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an essay for Anglicans Online

Episcopalian Democracy
By Pierre W. Whalon

9 July 2000

The General Convention is in session as this is being written. While debate rises to its usual fever pitch in Denver, it might be good for those of us not present (this writer is an alternate deputy in the clerical order) to step back for a moment from the Anglicans Online General Convention News Centre and reflect on what is occurring.

"The world’s largest legislative body" is one way General Convention is often described. Another way might be to call it the "synod of the Catholic Church in America." While this sounds quite provocative, consider the Preamble of our Constitution and Canons: The Episcopal Church [is] 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. Since the 16th century, Anglicans have defended their church as a legitimate part of the Catholic Church. Episcopalians are no different. From the Church of England we have inherited this manner of describing ourselves. Moreover, we have retained from the English Church a certain idea of our church as the church of the nation. What other American Christian body, for example, would think to give a cathedral to the nation as "a house of prayer for all people"? The graceful English Perpendicular towers of the National Cathedral soar over the American capital as a permanent reminder that the Episcopal Church views itself as the "Catholic Church in America," following the example of its English progenitor.

It should be said that the way Anglicans view our church as "catholic" is different from others who describe themselves that way. We see ourselves as true heirs of the early church, though not exclusively so. Our catholicity is reformed according to the model of the early church. The weight of the role Holy Scripture plays in that ongoing reformation is a perennial source of contention. We have learned to be "comprehensive," allowing for differing views on this and other difficult questions. We place high value as well on the results of scholarly inquiry.

The "Catholic Church of the Americans," thus understood, has a distinctively American form of government. The people who wrote the Constitution of the United States were by and large of the same mind as the people who devised the Constitution of the Episcopal Church. Their interpretation of the ancient church’s idea of a governing body or synod was patterned after their new-fangled ideas of self-rule. Episcopalians retained the office of bishop, though greatly limiting its power. We balanced our House of Bishops with a novel interpretation of the British form of lay governance. Instead of a lay monarch as Supreme Governor of the church, we have a House of Deputies composed of equal numbers of clergy and laity from all the dioceses. All of them are elected by their respective diocesan conventions (regional synods), composed of clergy and lay delegates elected by each parish. Thus we also retained the English view of the diocese as basic unit of the church, but added a substantial amount of lay involvement in governance of the church at all levels.

And the means of this governance is the same as American secular democracy: the vote. Unlike many of the provinces of the Anglican Communion, we elect our bishops by vote of clergy and laity. Our synod, the General Convention, also uses the vote to define the doctrine and moral teaching of the church. This too is different from many of the other provinces, whose constitutions declare that they have no power to alter the doctrine of the church.

By comparison, the Lambeth Conference, the gathering of all bishops of the Anglican Communion every ten years, does not consider its resolutions binding, precisely because it does not include voting lay participation. This was made clear at the first Lambeth Conference in 1867. Therefore, the Conference does not function as a synod or council of the Church. But the General Convention does, as far as the church in America is concerned.

It behooves Episcopalians therefore to pay close attention to the proceedings of the General Convention. For a synod, in the ancient understanding of such gatherings, can rule definitively on matters of faith and morals. The way in which such change is enacted in the Episcopal Church is not through the ordinary resolutions of the Convention. Like the pronouncements of the Lambeth Conference, these advise people in the Episcopal Church and beyond what this church is thinking on this or that issue. Those resolutions of General Convention that are binding, however, are those that amend the Constitution, Canons, or Prayer Book. These rulings have the full force of synodical action.

For instance, to clarify issues stemming from the verdict of the1996 trial of Bishop Walter Righter, the 1997 Convention defined the sources of the doctrine of the Episcopal Church: "The Doctrine of the Church is to be found in the Canon of Holy Scripture as understood in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds and in the sacramental rites, the Ordinal and Catechism of the Book of Common Prayer (1997 Resolution A014s; Canon IV.15)." This ruling by canonical amendment cannot be appealed anywhere else than to future General Conventions.

In the long run, the actions of councils await the reception or disapproval by the whole of the faithful, the so-called sensus fidelium. Then they become truly "set in stone." Nevertheless, amendments of our governing documents, the Constitution, Canons, and the Book of Common Prayer, are binding. They change doctrine (the way the church communicates its self-understanding in the life of God) or discipline (the practical ways in which this self-understanding is lived out).

A lot of our problems as a church seem to mirror problems of American government. First, most Episcopalians seem to feel disconnected from their government, just as Americans sense they have little power to change Congress, their state legislature, or the bureaucracies thereof. There is a perception in both instances that "special interests" (pick your favorite) can subvert the will of the people in enacting legislation. The use of the courts, especially the Supreme Court, in recent decades to circumvent the executive and legislative branches found its counterpart in the attempted trial of Bishop Righter to stop ordinations of gay people. Beyond that, some groups on both Left and Right have simply opted out of the American democratic process. The Episcopal Church has its own parallels. On the church’s Left, we have the assumption by some dioceses of the right to ordain and bless people in same-sex relationships. Some on the Right support the Singapore consecrations of two "missionary bishops," who will presumably re-convert the apostate Episcopal Church.

None of this is meant here as a value judgment on this or that issue. The point is merely that if we are in fact the "Catholic Church in America," we will act like Americans for better—and for worse—in the way we live out the process of governing ourselves.

One basic change is necessary. Just as citizens have learned how to make American legislatures more responsive to them, Episcopalians have to pay more attention to General Convention and especially to those they elect as deputies (and yes, alternates as well). It is no good to sit by complacently or despairingly and say, "oh, they’ll never change that…"

Opting out is no solution either. Appeals to the Anglican Communion won’t have much effect, since the Episcopal Church, like all the other provinces, is autonomous, a true national church. On the other hand, cynical manipulation of the system to advance a specific interest is completely incompatible with being the Church of Jesus Christ.

Americans often forget how bold and novel our form of government is. Our trust in the ability of an informed electorate to govern us is a radical departure from the prehistoric human tradition of handing over ultimate authority to a strongman. Similarly, and with perhaps more precedent from antiquity, we Episcopalians have put our faith in an elected government, a prayerful voting assembly of laypeople and clergy, themselves wisely and prayerfully chosen by ballot (we should expect). We trust the Holy Spirit will graciously use the General Convention, with all its legislative untidiness, to speak the mind of Christ.

Therefore, let us pray continually for the General Convention in session, and the Executive Council and Presiding Bishop when it is not in session. Let each Episcopalian become personally involved in the processes for selecting bishops and deputies (and alternates), and in holding them accountable to the people of God. They are already accountable to their Lord, as are we all. But Episcopalians are especially accountable for the freedom and responsibility to make good use of this instrument of the General Convention to further the mission and work of the Church of Jesus Christ, among "the Americans" and away to the ends of the earth.

Bishop Whalon welcomes comments or questions about this essay. You can write to him at

THE RT REVD PIERRE W. WHALON is Bishop in Charge of the Convocation of American Churches in Europe.