Monday, February 15, 2010

Some Pertinent Historical Analysis

I am pleased to see that the Anglican Communion Institute has published what I found to be one of the more insightful papers that were presented the week before last at the conference they sponsored in Dallas, and which I attended. It is by the Revd Dr Robert Prichard, esteemed professor of Episcopal Church History at the Virginia Theological Seminary.

I find particularly interesting the light Dr Prichard's work sheds on the evolution of the office of Presiding Bishop, and, more recently, the office of President of the House of Deputies--indeed, of the House of Deputies itself as an entity that more and more has a "life" outside the two weeks out of every 156 when it is actually assembled in General Convention. All this, in turn, has a rather direct bearing on the revelations made last week (see the post before last) with respect to 815's legal strategy in the Diocese of South Carolina.

It is tempting to say that the Episcopal Church is in the midst of a constitutional crisis, but that would be to say, simultaneously, both too little and too much--too little, because there's a lot more going on than differences over polity (like cultural and demographic forces that are a lot larger than any of our current fights over "hot issues"), and too much, because our polity is not based on any outside point of reference (in secular parlance, the "rule of law"), but is intrinsically and thoroughly political, which is to say that those who have (or arrogate to themselves) responsibility for implementing and enforcing the constitution and canons have as much leeway in the interpretation of those documents as their political base (ostensibly and formally General Convention, but it's more complex than that) is willing to afford them, and at the present time that political base seems to have written a blank check to the Presiding Bishop. No amount of legal analysis proving she is wrong in her reading of the canons will be of any avail as long as the ecclesiastical equivalent of her "job approval rating" remains high. There are no "civil" procedures by which to challenge her in church courts, because the only courts we have are ad hoc and are convened only in response to "criminal" allegations ... and her political base is so strong that those who are in a position to formally accuse her of of misconduct are strongly disincentivized from doing so; the personal risk is great and the hope of success slim.


Tom Sramek, Jr. said...

Bob Prichard was my church history professor at VTS, so I value his insight enormously. That said, the difficulty in the current debate is that there was a great hue and cry when TEC failed to take steps to discipline folks like Bishops Pike and Spong. Now when TEC, via the Presiding Bishop and Title IV committee, does take action against bishops and clergy, it is regarded as too heavy-handed and authoritarian! I do recognize the irony that while doctrine does not apparently rise to the level of judicial action, institutional survival apparently does!

It would be nice to talk about the shifting role of authority in the church and the world without the backdrop of the sexuality conflict, but they are now inextricably interwoven. Those who argue for a strictly hierarchical church seem to do so, at least in part, to cover their legal bases. Those who argue against such centralization seem to do so out of a desire to retain, or gain, their independence from a church in which they feel they have less and less in common. The fact that an organization who is unhappy with recent TEC decisions does not engender confidence that such discussions are without hidden agendas. The same could be said for the other side, of course, though I don't see any conferences being scheduled on "The Role of GLBT Folks in TEC".

Ben said...

Has anyone else noticed similarity between our PB and President Obama? Both of their actions smack of elitist, "I know what's best" for the country or the Episcopal Church and if the Constitution [and Canons] don't give me leeway, I'll take it. In the case of Obama, it's threatening to enact policy by Executive order. Bishop Katherine doesn't have that option available to her but it hasn't stopped her.
@Tom: I don't agree with your assessment of the current situation in S.C. It is unlike the situation of Pike and Spong. Spong (I'll pick on him since his episcopacy is more recent) has made a whole career out declaring what he doesn't believe about the Orthodox Christian faith. IMO, as Diocesan Bishop, he was clearly operating outside the doctrine of the Church and should have been disciplined.
S.C. on the other hand has done nothing as of now. No parish in S.C. has left TEC. Bishop Lawrence has committed no crime. The only thing that anyone can say is that there has been "talk" of this or that parish considering leaving. Or is "thought" itself now a crime? Is Free Speech a crime? It’s OK for a bishop, who has vowed to defend the Faith, to say that he doesn’t believe in the Resurrection but it isn’t ok for a parish to talk about leaving TEC? That is SOOO “1984” of Bishop Katherine.
I do make a hue and cry about Bishop Katherine's behavior. She is the political equivalent of Pike and Spong. Unlike them, Bishop Katherine has found weakness in our polity and is exploiting it and there isn't anything anyone can do about it.

Ben said...

Apologies for misspelling Katharine.

James said...

Tom seems to make the common liberal mistake of believing that a "hierarchical church" is only defined in terms of property ownership. The reality is that
first, there are a wide variety of "hierarchical" churches, and second, that traditionally, "hierarchical" churches have viewed the importance of hierarchy as being connected with the preservation of catholic doctrine and discipline, NOT with the maintenance of property rights!

IMHO, TEC lost its right to refer to itself as a "hierarchical" church when it declined to use its hierarchy for the purpose for which it was designed - i.e. the maintenance of a catholic faith and order. What TEC is now is the empty facade of a "hierarchical" church - inside is chaos and anarchy, while an increasingly authoritarian leadership cabal (who are undermining TEC's de jure right to call itself hierarchical by their deviation from catholic faith and order) is claiming near dictatorial powers in the name of hierarchy.

And I think this is exactly why TEC is very much in a constitutional crisis!

Dale Matson said...

"...the ecclesiastical equivalent of her 'job approval rating' remains high."
Fr. Dan, What metrics would you be using that allow you to offer this observation? Is this an internal poll taken at 815 on presidents day?

Mike R. said...

The Prichard paper you cite was very interesting. Thank God the liberals were not in charge in 1919 when our more formally centralized structure was adopted. His observation that this was a movement towards the Anglican Communion shows the irony of unintended consequences. That very movement strengthened GC by adding more executive power. It is also worth nothing the role of GC as the central authority is not sidestepped.

