Anglicans Online welcomes responsible replies to columns that we publish. This essay was submitted as a response to Fr Tony Clavier's column 'The General Convention Church?' from 27 August 2000.
“A General Convention Church? – Yes!”
Ronald L. Young
10 September 2000
Fr. Tony Clavier’s essay, ‘The General Convention Church?', is an unwarranted attack upon the governing body of the Episcopal Church of the United States of America (ECUSA), the General Convention. The essay, based on romantic if not Imperial notions of Anglican ecclesiology, is but a veiled attack on the accepted and standard form of church government within the Anglican Communion-synods of bishops, clergy, and laity.
Clavier asks whether the ECUSA has become a General Convention church. My answer to Clavier’s question is a strong and proud Yes!
Clavier does provide faint praise for the government of the Episcopal Church. He recognizes the need for a form of governance for the e institutional church, and he doesn’t object in principle to the manner in which the ECUSA has organized itself. However, Clavier then ‘damns’ this governing structure of the church by disparaging status the ECUSA, questioning the understanding of the authority of the General Convention, and finally finding fault with the operation of the General Convention (e.g., the continuing ‘reinvention’ of the church).
Clavier attacks the status of the ECUSA, and by inference the General Convention – our form of church government- by quoting quaint anecdotes. While I enjoy the reminisces about the eccentric views of Trollopian Anglican clergy, such stories distort our Anglican history. The ECUSA certainly did pioneer the modern form of synodal government within the Anglican tradition. But this is an incomplete retelling of our history.
The roots of synodal government, that is the participation of the bishops, clergy, and laity, in the government of the church, did not begin with the establishment of the ECUSA. The modern form of synodal government evolved from the experience of the early church, the reformation settlements, and modern political thought. Amidst the diversity of the early church, a pattern clearly emerges that the government of the church was entrusted to neither bishops, nor clergy, nor laity alone. The election of bishops in the early church by the laity and clergy is but the best-known example of the involvement of all orders in the governance of the church. Latter, the peculiarities of the English Reformation settlement reestablished the pivotal role of the laity in the governance of the Church of England. The monarchy and Parliament, together representing the laity of the church, acted to legislate for and with (and sometimes against) the church. The Crown appointed the leaders of the church and Parliament regulated doctrine by passing or not passing legislation governing the affairs of the church, including the prayer. Thus the English Reformation brought forth an imperfect form of synodal government for the Church of England.
The establishment of the General Convention of the ECUSA was not a revolution but an evolution conditioned by the political realities of the American situation. Within a hundred years of the establishment of the ECUSA, this form of church government was becoming common throughout the emerging Anglican Communion. Synods were established in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Ireland among other places. The movement for representative lay assemblies to participate in the governance of the church was well underway in the Church of England. The 20th century saw the synod, adapted to local conditions, become the norm throughout the Anglican Communion. The polity of the Church of England was reformed with the establishment of the Church Assembly in 1919, providing a synodal government acting under the authority of Parliament. Nor can the spread of representative synods within the Anglican Communion be attributed to twentieth century American political dominance, for the emergence of synodal government within much Anglicanism predates the post-1945 Pax Americana. The rise of Anglican synods, based on the model of the ECUSA General Convention, was well underway during the height of the British Empire.
A defense of the ECUSA General Convention, and Anglican synods in general, must begin with Winston Churchill statement on the nature of democracy:
“No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
The spirit of Churchill’s statement applies to Anglican synods. Synods in which all orders of the church (bishops, clergy, and laity) participate in the government of the church is the worst form of church government – except for all other forms that have been tried from time to time!
The rise of synods within Anglicanism has certainly been influenced by the development of secular political thought that has embraced representative democracy. But this is not what gives strength and value to church synods such as the General Convention of the ECUSA. The foundation of synodal government is the confluence of a baptismal theology and the traditions of the church. Thorough our common Baptism we become members of the church. This membership is both complete and equal. The membership of baptism into the church of Christ recognizes neither hierarchy nor status. The gifts of the Spirit, including the wisdom to participate in the councils of the church may be found in all orders of the church; bishops, clergy, and laity. However, the tradition of the church grants that the episcopate, the bishops, have particular responsibility to guard the faith of the church. Synods, within Anglicanism, affirm this tradition by granting the episcopate a leading and even sometime dominant role in the councils of the church. In the General Convention of the ECUSA, the House of Bishops has coequal authority with the representatives of the clergy and laity. Modern Anglican synods are the synthesis of our baptismal theology and the tradition of the church.
If Clavier ‘damned’ the General Convention with faint praise, I would prefer in the words of Dorothy Sayer’s character Lord Peter Wismey to ‘praise the General Convention with faint damns.’ In spite of their strengths, I recognize that the General Convention, and similar synods throughout the Anglican Communion, is a fallible body. The councils of the church act to define doctrine and practices of the church and to legislate for its day-to-day affairs. Anglican history is filled with examples that demonstrate the provisionality and fallibility of the synods of the church to act in both regards. Prayer Books are revised, not only in our contemporary era but also from the time of the English reformation. Canons and rubrics, often controversial in their time, come and go. Doctrinal statements such as the Thirty-nine Articles slip into quiet abeyance. And I certainly recognize that Anglican synods may also succumb to the temptation of following secular fads and ideologies. However, I return to Churchill’s dictum – ‘except for all other forms (of church government) that have been tried from time to time.’ The alternatives to synodal government have even greater weaknesses and pose even greater risks to the mission of the church of Christ.
We should not despair of the General Convention. We should rejoice in its strengths as a witness to our theology and tradition. We should recognize and acknowledge the failings and fallibility of the councils of the church. And we should respond to these shortcomings with repentance and reform. We should affirm our responsibility and duty, endowed by our baptism, to continue to participate in the councils of the church; from our parish through our diocese, to the General Convention. The promised freedom of the Gospels is not found in the supposed liberty of the parish, but in our continued life in the wider church – whether we are the ‘winners’ or ‘losers’ in the councils of the church.