The recent decision in Illinois upholding the property rights of dioceses who withdraw from General Convention may not stand up on appeal. But the opinion’s reasoning, by Judge Thomas Ortbal, was perhaps the most careful and thorough on record in such cases, and will likely have to be taken into account in all future judgments. In any case, the decision offers a chance for sober consideration of our church’s mission and its relation to ecclesiastical structure.
I am someone who once assumed that TEC was a single entity, and that dioceses were an integral part of this entity, gears in a larger machine. The notion of a diocese “leaving” TEC never crossed my mind, and in fact seemed simply antithetical to the meaning of “Church.” I still think this, deep down, and much of my academic writing on the Church has been devoted to trying to understand how Christian unity properly founds the very nature of our Christian faithfulness, as it is engaged by God’s gracious gift of Himself to our rebellious hearts and hands: God for the godless.
Nonetheless, this past year I found myself on the side of supporting just those arguments that Judge Ortbal made upholding the Diocese of Quincy’s departure from TEC. I did so for two reasons. The first was a more limited one: several years ago I had become convinced by the careful work done by my ACI colleague Mark McCall on the legal and procedural significance of TEC’s Constitution for our polity, framed within its historical context as well as its formal meaning. This work has yet to be answered in any convincing way by those who disagree, and now appears to be persuading courts over and against 815’s expert witnesses. McCall’s thesis, in sum, argues that the Constitutional framework in which TEC was set up and long continued to operate into the present, was one in which separate dioceses gathered and worked together on the basis of each diocese’s willingness to participate. TEC is a “voluntary association” of dioceses, in which member dioceses are free, under certain procedural constraints, to disassociate, just as they were to join. As I said, I have found it difficult to escape the conclusion of McCall’s reading of our Constitution on this matter, even though it has gone against instincts I had previously trusted.
But just this sense of contradiction has also forced me to reconsider the character of our church’s life more theologically. This brings me to the second, and more profound, reason for my support of Judge Ortbal’s reasoning: at the root of TEC’s fracture lies our General Convention’s failure to engage our church’s own identity, an identity rooted in the deeper character of unitive mission that ought to inform our life. In brief, the Church’s unity is given in her “apostolicity”, her apostolic mission. When the latter is subverted, unity disintegrates, and this is what we have seen happen in TEC. The result is not a “good” — I continue to believe that the disassociation of dioceses like Quincy, Fort Worth, South Carolina, and San Joaquin constitutes a failure of the Christian life. But the reversion to diocesan “independence” represents the almost natural reassertion of the will to apostolicity that one would expect in a situation of profound ecclesial dysfunction. And that reversion has something to teach us.
The polity question has to do with General Convention in this case. Dioceses, at least in theory, joined the Convention because such joining represented the furtherance of the apostolic ministry of the Church. They have disassociated themselves when that ministry was being impeded by General Convention. Part of the demanded reconsideration of our common life has to do with figuring out why this has been the case, and on what basis.
As I have tried to do this, I can articulate the following explanation, identifying basic theological claims as they work themselves out within the limits of our particular life as an Anglican church.
In the first place, I think it important to understand the Church as an entity of organic unity, rather than in simple structural terms. The Church is “united” as she lives in time, lives in a certain way while doing certain things, and does so through the concrete lives of her members. Individuals make up the Church, and hence it is called “the people of God.” The organic life of the Church, in unity, is thus constituted by actual people who follow Christ, make choices about this, and live in and through Christ Jesus. If there is to be a “oneness” to the Church, it is only as these individuals live together in a certain way, and subject themselves mutually to one another, much as in a marriage. (Ephesians 5 is a crucial text here.) And the Church’s mission is given in just these kinds of actions by people for the sake of such actions by other people. The “apostolic” character of the Church lies in the outgoing life of her members as they give themselves — what we might call “self-expenditure” — for others in the truth of Jesus. The web of mutual subjection grows, even as the sign and reality of God’s self-giving in Christ takes ongoing shape in time. Properly speaking, “apostolic ministry” is that ministry that furthers this reality. And the focus of apostolic life — not its exhaustive reach — has been given, we believe, in the Church’s episcopal ministry of Bishops.
The second step, in this reflection, is to place General Convention within this broad theological framework. General Convention was set up, in the 18th century, for the purposes of furthering the ministry of that “communion” identified formerly with the Church of England in America. But its purposes were facilitative, not essential. It held key duties — guarding the BCP, and integrating ministries of various kinds. But these duties were diaconal, in a real sense. If General Convention was a synod,it was one that served other synods, both those on the diocesan level, and those that bound this local “communion” to the larger Church’s broader communion (a possibility that did not take flesh until almost a century later). Synodal life, after all, is also something that is bound by the apostolic calling of the Church, and General Convention’s function is properly judged by this calling.
Evaluating the recent shape of General Convention’s life, I see a tremendous set of failures in the Convention’s inability to further this apostolic ministry. On the one hand, General Convention has herself failed in the outgoing life of subjection in Christ; and on the other, Convention has subverted the ability of her members to do the same in their own spheres of personal life, especially bishops acting as pastors with their flock, or dioceses. One can outline this briefly:
- General Convention has failed to engage herself in the apostolic life of mutual counsel and subjection with other parts of the Church, especially in the Anglican Communion, but also within the framework of the local synods of her participating dioceses. There have been halting attempts to do so, here and there; but over and over again, Convention has fastened on its right to make its own decisions irrespective of the requests, hopes, and decisions of others. The very fact that large portions of the Anglican Communion have broken off relations with TEC is a witness to this simple fact. This failure is profound, for it undercuts the catholic reality of the Church that General Convention is meant to serve. Indeed, attempts to claim “metropolitical” authority for General Convention in this context, one that is then practically lodged in the Convention’s Executive, whoever that might be, as some have suggested, are at best eccentric overreach.
