The Authority of General Convention: A Conversation
By R. William Franklin
Professor Ephraim Radner raises two questions [TLC, Sept. 25] which to me relate our historical and theological exchanges about the authority of General Convention to a future decision the Episcopal Church must make about the proposed Anglican Covenant. Radner asks first about the scope of General Convention’s authority and answers that “she is not a council in her own right.” Second, he asks about the “limit to that authority” and writes that General Convention and the Episcopal Church “are properly guided by the teaching of bishops subjected to a larger worldwide tradition.” The title of Radner’s essay sums up a question we both have about the future of the General Convention: “Authority Under Larger Authority.”
The title of my essay likewise sums up the thrust of my argument: “Conciliarism and Convention’s Authority.” The 18th-century framers of our constitutions and canons preserved a previous Anglican dependence upon a national conciliar authority vested in the 16th century in the English monarch and Parliament. Just after the American Revolution, American Anglicans placed the legal sovereign authority over the state conventions (later dioceses) of the Protestant Episcopal Church into the hands of such a national council, now divorced from monarchy and adapted to republican principles, which was called General Convention.
The national sovereignty of this autonomous convention was absolute, and there was no appeal outside the borders of the United States to any power or institution. The convention was not to be limited by any “larger” human authority. The preface to the American Book of Common Prayer of October 1789, issued in Philadelphia five months after George Washington’s inauguration in New York City as our first President, makes this clear: “When, in the course of Divine Providence these American States became independent with respect to civil government, their ecclesiastical independence was necessarily included.” William White, soon to be the first presiding bishop, expressed in his foundational The Case of the Episcopal Churches in the United States Considered (David Claypoole, 1782) the widespread rejoicing at this ecclesial independence by Anglicans who remained loyal to the United States and who harbored feelings of estrangement from England and its institutions after a long and bitter Revolutionary War: “A church government that will contain the constituent principles of the Church of England, and yet be independent of foreign jurisdiction or influence, would remove the anxiety which at present hangs heavy on the minds of many a sincere person.”
And yet in my first essay I admitted that there was an internationalist strain in the conciliar movement (the medieval canonists believed that authority lay with an international General Council), the very movement which I believe lies behind the shaping of our constitution and canons. This international dimension is also evident in the fact that the first members of the House of Bishops sought consecration abroad to ensure that they were in the line of the historic succession of bishops and that they were members of a college of bishops whose membership transcended the United States. But where is this international authority to be found? Professor Radner mentions that Anglicans “have always placed a central trust in the authority of a ‘General Council’ of all Christian churches.” But could the Lambeth Conference of bishops, one of the four “instruments” of the proposed Anglican Covenant, be understood as such a General Council?
Let me cite another seminal article which demonstrates the complexity of relating Anglican developments to conciliarism: “Anglican conciliar theory: provincial autonomy and the present crisis” by Gillian R. Evans (One in Christ, 25/1 , pp. 34-52). Evans wrote this article to address “the present crisis” of the consecration of the first female bishop within the Anglican Communion. She provides a series of quotations (I reproduce four of them here) to show that the leaders of the Lambeth Conferences, and the bishops themselves, did not consider Lambeth to be a General Council of the Church with authority over the autonomous provinces of the Anglican Communion.
At the first Lambeth Conference in 1867 Archbishop Charles Longley said: “It has never been contemplated that we should assume the function of a general synod of all the Churches in full communion with the Church of England, and take upon ourselves to enact canons that should be binding upon those here represented.” Longley’s successor, Archbishop Archibald Campbell Tait, informed the second Lambeth Conference that it was not at all an international Council of the Church but rather “a work of love in which we should be engaged — the extension of Christ’s kingdom — and that we may be able by friendly intercourse to strengthen each others’ hands.”
Lambeth Conferences of the 20th century stood by the principle of provincial autonomy. A committee of the 1920 Lambeth Conference reported that “each National or Regional Church or Province would necessarily determine its own constitutional and canonical enactments.” The Lambeth Conference of 1930 discussed two types of ecclesiastical organization, “that of centralized government and that of regional autonomy,” available to world families of churches. The Anglican Communion was said to have a government of provincial autonomy. And the 1930 conference said further that “the right of Provinces to consecrate bishops without reference to authorities exterior to the Provinces has often been regarded as … essential … to the forming of a Province.”
I could cite more resolutions like this from other Lambeth Conferences and other national synods from every part of the Anglican Communion. In the springs of 2009 and 2010 I taught two courses at the Pontifical Angelicum University in Rome on the history of the Lambeth Conferences. My goal in these two courses was to find historical precedent to support the authoritative role for the Lambeth Conference as an “instrument” of the Anglican Communion, as proposed in the Covenant. I read through all the resolutions and all the committee reports of the Lambeth Conferences housed at the Anglican Centre in Rome, as well as the resolutions of all the provincial synods of the Communion that I could find in Rome. I regret to say that I could locate little historical evidence of previous resolutions passed until recently, by authoritative synods of the Anglican Communion, to make the case for the exercise of an international authority or for undoing the continuing tradition of Anglican provincial autonomy and the sovereign authority of national councils.
But I appreciate the cautions about this linking of conciliarism too easily to Anglican provincial autonomy that Professor Radner makes me aware of. What are we to do in the 21st century with the international vision of Christian fellowship that was so much a part of the idealistic program of the medieval canonists who crafted conciliarism? What new structures might allow us to realize more deeply what it means to be members of the worldwide body of Christ? The Episcopal Church is no longer a “national church” but is made up of a family of nations, most of which do not share the English heritage of 18th-century American Anglicans (and in some nations the Episcopal Church in fact overlaps with another autonomous Anglican province). How can the 18th-century adaptation of conciliarism to one republic serve an international church that is no longer confined to one continent? The debate about the Anglican Covenant, which enters a new stage now as we prepare for the 2012 General Convention, is an opportunity for the whole people of God to engage prayerfully the issues concerning the constitutional structures of the body of Christ that Professor Radner and I have raised.
The Rt. Rev. R. William Franklin is the Bishop of Western New York.