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This page last updated 4 April 2014  

an essay for Anglicans Online
7  October 2012

Note: The Anglicans Online editorial staff do not accept the designation 'The Episcopal Church'
as the nomenclature for the American Episcopal Church, but out of deference to Bishop Whalon,
our long-time columnist, we have kept that usage intact in his essay below.


Polity Politics
The Rt Revd Pierre W. Whalon, D.D.

Just how does The Episcopal Church govern itself? And why should you care?

To paraphrase Winston Churchill, ours is the worst form of church government. Until you consider all the other forms of church government…

If you are not an Episcopalian, then finding out how we should run the church might well give you "polity envy." But there is some confusion about how it works. For instance, in recent years, The Episcopal Church and some of its dioceses have found it necessary to go to the secular courts in order to retrieve properties and monies that various breakaway churches have claimed belonged to them. In one such case before the Texas Supreme Court, seven bishops of the Church signed an amicus curiæ brief in which they maintained that The Episcopal Church is not a hierarchical church. This despite rulings by several other state Supreme Courts that this Church is indeed hierarchical.

While the legal matter at hand does not concern us here, what should be worrisome is confusion about this Church’s government. When challenged by other bishops, the seven wrote an open letter to the House of Bishops explaining their rationale. As I understand it, they believe that the church is indeed hierarchical, but only at the diocesan level. The supreme “hierarch” is the diocesan bishop. As there is no archbishop or other metropolitical authority figure above bishops in our church, they reason, the government of the Episcopal Church taken as a whole is not hierarchical.

As Bishop in Europe, it often falls to me to explain to Anglican or ecumenical partner churches our particular form of church government, and indeed, to defend some of our decisions. One of the most difficult aspects of this has been the confusion about how our church actually works, even among its top leaders, as we have seen above.

I may also be confused, but I want to share what I have learned, because my experience is that our polity is very likely the best, when we practice it faithfully.

First, all churches have the same basic structure. The local congregation meets the needs of its members as they become and grow into becoming disciples of Jesus Christ. A regional organization meets the needs of its congregations that they cannot meet for themselves. Finally, an overall authority meets the needs of these regional organizations that they cannot meet for themselves.

How this works at each level — what needs the organizations at every level have and who defines those (where the power is) — is what characterizes each denomination. It should be clear that, in this sense, all churches that are not completely independent (think individual mega-churches) are “hierarchical” in their government. As the late Rabbi Edwin Friedman used to observe, “hierarchy is natural.” Equally clear is the fact that each denomination exhibits this basic structure in wildly different ways — compare the Roman Catholic Church to the Assemblies of God, for example.

Among them, The Episcopal Church has its own idiosyncratic form of government.

A bit of history is needed for context. Before the American Revolution, the Church of England’s missionary societies, created at the beginning of the eighteenth century, began adding considerable numbers of churches in the colonies to the few that had already been established in the previous century. These began to meet by colony in “conventions” from time to time. Their powers were quite limited, and they were often presided by “commissaries” named by the Bishop of London, in whose jurisdiction the American churches were counted. No bishop was ever consecrated for ministry in colonial America.

Thus the churches were unprepared for the Revolution. As they belonged to the Crown, many were destroyed, and two-thirds of the clergy left. The lack of direct episcopal oversight had left the congregations to their own devices in terms of local life — choosing clergy instead of having one appointed, for instance. The issue suddenly was survival — how can we govern ourselves so as to continue?

These days we often hear how people distrust “institutional religion.” However, the reasons churches develop institutions is to carry on mission and ministry as time goes on and generations are born and die. The first Christians collected scriptures, which eventually came down to us as the Holy Bible. They wrote creeds to give a thumbnail sketch of the first church’s interpretation of the scriptural message. They carried on baptizing and celebrating the Eucharist in obedience to Jesus. And by 150 A.D. or so, the office of bishop had become the central feature of church government throughout the Roman Empire. These four developments, which we now celebrate in the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, are the result of the institutionalizing of Christianity. Without this institution (yes, including bishops), the Christian church would have died out long ago.

The American congregations of the Church of England had to create their own institution or die. Between the withdrawal of British forces after Yorktown in 1781, and the ratification of a constitution for the church in 1789, there eventually emerged a consensus on the polity of the new “protestant episcopal” church. Its features were:

  • the need for an American episcopate exercised without the pomp or secular power inherited from feudal times;
  • the conviction that elections should be required at all levels of the church’s life to choose leaders, including bishops, as in the first centuries;
  • the tradition of a division of responsibility for the church’s life inherited from the mother church, namely, that the bishops and clergy oversee the spiritual life of the church — worship, education, pastoral care and ordinations — while the laity (specifically, the monarch) oversee the “temporalities” of life such as finances and property, as well as having a full voice in deciding the choice of leaders, clergy or lay; and
  • the tradition of local autonomy that had developed in America for almost two centuries.

