The Authority of General Convention: A Conversation
By Ephraim Radner
Bishop Franklin helpfully approaches the question of General Convention’s authority as a church “council” by drawing a historical line between the nascent Episcopal Church’s formation and what we now call the “conciliar” tradition. The early Church settled disputes through councils, and by the Middle Ages a reforming movement had arisen which sought both thoroughly to describe this conciliar character of the Church and to reorder the Church in accordance with it.
Key principles of representative voice and voting were variously defined, and theologically defended. From this historical genealogy, through the “English conciliarist model of church government [that] was successfully translated into the new republican context of the United States,” Bishop Franklin argues that General Convention arose as a “unitary form of church government,” one in which “ultimate authority over the Church [is] vested in a convention (council)” of elected church representatives.
I believe that the conciliar connection is indeed a key way of understanding General Convention, but I would understand that history and its implications in a way that is quite different from Bishop Franklin’s.
First, despite his final concern regarding the “international” character of conciliarism, Bishop Franklin does not grant this aspect its proper emphasis. Rather, he wants us to see conciliarism as a developing spur to the integrity of ecclesial regionalism: that is, as the means by which the local church and her representatives — finally, in England and in the United States, the “national” church — were able to exercise their divinely authorized powers for self-determination. But whatever the unintended outcomes might have been, conciliarism was definitely not ordered to a regional or national understanding of the Church; even among its most “secularly” ordered proponents, like Marsilius of Padua, it was rather an ecclesial theology meant to serve the Church universal.
The life of the “nations,” Pierre d’Ailly said, was subversive of the Council, which is about oneness. As an ecclesiology, conciliarism was founded on the meaning and purpose of a “General Council,” whereat representatives of all local churches might gather in order faithfully to shape the life of the whole Church Catholic for the sake of universal peace within Christendom. So believed conciliar theologians like the early Cusanus, or Gerson. The problem with papal supremacy, for the conciliarists, was not its “catholic” hopes, but its all-too-local motives in practice.
Second, Bishop Franklin presents the conciliar vision as one based on a kind of pneumatic guarantee: insofar as the elected representatives of the Church gather, “the Holy Spirit is present at such meetings,” and thus, in these representatives’ decisions “the ultimate authority of the Church is vested.” But in fact conciliarists were clear that “ultimate authority” always lay outside the council, even at its purest, for it lay in the Holy Scriptures and (in the views of some) in the precedent decrees of the Church’s past. Just as it was necessary for councils to subject themselves to the truths of Scripture and Church tradition, so participants in councils might fail to do so. The Holy Spirit’s presence was certainly needed for a council’s authoritative process; but it was not guaranteed, as even a Catholic conciliarist like Reginald Pole said of the Council of Trent, as he addressed what he viewed to be his impenitent colleagues (Second Session, Jan. 7, 1546). “To the degree that this Spirit has not condemned us to our face, we cannot yet say that he has come among us” (cited in Yves Congar, Vraie et Fausse Réforme dans l’Église , p. 84).
The representative character of Church councils was variously interpreted by the conciliarists. But what seems clear is that, however defined, “representation” was measured by the purposes it served: that is, “catholicity” or “universality.” Councils must represent the “whole people” of God, and must thereby (through the gathering of multiple gifts) interpret the “whole Scripture” comprehensively within the context of the Church’s “whole history,” and for the sake of the “whole Church.”
This reading of some of conciliarism’s fundamental commitments makes me question Bishop Franklin’s eventual conclusion that General Convention’s representative deliberations might ever achieve “ultimate authority” within the church, even locally. For it is precisely the “local” that is reoriented outside of itself in a conciliar view of the Church. And Bishop Franklin, in concluding his essay, seems to sense this.
The “local” after all — including Rome! — was problematic precisely because of its tendency to move away from the “whole,” that is to err. And the fallibility of councils, even general or ecumenical councils at their widest reach, was quickly seen to be an issue, and remained one. The Council of Basle, for instance (and Constance before it), was quickly riven by disagreements and regional and personal conflicts. Part of the concern with buttressing more local councils, to accompany the conciliar emphasis on the General Council, came from this recognition: the Church must gather and take counsel locally, not to usurp the universal purpose of the Church’s decision-making, but to provide the constant means of adjusting the Church’s life to scriptural truth, within the inevitable context of ignorance, corruption, and sin. Regionalism and representation served this larger, corrective purpose and was authoritative only within its reach.
Anglicanism’s conciliar orientation in the 16th century falls into this fallibilist ecclesiology that is bound to the still valued universal scriptural truth. This is made clear in the Articles of Religion (e.g., Article 21), which asserts the actual “error” at times of General Councils and affirms the primacy of Scripture over their decisions. And although someone like Hooker does indeed maintain the authority of a General Council, he does so despite its fallibility and in terms of a provisional authority only, bound to later historical affirmation (through more councils!). Although Anglicans, by the 17th century, generally stopped worrying about conciliar life, when they did they generally insisted that councils are “relative,” none are “supreme,” and that their local character, when they happen, must be judged according to the service of the one Church’s larger purpose. This proved to be a consistent attitude.
The wake of the Revolution in America resuscitated the conciliar challenge in a concrete way. Here I read the history very differently indeed from Bishop Franklin. What had been the Church of England in the colonies had been sifted into the “local” in its most elemental forms: parish and at best the local state and its (often still-to-be-achieved) “episcopal” order. How would the conciliar process work from the ground up here? In the new polity of the Revolution, hostile to the English church and its establishment structures, these elements might gather only by “voluntary association,” as William White put it in his Case for the Episcopal Churches, and these associations (not “corporation” as Bishop Franklin puts it) would be ordered to the common good (“union and good government”) in the sense of peaceable order in ways that might not disturb the government: this was largely his concern.
The framework of external scriptural authority as well as the traditions of the Church of England — the “catholic” faith — remained in place for White and for those who first worked to organize the Protestant Episcopal Church. General Convention would serve the function of applying this framework for these local entities in their service of and life within the larger Church’s mission. White’s own notion of “catholicity” points to this (cf. his Dissertation II on the topic, or his discussion of the ministry in his Catechetical lectures, VII). (On the other hand, we might wonder altogether at White as a theological guide on the question of the Church Catholic in light of his own convictions that the papacy was being directly referred to in Revelation 13 or 2 Thessalonians 2!)
It is important to see how the conciliar vision has thus taken a peculiar shape in the United States: dioceses voluntarily take council, as it were, for the sake of a universal Church. This would be my answer to any argument about the priority of General Convention over dioceses: such a priority does not exist, and the reverse relationship is in fact in place. As almost all commentators from the 19th century on agree, General Convention has never claimed such authority over dioceses, its Constitution does not contain references to such claimed authority, and all its actions take place within other given frameworks of authority (e.g., Scripture, prayer books, long traditions) that derive from and serve the “Church Catholic.”
When dioceses “accede” to the Constitution — a technical term — they agree to be party to just this limited authority! If Franklin’s notion of General Convention’s “ultimate” authority were true, it would turn conciliarism’s purpose upside down, and in fact it reads the history of the Episcopal Church’s establishment and order backwards. Regionalism and “national church” attitudes have always been suspect in the Episcopal Church (see even a chauvinist like Huntington, who sounds surprisingly like d’Ailly on this score), and where they have not been, they have often served morally compromised positions. The questions that Bishop Franklin raises at the end of his article are the right ones. But I believe that there are clear answers to them already established in the Episcopal Church’s conciliarist polity: General Convention is at best a humble servant, not a master.
The Rev. Dr. Ephraim Radner is professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College, Toronto.