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Anglicans Online last updated 20 May 2018
THE GENERAL CONVENTION CHURCH?
When I was in college, a tutor described the Anglican Communion as “The Churches of England, Ireland and Wales, the Scottish Episcopal Church, daughter provinces throughout the world….and the Protestant Episcopal Church in the USA”.
It should be remembered that the academic in question was rather ancient when he taught us in the early Sixties. England’s elderly population still talked in terms of Empire and the centrality of the United Kingdom – my mother always pointed out that the British Isles were in the middle of the world! – and although “the winds of change” were blowing, they were gentle and barmy.
C. J. Stranks, our tutor, was a very Trollopian archdeacon of mildly High Church views. He thought ECUSA to be an extraordinarily strange animal and thus listed her, after a pause, at the end of his descriptive list.
Forty years later, ECUSA still puzzles most of the Anglican world. Because Americans have succeeded to the Imperial mantle, albeit now shorn of ermine and gold thread, it comes as something of a shock when things American are misunderstood, misinterpreted and often derided. The last Lambeth Conference shocked many American bishops. They were out-voted in a crucial issue. By all accounts, the American Primate had a fairly tough time at the Primates’ meeting in Oporto. Now two overseas archbishops, from the unlikely regions of South-east Asia and central Africa have commissioned two ECUSA priests to function as bishops in the United States with freedom to start new congregations and seduce ECUSA congregations to forsake their dioceses for their embrace.
It seems that Anglicans overseas still don’t “get” ECUSA. It seems highly probable that a good number of Episcopalians don’t “get” ECUSA. The general public, meanwhile, has lost interest.
The major problem about ECUSA is trying to fathom how understands its form of government and particularly the force and authority of its canons and the resolutions which churn out of General Convention each time it meets.
At the same time, ECUSA has not yet emerged from over thirty years of almost obsessive introspection. These two factors make life difficult for those outside the loop. Methods of government can be very confusing. Introverts are hard to get to know!
The Americans invented synodical government, at least in its modern form. The Episcopal Church reflects the sort of government the American colonies adopted before the present American Constitution was hammered out. Originally the essential power lay in the dioceses. The Presiding Bishop was just that, the senior bishop in consecration – bishops were not permitted to retire in those days- who presided over the meetings of the House of Bishops and at the consecration of bishops. Presiding Bishops lived in their dioceses, often without any formal staff at all. They stayed in office until they died. General Convention wasn’t expected to do very much.
ECUSA in 2000 seems not to resemble such a model very much at all. The Presiding Bishop is now also styled “Primate”. He presides over a considerable staff from his eagle’s aerie high in a rather shabby Manhattan skyscraper. Every three years bishops and delegates gather in General Convention during which they tackle hundreds of resolutions on such varied subjects as the price of Brussels Sprouts and the Filioque Clause.
On the face of it, General Convention is omni-competent. In theory it has power to do anything it pleases. Convention’s authority is laid out in the Constitution and Canons, a series of laws which were originally devised by the church’s “founding fathers” – there were no founding mothers – to which amendments and additions have accrued over the centuries. The Founding Fathers of PECUSA had no notion that their republican church of bishops was capable of changing the essential beliefs of Anglicanism, but that’s another story.
Americans approach law with perhaps more reverence than any other mortals. The country was founded when its citizens agreed to a set of principles, rights and laws. Americans grant to their laws and their legislative endeavors a great deal more respect and honor than perhaps is usual among other national groups. It is perhaps for this reason that Americans are prone to believe that anything can be “fixed” and that if it isn’t fixed; someone or some group has failed.
What is true of the nation is true of the Episcopal Church. No American religious society was so affected by the American Revolution or its governmental structures. This is not to suggest that synods of other Anglican countries do not seek to tackle a wide range of secular and religious issues. As secular legislative assemblies have increased their workload, the synods of the Anglican Communion have followed suit.
The last few decades of the Twentieth Century saw a decline in respect for leadership, perhaps the result of Watergate. It also saw a rise in political partisanship and in legislation aimed at tackling major social problems. Liberals and conservatives battled lastly about method and who should bear the burden of effecting change, but all believed that they could change things.
While both major parties had the chance to exercise power, in the Episcopal Church this was not the case. Those who believed in the necessity and power of change wrought an enormous transformation or perhaps reformation in ECUSA of a magnitude comparable to the English Reformation during the short reign of Edward VI. This reformation was largely effected by legislation.
Whatever one thinks about the revolution of the late sixties and the seventies, a by-product was a growing belief that one’s allegiance to ECUSA depended on what one thought of its legislative actions. People began to think of ECUSA in the same way they think about a political party, a body to which one affords loyalty if one agrees with its present policy. True there are some people who are incorrigibly addicted to a particular party. There are people, thank God, who are incorrigibly addicted to Anglicanism. Yet denominational loyalty seems a thing of the past in modern Western society.