The first constitution of the church, ratified in 1789, reflects these foundational principles. Parishes were led jointly by rectors and vestries: clergy overseeing worship and education, and elected laypeople managing finances and property, as well as calling new rectors. The tradition of colonial conventions led to state conventions, which were what we now call dioceses, presided by the bishop but that have power to determine the life of the diocese. The annual diocesan convention oversees finances, elects a bishop when necessary and a standing committee and other governing bodies (depending on the dioceses) to exercise jurisdiction.

So far these were not very different than the features of English church life. It was the creation of a “general convention” endued with specific powers that marked the American Episcopal revolution. In short, while the Church of England and most of the churches that came from it have an archbishop who serves as the metropolitical authority, that authority resides in the General Convention.

Thus on the face of it, the seven bishops are right. In The Episcopal Church, the classic church hierarchy of deacon — priest — diocesan — archbishop ends at the diocesan level. But this is to misunderstand what a hierarchy is.

The word comes from the Greek for “priest” and “first.” A hierarch is the “first priest,” the one in charge. But a society ordered hierarchically is not necessarily ruled by one person. The United States military is hierarchical, and has a commander in chief, but it is the oath of allegiance that binds the individual soldier, sailor or airman to the military.

The General Convention is at the top of our hierarchy. Following the principles outlined above, it splits authority for the whole church’s life between the bishops and an assembly of clergy and laity elected to represent each diocese. Both “houses” must agree for any decision to become authoritative. It should be noticed that the legislative model is Parliament, not the U. S. Congress. Convention’s decisions are unimpeachable; there is no court of appeal other than future meetings of the Convention to reverse decisions.

Specifically, the General Convention rules on what is the doctrine of the Church, its discipline (canon law), and its worship. All the clergy pledge to conform to that doctrine, discipline, and worship, and should they decide to do otherwise, they are liable to be barred from exercising ministry. Other decisions are the choice of bishop presiding the college of bishops and the president of the deputies’ assembly, the budget, and matters affecting all the dioceses, such as entering into full-communion agreements with ecumenical partners. It may make pronouncements on issues of the day, but these are not binding on Episcopalians. Until this last Convention, it could also ratify elections of bishops — for no diocese can choose and consecrate a bishop by itself.

Thus when persons at their ordination(s) pledge to conform to the doctrine, discipline and worship of the Episcopal Church, they put themselves under the authority of the hierarchy of the church. Beginning with the General Convention, its Book of Common Prayer, and its canons.

But there are real limits to the extent of the Convention’s authority. It makes only those decisions that affect all the dioceses. A great deal of latitude is left to the local church — that is, the diocese. For instance, the Convention does not prescribe the constitution and canons of each diocese, only that these must conform to the constitution and canons of the whole Church. While the General Convention alone can create a new diocese, two neighboring dioceses may decide to re-unite, if one originally came from the other (Western Kansas and Kansas could decide to become one again, for instance), without approval of the Convention.

In other words, great care has traditionally been taken to guarantee to the local dioceses all the autonomy they need to exercise ministry in their particular locales. The Dioceses of Haiti and Taiwan look significantly different from one another, and from Connecticut and Virginia, for example, because their specific regional cultures are different from the continental United States and require different strategies for mission and ministry. (Connecticut and Virginia are hardly identical, for that matter.) Each diocese in turn determines how its parishes exercise their own autonomy.

However, this principle of government has a corollary: the local cannot decide for the whole. In matters of identity, each diocese and all their congregations must accede to the authority of the General Convention. Despite recent arguments about diocesan autonomy, that freedom is granted not because it is theirs by right but because they need it in order to flourish. A diocese is the creation of the whole, and remains part of that whole, unless lawfully released to another province of the Anglican Communion — for even the General Convention does not have the absolute final say in determining global Anglican identity. (But that is another matter entirely.)

The most recent General Convention decided to take a new look at this structure. In a rare unanimous vote of both Houses, a special commission is to be named to propose significant changes to our church’s structure and its functioning.

How significant? I doubt that the basic outline of what I have described above needs to be changed. As originally conceived, it is a brilliant scheme for a missionary church, seeking a balance between local mission and overall identity, and bestowing means upon the whole to make changes to the expression — but not the substance — of that identity as part of the Church of Jesus Christ. And it is crucial to note that, insofar as possible, this hierarchy is designed to reflect Jesus’ commandment that the greatest (the top of the hierarchy) must be servant of all (the top is really the bottom, reversing the pattern of the world). See Matthew 20:26; 23:11; Luke 20:26.

But within the broad lines of our polity are variables that need re-thinking for a new day, a new era of God’s mission. Start with the local congregation. We can and we should add new models to our definition of “parish” and “mission church.” In Europe we have been experimenting with this, necessity being the mother of invention in a missionary situation. The swift changes in the landscape of American church life also demand a new flexibility in congregational organization, while retaining the substance of our identity as Anglicans overall, and Episcopal Christians in particular.

