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When a diocese elects a bishop whose private life is out of accepted norms, or when a diocese elects a bishop who will not ordain women though the province’s canons say they may be ordained, or when a diocese decides laypeople need not be ordained to celebrate the Eucharist, or when a diocese writes its own liturgy of same-sex blessing and authorizes its use—all these voted by their conventions—there is a question of boundaries. Not geographical boundaries, of course—in Europe we do not even have them. The question is about the boundaries of a diocese’s powers: its ability to decide certain matters but not others. For all these decisions have consequences beyond their borders. In our age of instant communication, their repercussions are felt and reacted to in a matter of hours 12,000 miles away, and back round again just as quickly.
The fundamental idea of Anglican church polity is synodical, in other words, only an official gathering of bishop, clergy and laity is able to make binding decisions. But, as we shall see, the question of the limits of diocesan decisions cannot be properly answered without addressing a related question, that of the boundaries of Anglican provinces.
What therefore are the proper boundaries of a diocese? There is a moral imperative latent in human thought for thousands of years but clearly elaborated only in the modern era, known as the principle of subsidiarity. It is basically a social philosophy of the just ordering of societies. The basic idea is that a society should delegate its decision-making to the level of organization most competent to address the matter at hand. Thus the most closely-knit level, the local level, is ideally where all decisions should be made, except for those decisions that affect other local communities in the region, other regional communities in the nation, other nations in the world. So for instance the US government should not collect the garbage in Caribou, Maine, nor should the government of Caribou raise an army to defend itself from Canadians and errant Vermonters. Those boundaries are clear enough. On the other hand, the debate about a national driver’s license instead of fifty different state licenses is not so clear. The heart of the matter is that the rights of local communities be preserved.
Societies build up around certain self-understandings shared by all. In the Church’s case, we all believe that self-understanding comes from God in Jesus Christ through the Spirit, as lived in the Church’s memory (Bible, creeds, sacraments) and how that memory is re-lived, augmented, and re-interpreted as generation succeeds generation. Call it the Gospel, Anglican-style. Each dimension of the Anglican Communion—individual, local church, regional, national, global—lives this Gospel out from the intensely particular to the abstractly global.
One way to describe this is that the Church has a “fractal” quality—a rough “geometrical shape” that reproduces itself with some variation across changes of scale, like the well-known computer renderings of the Mandelbrot set. This “fractal” quality holds true for individuals, confirming the traditional teaching that every believer recapitulates in some form the same story of salvation. To push the metaphor a bit more, each level of the Church is responsible for seeing that the “geometry” of the Gospel, our self-understanding, is recognizably the same despite changes of scale and local variations. Parishes exist because individuals need them in order to flourish as Christian disciples in the long term. Dioceses exist to help parishes in a region thrive. Provinces exist to help its dioceses succeed. What is missing is that the Communion has no similar structures to help the provinces thrive. The provinces that make up the Anglican Communion have not yet created structures to help them inculturate the Gospel faithfully.
There is a significant variation of provincial decision-making process across the Communion, with the Church of England and the Episcopal Church forming the bookends, so to speak. With instant global communications, and a generalized unsophisticated understanding of each other’s provinces and their cultures, the Communion is ripe for constant unmanageable conflict over what dioceses are doing because at the global level there are few mechanisms available to oversee provinces’ scope of action, and none whose authority is widely accepted.
Similarly (that fractal quality again) the Episcopal Church has not got a clear sense of what dioceses can and cannot do, because we have little comprehension of the boundaries of diocesan powers. Going down another fractal dimension of scale, consider the patchwork quilt of differing parishes that make up each American diocese. The similarities across scale hold.
Most of the conflicts, therefore, which have produced the Lambeth Conferences, the Anglican Consultative Council, and the Primates Meetings involve issues of subsidiarity. One basic principle has informed Anglicans at the global level: no global figure or organization can tell a province what to do. This was the initial condition for the first Lambeth Conference, that it not include laypeople and thus could not function as a synod that could make decisions binding on the whole Communion. The closest we have come to that was when Archbishop George Carey became personally involved in re-making the Church of Rwanda after the genocidal civil war there. Those who have read the 1997 Virginia Report of the Inter-Anglican Theological and Doctrinal Commission will recognize in that document an acknowledgement that to some extent, the absolute independence of provinces is impossible. On a very few issues, there needs to be a global consensus, and the means to arrive at one, or else Anglicanism in the final analysis is merely a kind of ecclesial libertarianism, virtually incoherent beyond its local manifestations. According to the principle of subsidiarity, that sets up an unjust system across the board.
What are the issues, how do we decide that list, and who gets to make the decisions about them? These questions are also inherent in defining the relationship of parishioner to parish, parish to diocese, diocese to province...and province to Communion.
Clearly there are some decisions dioceses may not take. Readers will recall the affair known as the “Baltimore Declaration,” a brief movement centered in the Diocese of Maryland. Six clerics of the diocese issued the declaration in 1991 after the diocesan convention voted down a resolution stating that Jesus Christ was the unique way to salvation. Having acceded to the Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church, however, the diocesan convention should never have allowed this resolution to come to a vote, for only General Convention votes on doctrine. The subsequent brouhaha and perhaps defections from the Church could have been avoided.
On the other hand, there needs to be local freedom. For instance, dioceses with Native Americans can and should create styles of worship that allow for expressions of Native culture. It would be inappropriate for the General Convention to mandate that the whole church use them. It would also violate subsidiarity for say, the Diocese of Rhode Island to create worship materials for Native Episcopalians in Navajoland. Regional differences make for legitimate variations on the basic shape that holds across dimensions of scale.
Whence come the hard cases. The real issue is how to translate authentically the faith we have received in the circumstances faced by congregations in particular regions with individual cultural challenges. Thus the diocesan level is where this tension will surface, since the bishop in synod (diocesan convention) is the fundamental model for Anglican polity across the Communion.
It should be clear from the Maryland case that dioceses have no business considering matters of doctrine, but what about diocesan conventions electing candidates for bishop in same-sex unions or approving rites for such unions? There is a decision to be made concerning the moral status of such unions, and all moral decisions turn on points of doctrine. In this case, the doctrinal issue is under the heading of “theological anthropology,” what it means to be human, specifically, a sexual being in light of salvation in Jesus Christ.
Perhaps the General Convention should signal its intent to approve such actions but ask for an international consultation before acting definitively—just as Hong Kong became the first to ordain women by asking the advice of the Anglican Consultative Council, or certain African judicatories asked Lambeth 1988 to give consent to the baptism of polygamists. In light of recent American actions seen across the globe as unilateral, arrogant, and ill-informed, this might be the most prudent course of action.
On the question of those Episcopal dioceses that continue to deny women’s ordination, the acceptance of prophetic action as an institutionalized way to make change in the church confuses the issue. In other words, if one can be prophetic in one direction with impunity, one can be prophetic in the other direction and equally claim impunity. Or to put it another way, if your diocese can do this, our diocese can do that. Clearly this cannot long prevail.
The most important question to put to the ACC, the next Lambeth Conference, and the planned Anglican Congress in 2008 is arguably the limits of diocesan action. Some boundaries should be clear to all. Others are not. This is an issue the Anglican Communion in general and the Episcopal Church in particular can no longer put off. Paradoxically, because of the “fractal quality” of the Church across scales of communities, setting these boundaries for dioceses will require a global structure to form a consensus on disputed questions, one capable of re-forming it again later when necessary.
Subsidiarity—the just ordering of society to protect the rights of local communities—demands it.
Bishop Whalon welcomes comments or questions about this article. You can write to him at email@example.com.