Thursday, April 30, 2009

Bishops' Statement on the Polity of the Episcopal Church

The following is an excerpt from "Bishops' Statement on the Polity of the Episcopal Church"

Written by: The Anglican Communion Institute, Inc.
Wednesday, April 22nd, 2009


The Fundamental Structure of The Episcopal Church Is That of a Voluntary Association of Equal Dioceses

Given the constitutional reservation of authority within the diocese to the Bishop and Standing Committee, it is not surprising that the fundamental structure of our Church is that of a voluntary association of equal dioceses.

It is significant that the same term, "voluntary association," has been used by both the founding father of The Episcopal Church to describe the organization he was so instrumental in forming and by the civil law to describe religious societies and other unincorporated voluntary organizations in general. Our Church's primary architect was, of course, William White, and his blueprint was The Case of the Episcopal Churches in the United States Considered, published in 1782 as the Revolutionary War was nearing an end. As a result of American independence, many of the former Church of England parishes had become independent churches while others were still organized as state churches under the control of state legislatures. White's concept, later accepted by others in the former colonies, was that the Anglican churches would first be organized into state churches and then the state churches would organize themselves nationally as a voluntary association of state churches (now called "dioceses"). Pursuant to this plan, White was one of the first two Americans consecrated by the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1787 to serve in the Episcopal Churches. When The Episcopal Church eventually was duly organized in 1789, Bishop White and Bishop Samuel Seabury, consecrated by the Scottish Episcopal Church, sat as the first House of Bishops at the first General Convention.

Just as the thirteen states were the "independent and sovereign" constituents of the American confederation that existed when the church now known as The Episcopal Church was being formed, the state churches were the bodies that combined to constitute what was initially called the Protestant Episcopal Church. It was the dioceses, then co-extensive with the newly-independent states, that created our Church's Constitution and General Convention. The constitutional mechanisms of governance they created preserved their status as equal members of a voluntary association of dioceses. As noted by the official commentary on our Constitution and canons, "Before their adherence to the Constitution united the Churches in the several states into a national body, each was completely independent." It then describes that national body they created as "a federation of equal and independent Churches in the several states."

As this brief summary of our founding history shows, the fundamental structure of The Episcopal Church from the outset has been that of a voluntary association of dioceses meeting together in a General Convention as equals. This structure is clearly reflected in our Constitution. There is no provision in the Constitution that defines a diocese. The dioceses are the undefined constituent elements out of which The Episcopal Church is formed. In contrast, General Convention is created and defined in Article I, which still provides in language virtually unchanged from the original that "The Church in each diocese which has been admitted to union with the General Convention…shall be entitled to representation…." As this current language makes clear, "Churches" in dioceses are not created by General Convention. They are "admitted" (upon their application and its acceptance) to union with the General Convention. Dioceses are both historically and ontologically prior to the Constitution and the General Convention. And upon admission, it is the diocese, not any other body or group, that is "entitled to representation" at General Convention.

This fundamental concept of dioceses as equal constituent members of The Episcopal Church is manifest in the mechanisms of governance created by the Constitution, including the provisions for representation and voting at General Convention, the means by which the Book of Common Prayer and Constitution are amended, and the procedures by which new dioceses are admitted to membership in The Episcopal Church after they are constituted.

The full text of the document may be found here -

1 comment:

Dale Matson said...

Although I believe this document was intended primarily to provide an individual diocese with the option to sign onto the Anglican Covenant even if TEC as a province did not, the secondary gain is that it strengthens the hand of the DSJ in making a case that it had an autonomous and voluntary relationship with TEC. This means also that General Convention is a creation of the collective Dioceses not visa versa. The case that TEC is making is that it is a hierarchical organization and the ACI/Bishop's statement is saying that TEC is not hierarchical. This is huge in terms of who owns the property.