The definition of a diocese and specifically, the office of bishop, are also a center of reforming interest. What is at stake is the personal ministry of the bishop vis-à-vis the administration of a group of regional churches. The former is to be a symbol and enabler of unity with Christ, the first disciples, and one another, starting at home and “away to the ends of the earth” (Act 1:8). The latter requires rethinking of administering a variety of congregations, from traditional parishes to “fresh expressions” of congregational life. Does the particularity of our polity require so many dioceses? How does this age’s great game-changer, the Internet, figure in?

The General Convention itself needs rethinking. Some are calling for consideration of a unicameral body, like our full-communion partner, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Its enormous size (888 deputies and almost 300 eligible bishops) and expense certainly need to be trimmed: the representation and resultant expenditure should be proportional to the need to meet.

The office of President of the House of Deputies has recently expanded in its scope from being the legislative officer presiding at triennial meetings of the Convention. What should be the duties of the office, given that we continue not to pay a salary to the President of the House?

The Presiding Bishop’s office is another focus of attention. The present Presiding Bishop has been criticized for seeming to take more responsibilities than the office allows, specifically with respect to dealing with the property disputes above. There has been some criticism that the new disciplinary canons give too much power to the Presiding Bishop to act precipitously in dealing with bishops. But it is precisely when there is crisis that a central authority needs to intervene. How to define that?

The Executive Council meets between General Conventions to conduct the business of the Church. Its president is the Presiding Bishop, and the vice-president is the President of the House of Deputies. It functions like a board of trustees, yet with 38 elected members, reforms also should be considered. The Treasurer and Secretary of Convention are elected by Convention. So with the Council, we have five centers of elected authority, each with a staff — on whose desk should the buck stop?

“Dispersed authority” is a classic hallmark of Anglicanism. But in the present structure, there is also “dispersed accountability,” which can inhibit effectiveness. We need to analyze and justify the “cost/benefit” of this arrangement.

There are many other aspects of our polity to be reconsidered, but there are three that I wish to highlight now.

The first is the need to revitalize the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society, to which every Episcopalian belongs. It is presently the legal entity of The Episcopal Church, but that function has displaced its original role, namely, to develop mission both in the United States and “away to the ends of the earth.” To re-design our church for mission in this new millennium, we should retrieve and update what belonging to the DFMS should mean to each of us.

The second is the principle underlying our polity. I would argue that our ancestors hit upon what we now call “subsidiarity” as an organizing standard consistent with the hierarchy as defined by our Lord. The word comes from the Latin for “dominion” and first appears in church documents in Pope Pius XI’s 1931 encyclical Quadragesimo anno. The idea is that local government should make all decisions relative to its own life, and that higher authorities may not as a matter of justice interfere with those local decisions — except when necessary. Since then it has become a principle of Catholic social thought, though the Roman church has not applied it to its own governance. Subsidiarity is a mainstay of the polity of the European Union (though not the Euro!), and therefore has attracted a lot of recent interest from political philosophers and scientists.

What makes it attractive is the idea of local control. The converse, however, is that the local must cede jurisdiction for much of its life to the general authority, namely, those aspects which define its identity. So for instance, individual member states of the E.U. retain their individual jurisprudence, but up to half their laws actually have been imposed by the Union. Episcopalians who want to argue that individual dioceses have the final say in determining their identity are wrong. Their dioceses acceded to the unimpeachable authority of the General Convention in 1789, or else were created by action of Convention, and that cannot be undone except by the Convention. Individuals may leave, of course: conscience must be followed. Dioceses or parishes however may not unilaterally choose to depart.

The confusion mentioned at the beginning is endemic to societies organized around subsidiarity. There is a studied vagueness about what the different bodies in the hierarchy may and may not do, in order to preserve local rights as much as possible. In times of conflict, people will tend to resolve that vagueness in their favor (think the American Civil War…). As The Episcopal Church embarks on a new course of reform, continuing to enshrine that latitude will be essential to retaining the ordered freedom that is, in the final analysis, the real genius of our polity.

Finally, to come full circle: Every church must have structures that meet the needs that local congregations cannot meet for themselves. All the varieties of Christian churches have different ideas about what these needs are. As we consider reform, answering these questions remains basic to effective change:

The diocese with its personal episcopate exists to meet the needs that individual congregations cannot meet for themselves. What are these?

The overall government exists to meet the needs of the dioceses that they cannot meet alone. What are these?

There is great urgency. Not out of fear of the "decline" of The Episcopal Church, but because we exist solely to discern and accomplish, so far as is given to us, our portion of God's mission to the world, through Christ, in the Spirit.

And the world cannot wait.

The Right Reverend Pierre W. Whalon is Bishop in Charge of the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe. welcomes comments or questions about this article. You can write to him at