- More particularly, in taking this route, General Convention has undercut the ability of individual bishops and their dioceses to engage their own apostolic ministry within the larger world and church. Classic examples of this include 2003, but also more recently in 2012, with the decisions to move ahead with same-sex blessing and marriage liturgies. Many dioceses have been either left in the lurch in their broader relationships, or have been denied the broader engagement that their local decisions require.
- Finally, General Convention has not only failed to support those bishops and dioceses who have struggled in the face of the two aspects just listed; but Convention, through its House of Bishops, her Executive Council, and administrative apparatus, including the Presiding Bishop’s office, has actually repudiated these bishops and their ministries. The disciplinary assaults on a range of Communion-oriented bishops testifies to this repudiation.
What can I conclude from this albeit broad and incomplete assessment? Only that General Convention has ceased to be a truly apostolic synod. Its procedural and relational myopia has robbed it of its capacity to fulfil, at least for the moment, its apostolic calling. And not all synods, after all, are apostolic, something that is known only by a synod’s fruits. When the fruits of a synod subvert the apostolic unity of a church, that synod has simply ceased to fulfill its function. And thus, the relationships of bishops and dioceses to this gathering become ipso facto, matters of prudential deliberation, not essential ties. It is not odd if, say, the Diocese of South Carolina, has chosen to disassociate from General Convention: where a bishop and diocese find their ministries, construed as best they can to be faithful, to have been subverted by their association with the Convention, they are bound, in our polity, at least to consider this option.
To me, this began to become clear already before 2003. The past decade has confirmed General Convention’s problematic ministry. The point isn’t that leaving General Convention is somehow demanded; I don’t think it is. (The apostolic calling of bishops and dioceses works in both directions). But this period has nonetheless underlined the more basic responsibilities of bishops and their dioceses, which properly exist independent of General Convention (although not independent of the larger Church). Bishops represent the personal form of the Church’s apostolic calling, and their diocesan ministries embody this in a more immediate organic sense than do the larger councils of the Church. This is why the Lambeth Conference and other Pan-Anglican gatherings have consistently held dioceses to be the “fundamental units” of the Church in Anglican understanding.Councils are not personal entities, but rather serve them. Bishops and their dioceses, instead, are the objects of God’s judgment in the way that larger councils cannot be, for just this reason. The fact that American dioceses, as it seems, can disassociate themselves from General Convention is a purely local legal matter (in other Anglican churches, let alone other traditions, they cannot). But their ability to do so, in TEC, at least underscores this more fundamental reality of apostolic faithfulness and judgment: bishops and their flock are accountable before God for the witness of self-giving to the sinner in Christ’s truth. They are accountable, for they carry out personally the choices of faith that lie before all disciples.
But this personal accountability before God that falls on bishops and dioceses also provides American Anglicans with a constructive opportunity — this would be a positive outcome to the “After Quincy” moment. That is, our bishops and dioceses have the responsibility and means, as personal agents, to respond to those who have disassociated themselves from TEC, with actions of apostolic holiness. Those bishops and dioceses who remain in TEC and understand their vocation as here described should seek to win back, through their witness and love, those who have disassociated themselves. As Paul reminds us, even enemies can be persuaded by our acts of faithful outreach towards them. How might this happen? My goal here is not to outline this aspect — which involves, obviously, not just being “nice”, or dropping lawsuits, and the rest; it involves the hard work of rethinking decisions, articulating dogma, re-establishing relationships of trust with the larger Communion, and providing space for the flourishing of reconciled brethren, on terms that are mutually acceptable. These would all be aspects of “apostolic holiness”, because they will require the cost of self-giving to those deemed “far off”, out of a love for God’s truth and glory in Christ.
But my point here is that, whatever is involved in such efforts, they would amount to a personal act, bound to the personal Lord whose personal words call us forth into life. The “fundamental unit” of the Church has a fundamental responsibility, one that no one else can assume. This is all the more true when we find ourselves in a time of fracturing. This is not a matter of the House of Bishops taking some initiative. It is the responsibility of each and every bishop and diocese taken as accountable agents, “builders” who stand before God on their own terms (1 Cor. 3:1; Gal. 6:4-5). I am appealing here to individual Bishops to reach out on whatever terms they can.
That General Convention’s actions seem to limit such personal witness is, from the start, a mark against its synodical integrity. That litigation and legal repudiation have been the order of the day on the part of General Convention’s servants only underlines this failure. Rather, “After Quincy” seems to be a clear call to thepermission of a distinct agency of apostolic life on the part of bishops and dioceses to pursue responses of repentance, reconciliation, concession, and self-giving, quite apart from what we might judge to be the indifference or opposition of a General Convention meeting every three years If we have anything to learn from the civil judgments against TEC’s institutional claims over individual dioceses, it is that these dioceses and their bishops bear a responsibility, greater than perhaps they had realized, to make those decisions necessary for the healing of Christ’s body. There are, I would guess, more bishops and dioceses who are up to this, even seeking this, than the weight of General Convention has allowed to flourish. This calling is one that falls on dioceses and bishops that have disassociated themselves from General Convention as much as on those that have chosen to remain (sympathetic as they may be with their departed brethren, given the deteriorating state of affairs).
In a providential arc of history, Episcopal churches have begun to revert to the condition of the Anglican “communion” prior to General Convention’s invention. We are all “missionary dioceses” in a way. And ones, I pray, on the way to a more faithful union.