and York as having metropolitical authority over other dioceses. All dioceses and sees are equal in authority in the Episcopal Church. “Because all diocesan bishops are equal, and because bishops are essentially oﬃcers of their diocesan conventions, no bishop is subject to the jurisdiction or authority of another bishop” (Podmore 2008:146). The Episcopal Church has grouped its dioceses into “provinces” beginning in 1913 (for instance, Albany is in Province II), “but, lacking metropolitans, these are not provinces in the traditional sense. There is an elected president of the province, but he or she has no jurisdiction and (since 1979) may be a priest, deacon or layperson, although, if that is the case, the vicepresident must be a bishop. There is what is called a ‘provincial synod’ but it has no ‘power to regulate or control the internal policy or aﬀairs of any constituent Diocese’” (Podmore 2008:146). The Constitution and Canons define the nature of Provinces, “Dioceses may be united into Provinces in such manner, under such conditions, and with such powers, as shall be provided by Canon of the General Convention; Provided, however, that no Diocese shall be included in a Province without its own consent” (Article VII). This reflects a pattern I have noted when reading on the history of Episcopal polity over the past century. That pattern being the adoption of traditional, Western ecclesiastical terms but not adopting the totality of that structure to the organization of the American Church. For instance, as we shall see momentarily, the office of the Presiding Bishop has expanded considerably since the time of White or even Hopkins and has accumulated various responsibilities but the office is still an elected office with no metropolitical powers tied to the office as is the case of an archbishop. The same trend can be seen with our provinces, which adopt the language of traditional provinces but not the inherent structure of them. I believe this is the cause of the influence of Anglo-Catholicism in our Church which seeks to undermine the Protestant nature of our church. This trend was also influenced by corporate culture in America which can be seen in the changing duties of the Presiding Bishop. Holmes notes this centralization which began to take place in the early 20th century, “The Episcopal Church attempted to create greater eﬃciency and corporate consciousness by centralizing its previously uncoordinated denominational boards in the six-story Church Missions House . . . in New York City”(Holmes 145).
The office of the Presiding Bishop is an excellent example of how this gradual centralization has occurred in the Protestant Episcopal Church. Until 1919, the Presiding Bishop was not elected but rather the senior bishop by date of consecration, since 1919, the Presiding Bishop has been elected as we know now, which is detailed in the Constitution, “At the General Convention next before the expiration of the term of office of the Presiding Bishop, it shall elect the Presiding Bishop of the Church. The House of Bishops shall choose one of the Bishops of this Church to be the Presiding Bishop of the Church” (Article 1, Sec.3) and, “The term of office of the Presiding Bishop, when elected according to the provisions of Article I, Section 3 of the Constitution, shall be nine years” (Canon 2.2). It is important to note that before 1901, the Constitution read “Presiding Bishop of the House of Bishops” (Podmore 2008:158) and it is also important to note the nomenclature of the office. Our Church does not have an Archbishop but a Presiding Bishop, thus confirming that the Episcopal Church is not a metropolitical Church with varying sees of differing authority but rather an egalitarian episcopacy where all bishops are equal and elect one among them to preside over General Convention. Because our Church is not a metropolitical Church, “[The Presiding Bishop] possesses no jurisdiction over any diocese and no power of visitation in the canonical sense. Bishops neither promise nor owe ‘due obedience’ to the Presiding Bishop… ‘The Presiding Bishop possesses no independent authority. His authority and actions derive from the ultimate ecclesial authority of the General Convention’(Podmore 2008:160). The Presiding Bishop’s primary role is to preside over General Convention as the general officer. According to Canon 2.3, a Bishop elected as Presiding Bishop must resign from previous jurisdiction(s) in order to serve in that office (such as Presiding Bishop Jefferts-Schori resigned from her post as Bishop of Nevada). Now, I will quote at length the duties of the Presiding Bishop according to the Canons of the Episcopal Church:
“The Presiding Bishop shall be the Chief Pastor and Primate of the Church, and shall:
- Be charged with responsibility for leadership in initiating and developing the policy and strategy in the Church and speaking for the Church as to the policies, strategies and programs authorized by the General Convention;
- Speak God's words to the Church and to the world, as the representative of this Church and its episcopate in its corporate capacity;
- In the event of an Episcopal vacancy within a Diocese, consult with the Ecclesiastical Authority to ensure that adequate interim Episcopal Services are provided;
- Take order for the consecration of Bishops, when duly elected; and, from time to time, assemble the Bishops of this Church to meet, either as the House of Bishops or as a Council of Bishops, and set the time and place of such meetings;
- Preside over meetings of the House of Bishops; and, when the two Houses of the General Convention meet in Joint Session, have the right of presiding over such Session, of calling for such Joint Session, of recommending legislation to either House and, upon due notification, of appearing before and addressing the House of Deputies; and whenever addressing the General Convention upon the state of the Church, it shall be incumbent upon both Houses thereof to consider and act upon any recommendations contained in such address;
- Visit every Diocese of this Church for the purpose of:
- Holding pastoral consultations with the Bishop or Bishops thereof and, with their advice, with the Lay and Clerical leaders of the jurisdiction;
- Preaching the Word; and (iii) Celebrating the Holy Eucharist.