There is a vast difference between Spong and the Bishops and clergy of the current diaspora. In the former case the demand was made (though no one every brought a presentment which they certainly had the power to do) to push him out. In the latter case the Church has simply acknowledged that these folks left without permission to go somewhere they had no authority to go. Removal from the list of authorized clargy was just an acknowledgment of the choice those clergy made.

It is fascinating that Spong is held up as an example where the Church failed to discipline when the responsibility was equally shared by conservative bishops who had every freedom to file a presentiment. Blame them if blame is needed because they felt passionate about it and did nothing. To blame liberals or progressives or anyone else just proves that this issue is some sort of purity test. But the church's history of heresy trials as not been a good one, so I can see lots of pressure to not repeat the mistakes of the past. None the less conservatives must own their role in not pressing for a presentiment,

Fr. Yousuf said...

I find Fr. Sramek's comment rather mystifying. When has polity in Church history *ever* not been "inextricably woven" with some current conflict? When have polity arguments not involved hidden or not so hidden agendas?

What seems especially obvious to me as an "outsider" is that Episcopalians very desperately need to step back and ask whether they want to have the sort of unchecked power that is developing, because that power will still be around, and someone will be weilding this power after the current crisis. Yet it seems most Episcopalians are at least content for the moment because this use/abuse of power is against "them", and it seems necessary to use power this way to get through this crisis. Of course, once people have this power it can be used against "us" and not just "them". The polity choices you all are making now will remain after the crisis du juor. To refuse to start asking the serious questions about polity and use/abuse of power on the pretext of the layout of the current crisis is to be very shortsighted and to do oneself and one's co-religionists both of today and tomorrow a grave dis-service.

Fr. Sramek implies that "conservatives" are being hypocritical in objecting to discipline since they have wanted people (Pike, Spong) disciplined. It simply does not follow that because one wishes Church discipline to be carried out in one instance one must approve of every act of discipline imaginable.

It may be that there are those on the "right" of Anglican-dom who have come to think of ecclesiastical struggle as a sort of team sport. They want people from the other "side" to be disciplined and not from their side. That certainly could easily be rankly hypocritical. However, the tolerance of the current and emerging use/abuse of power can only be explained in terms of far to many Episcopalians of the "left" who also have the "team sport" mentality.

BTW Would Fr. Sramek like to assert that Pike and Spong upheld and conformed to the doctrine discipline and worship of their Church?

Fr. Yousuf Rassam

Tom Sramek, Jr. said...

Both of their actions smack of elitist, "I know what's best" for the country or the Episcopal Church and if the Constitution [and Canons] don't give me leeway, I'll take it.

I have two points, then I'll let everyone move on. First, my point is that I think it is hypocritical to object to power being used when it doesn't happen to agree with your position. Power itself is neutral and to cry "foul" when it happens to be used to preserve the institution rather than to defend your favorite doctrine doesn't seem to make a lot of sense.

My second point is that Bishop Katherine cannot unilaterally do very much. She has to have approval from the Title IV committee, not to mention the House of Bishops, to carry out depositions. So anyone who is casting her as some sort of totalitarian dictator plainly has not studied our polity very much. The fact that you may not like what she is doing doesn't mean she is tyrannical.

Dale Matson said...

Tom Sramek Jr.,
"I do recognize the irony that while doctrine does not apparently rise to the level of judicial action, institutional survival apparently does!" The chances of institutional survival have actually been diminished in an attempt to retain property via the lawsuits. The church is not the property more than it is the parishioners and TEC is hemorrhaging parishioners. According to the latest TEC figures, there are three TEC churches closing their doors permanently every MONTH.

Dan Martins said...

Tom, you need to get in the game. The Presiding Bishop no longer bothers to consult the Title IV committee before she deposes. She simply takes a statement somebody makes (most recently, Bishop Ackerman) out of context and then writes that person a letter "acknowledging" their abandonment of TEC, even when they have taken pains to be clear that they have no intention of doing so. She is ruling by executive fiat and doing an end run around the canons. Those who are on her "side" of the underlying issues just look the other way because it's convenient. But there will come a day when she, or one of her successors, will use that silence, call it precedent, and do things that nobody is now imagining. A revolution eventually consumes its own.

Fr. Yousuf said...

Dear Fr. Tom,

You continue to mystify me.

"power itself is neutral"

Maybe in the electric socket, but as weilded by human beings, I find this statement, offered as axiomatic and obvious truth, to be rather nonsensical and obviously false.

Moreover, your admission that power is being used to preserve the institution but not the doctrine is altogether to revealing. I would imagine that any ecclesial polity, [any group using "church" as a self identifier in its name] would place preservation of Doctrine as one of the main reasons for the existance of the polity in the first place.

Of course, I am extrapolating from the understanding of my own tradition, where the hierarchy of value would be doctrine, the formation and praxis of those who hold the doctrine, worship (bound up with the previous point), polity (canons etc.), and then physical property. That is to say Gospel first, and then people, and the other stuff (buildings etc.) will mostly fall in place. I had imagined that this was a point where the Anglican tradition makes an attempt at a similar self understanding. At least, I have a strong suspicion as to why the word "doctrine" has always been placed first in the list "doctrine, discipline, and worship". Ecclesial power is not supposed to be neutral, and it is supposed to maintain first and for most the Doctrine of the Church.

I think part of the problem here is that you categorize the objections as based on likes and dis-likes. "your favorite doctrine", "you may not like what [the presiding bp] is doing".

I think this is simply to dismiss rather than to engage.

One will find that many who are voicing objection root their objection in conviction rather than preference. I might find your convictions and your preferences to be agreeable or distasteful, but I will commit all manner of category error if I can't tell the difference.

Fr Yousuf Rassam