It’s at this point that the problem of introspection jumps in. At the beginning of the Sixties Western Anglicanism seemed to go through an enormous crisis of confidence. It’s origins are as illusive as those of stock market crashes. ECUSA enjoyed a significant post World War boom. It grew rapidly and peaked in 1965. At the end of the Korean War quite a few late vocation priests were grown in order to minister to the church’s enlarged membership. It is not my purpose to argue that the decline which then occurred was caused by the reformation which began perhaps in 1965.
The reformation of the Sixties and Seventies, like any revolution, was self-obsessed. This is not to infer that the changes made were not important. Tackling the matter of racial injustice and prejudice was important, although attention to this subject seemed to have been short lived. Tragically African-Americans are a fringe group in ECUSA. Similarly the problem of women’s vocations and sexual preference speak to small constituencies in the church. It is true that the church was also seeking to send a message to the world, but perhaps didn’t realize that times had changed and few heard or listened. While ECUSA engaged in internal conflict its concentration was on the matters at issue. If the watching world heard anything, they heard it in terms of current agenda. What is an Episcopalian? The answer seemed to be found in canonical amendments and resolutions adopted by a General Convention. Why did people leave ECUSA? In part because of legislation. Why did people join? In part because of legislation.
This is not to suggest that there is something inappropriate about the church engaging in legislation to order its own business. Master Hooker argued strongly that each “particular” church had such a right and duty. The problem arises when there’s a perception that the Episcopal Church continually “invents” itself by legislative process and has no certain identity. This perception causes anguish in other parts of the Anglican Communion with perhaps a surer and less ambivalent affection for “tradition”. Confusion about ECUSA’s identity drives those who feel disenfranchised or who elevate the ultimate authority of acts of General Convention to the level of Gospel to contemplate schism.
As the church seeks to legislate its answers to theological, social and moral issues are the “laws” it adopts final answers binding on the faithful or are they attempts to create answers, attempts which may be altered or even forgotten over time? Are they, for example, the equivalent of Credal propositions or much more like parliamentary laws which can change? In short, can General Convention be mistaken?
If indeed General Convention’s decisions can indicate a doctrinal development and not merely a policy shift or a temporary if important attempt to address a current issue what happens to those who dissent?
The Church exists to grow. That was its founding purpose. True, growth is not merely numerical. There are many appropriate ways to grow. Nevertheless an essential part of mission is to tell the story of Jesus. There may be many “takes” on how this is to be done. One of the church’s problems during the past three decades is that it has seemed to offer an agenda as if it were merely a political party. That it has “seemed” so to do does not imply that this has been necessarily its true intention. In a Media driven society “sound bytes” are perhaps inevitable. In its attempt to draw social implications from the Gospel perhaps our church has not be very good at pointing to the Gospel. For the first time in American history a large number of people know none of the biblical stories and know nothing of the Gospel.
In short what we now face is the possibility that the image presented by ECUSA to the rest of the Anglican Communion and to its own people has, in part been caused by its failure to come to grips with its own polity and with its own passions. Despite the fact that the vast majority of Episcopalians are member of the church neither because or despite of General Convention, the vocal “edges” on the right and the left seem to react to each other as if they belonged to “The General Convention Church in the United States”.
Sunday by Sunday across the United States people attend their Episcopal Church as worshippers. It is in worship that Anglicans have always found their identity. They have depended on the Word heard (not necessarily interpreted and preached) and the Sacraments administered. This remains true across the Anglican Communion. It remains true in ECUSA. The Episcopal Church is not the sum of its most vocal parts, or identified by its legislative actions. It is for this reason that Anglicans overseas should not despair of our Church and our members should take heart. It’s so strange that most disenchanted Episcopalians learn their discontent in the freedom of their own parishes and groups. In these parishes and groups, General Convention exercises no compelling authority, except perhaps the compulsion to dissent.
Finally the trials of the moment are just that. We know what has been, and a bit about what is now. Of the future we know nothing. Well, perhaps we know that God is faithful and that’s enough. To believe that “now” is the final word is to open oneself to almost instant obsolescence. The eternal, unchangeable reality which is God inspires our faith and is illuminated in faithful worship. The day to day attempts of the church to manage itself demand our participation, but in a sense we can only handle the fallibility of this process if we anchor our loyalty in God whom we corporately find on our knees.
The Rev. Anthony F. M. Clavier is rector of Trinity Church, Watertown, South Dakota. At the time that he wrote this essay, he was rector of Trinity Church, Pine Bluff in the Episcopal Diocese of Arkansas. He recently served on the Dallas panel of the “New Commandment Task Force.” For thirty years he ministered in one of the Continuing Anglican Church as a bishop and Primus.