(b) The Presiding Bishop shall report annually to the Church, and may, from time to time, issue Pastoral Letters” (Canon 2.4)
“The title ‘Chief Pastor’ was added in 1967… The title ‘primate’, added in 1982, presumably denotes membership of the Primates’ Meeting of the Anglican Communion established four years earlier in 1978. It cannot mean what that term has traditionally meant in the western Church; the Presiding Bishop is not the bishop of the ﬁrst or primatial see of the United States – there is no such thing – and indeed he or she is not now the bishop of any diocese. (The Presiding Bishop does, however, have a cathedral, known as ‘The National Cathedral’, which was begun in 1907 and completed in 1990.) (Podmore 2008:146, 147). One can see the increasing centralization and power vested in the Presiding Bishop, which probably led us to the problems we face today.
I would like to add one final note about the office of the Presiding Bishop and how that office relates to the Executive Council which is also the Board of Directors of the Domestic and Foreign Missions Society. The Presiding Bishop is chair and president of the Executive Council, which also functions as the board of directors of the Domestic and Foreign Missions Society of which the Presiding Bishop is president (of both). “There shall be an Executive Council of the General Convention (which Council shall generally be called simply the Executive Council) whose duty it shall be to carry out the program and policies adopted by the General Convention” (Canon 4.1a) but it shall be, “accountable to the General Convention” (4.1b). The Presiding Bishop can appoint officers to positions created by the Executive Council as well.
Now we move to discuss the real power in the Episcopal Church: General Convention. The first article of our Constitution defines and establishes the General Convention, “There shall be a General Convention of this Church, consisting of the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies, which Houses shall sit and deliberate separately; and in all deliberations freedom of debate shall be allowed. Either House may originate and propose legislation, and all acts of the Convention shall be adopted and be authenticated by both Houses” (Art. 1, Sec. 1). As we have seen the General Convention is a bicameral legislature, comprised of the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies, which has all the real authority in the Episcopal Church. It enacts canons, amends the Constitution, revises the Prayer Book, elects bishops, Presiding Bishops, and admits new dioceses and meets every three years. Now from the canons, concerning the House of Bishops, “Each Bishop of this Church having jurisdiction, every Bishop Coadjutor, every Suffragan Bishop, every Assistant Bishop, and every Bishop… shall have a seat and a vote in the House of Bishops” (1.2). The House of Deputies admits, “The Church in each Diocese which has been admitted to union with the General Convention… , shall be entitled to representation in the House of Deputies by not more than four ordained persons, Presbyters or Deacons, canonically resident in the Diocese and not more than four Lay Persons, confirmed adult communicants of this Church, in good standing in the Diocese” (1.4). As stated earlier, the General Convention does not possess all authority as it rarely intervenes in diocesan constitutions and canons. Podmore reflects that the General Convention lacks the “ecclesial density” that the (according to the author) General Synod of the Church of England possesses, “That means that it cannot develop the sort of corporate life that characterises the General Synod, in which the same people meet together two or three times a year for ﬁve years. It is not a body which is ‘together on the way’ (the meaning of the term ‘synod’) in quite the same manner. Indeed, the entire legislative process for an amendment to the Canons takes place at a single meeting of the General Convention; only amendments to the Constitution and the Prayer Book must be considered at two successive meetings. Thus, quite radical change can occur – and has occurred – very quickly” (130,131). I hope that you have noticed the gradual centralization of the Protestant Episcopal Church, which started as a church consisting of parishes in voluntary association with each other, to a church comprised of dioceses united in General Convention. Gundrum notes this transformation, first by discussing the nature of the Convention, “As you can begin to see, and as we will point out later on, “the legal supremacy of the General Convention was built on a base of broad powers, granted, retained, and exercised on the local and parish level”, regardless of the theological concept that the bishop of a diocese is the central focus and symbol of the unity of the diocese, and that the basic unit of the Church is the diocese. In the colonial period (and, one might say, with residuals existing in some places today), the basic unit of the Church was at the parish level” (3).
I end once again with this quote from Bishop Hopkins which I have reflected on much since I read it.
“The Church is a Protestant Church, emphatically and distinctly such, because her duty to PROTEST against error, is, in the natural things, inseparable from the right of REFORM. Is he ready to repeat her protest, to defend its duty, and to demonstrate its truth? The Church is a Catholic Church, that is, a branch of the ancient, Universal Church of Christ, in contradistinction from all heresies and schisms. Is he thoroughly persuaded of this fact, and ready to assert, against "all gainsayers, but chiefly and preeminently against that corrupt system which would fain be called the only Catholic Church, the purity and faithful consistency of her doctrines ? If not, let him be put back awhile until he learns to understand the office which the Church expects of him. He may have piety, he may have learning, he may have all high moral and intellectual capacities, he may be sound in the essentials of his individual faith so far as concerns his own salvation. But all this he might be, without any of the distinctive principles which can alone authorize us to clothe him with the commission of the ministry. Our power to give him this commission is a solemn trust, delegated to us on certain specified conditions. And if those conditions, or any of them, be manifestly wanting, we have, strictly speaking, no legal right to ordain”
“Constitutions and Canons Together with the Rules of Order for the Government of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America otherwise known as the Episcopal Church.” Adopted and Revised in General Convention, 1789-2009. http://www.episcopalarchives.org/CandC_2009.pdf
Gundrum, The Rev. Canon James R. “General Convention: Understood Authority or Ecclesiastical Chaos.” Arrington Lectures 1982.
Podmore, Colin. “A Tale of Two Churches: The Ecclesiologies of the Episcopal Church and the the Church of England Compared.” International Journal for the Study of the Christian Church 8.2. (2008): 124-154. http://www.episcopalchurch.org/documents/JimGundrum_ArringtonLectures1982.pdf
Posey, Walter B. “The Protestant Episcopal Church: An American Adaptation.” The Journal of Southern History 25.1 (1959): 3-30.