The Authority of General Convention: A Conversation

By Ephraim Radner

Is General Convention a true council of the Church, and if so of what kind? I will attempt to answer this broad question by addressing the following related question: what is the scope of General Convention’s authority for the life of Christians in the Episcopal Church? This last question can be approached on two levels: first, on the juridical level of the explicit laws that govern General Convention, via its constitution especially; and second, on the theological level that explicates General Convention within the context of the general nature of a Christian church as the Episcopal Church has understood this.

One might assume, or certainly hope, that these two levels are not contradictory, but that the former juridical laws simply concretize the latter theological understanding. But in fact we often find in the history of the Church that there is a tension between the two levels, and that generally and perhaps after much conflict, it is the “theological” level that prevails, as it were, at least long enough to influence a restructuring of the Church’s order. I believe that this is what is happening now in the Episcopal Church more broadly, and it is a struggle to understand the scope of General Convention’s authority that is precipitating this theological re-balancing.

I will begin with the “juridical” side of things: what does the constitution of General Convention say that its scope of authority is? This should be easy to ascertain, but in fact is less straightforward than we might like. The constitution tells us that General Convention “meets” (Article I) and that it does certain things — including admitting new dioceses to General Convention, ordering the discipline of member bishops, and amending the Book of Common Prayer. But on many matters crucial to the life of any church, the constitution is silent as to General Convention’s role: defining doctrine for the whole church, for instance, or interpreting difficult texts of Scripture, or determining what constitutes a recognizable Christian ministry or sacrament. But if not General Convention in such cases, who might decide such controversies?

As is well known, the Episcopal Church or General Convention has no “supreme court” of final appeal in controversies around these kinds of matters that touch the nature of the Christian faith, and General Convention’s constitution tells us nothing about any juridical procedure that might address their resolution. Only in limited and specific disciplinary cases does a court touch upon these matters (Article IX); and while General Convention may “amend” the Book of Common Prayer, nothing is said about the apparent limits upon such amendment exercised by the “historic Faith and Order” of the Church mentioned in the constitution’s preamble. It is not even clear in any prima facie way from the constitution what rules govern General Convention’s membership: can dioceses withdraw from General Convention, having once chosen to become members? This last question is both current and evidence of the juridical perspective’s limitations, in that it is only an appeal to the secular courts today that is providing authoritative judgments on these matters.

In the Church’s history, when purely juridical approaches to decision-making somehow failed to clarify or resolve disputed matters, appeal was always made to a more basic theological authority — first, the Scriptures, second the reasoning inferred from the Scriptures (and usually articulated by well-known teachers of the past), and finally by precedent established by holy exemplars. This is the way that the great canon-law tradition beginning in the 11th century proceeded and it is the way that theological reasoning as a whole has been carried out in most Christian communities. This via theologica is not, to be sure, a simple syllogistic science, and it is fraught with debate and temporally extended discussion and discernment, sometimes only piecemeal in its progress. But such theological responses to juridical irresolution have tended to prevail in most cases not decided by pure political manipulation (of which there has been more than a little in the Church’s history!).

A theological approach to General Convention’s scope of authority will note several important realities, among them:

  • That General Convention’s constitution and canons place in a primary way the clergy under the Scripture as “God’s Word.”
  • That the Book of Common Prayer, which General Convention guards and potentially amends, binds the Episcopal Church to the “essential” doctrine, discipline, and worship (though not the sanctions) of another church, that is, of the Church of England (BCP, p.11).
  • That the same Book of Common Prayer binds the Episcopal Church’s bishops to other churches and bishops and to their teaching and discipline from different ages and places, not even necessarily Anglican ones (cf. p. 510 on “recognizability” and p. 517 on the apostolic and universal “heritage” shared by Episcopal bishops and to which they are accountable).
  • That these bonds themselves, variously linked to elements of the Scriptures and their teaching — according to what the prayers of the BCP teach (e.g., pp. 215, 218, 236, 240, 243) — are viewed as divinely imposed and upheld.

None of these points simply answers the question of General Convention’s authority. But taken together — along with other elements not mentioned here — they indicate a shape and limit to that authority: the Convention and the Episcopal Church it somehow serves are under the authority of the Scriptures, are properly guided by the teaching of bishops subjected to a larger worldwide tradition, are nourished by clergy similarly ordered in their teaching and example, and are embodied and extended by a people so nourished whose scripturally informed lives mold the whole. With respect to some of the disputed areas of Christian life noted earlier, the theological picture here suggests that doctrinal matters are dealt with by bishops on a worldwide and ecumenical scale; that scriptural interpretation is directed by a tradition of discussion and discernment over time by those rooted in the Scripture’s imposing authority; and that the recognition of ministry and sacrament is given in the judgment of the Church’s people as they are bound to such a broadly affiliated episcopacy and scriptural life. Indeed, the theological perspective tells us why the juridical perspective regarding General Convention is as limited as it seems to be. For it tells us that the weight of ecclesial decision-making in these important areas — that today touch on the issues of ordination, same-sex blessings and “marriages,” Trinitarian doctrine and language, ecclesial communion — cannot and should not lie with General Convention at all! Rather, it elsewhere.

But where exactly? The Christian Church has struggled with this question since its inception, and dealt with it in various ways — such that the distinction used here between “Church” and “churches” has become inevitable. The 16th-century divisions of the Western Church were effects of this struggle in new circumstances, and they are only now finding avenues of resolution within the context of a global Christianity. Anglicanism has been at the center of their movement toward resolution, as Anglicans have slowly been forming means of international episcopal counsel (e.g., the Lambeth Conference and the Primates’ Meeting) and representative ecclesial reception among Anglicanism’s scattered member churches, all the while trying to place these evolving forms of decision-making within a larger ecumenical dynamic.

It is only within this evolving context, I believe, that it is theologically appropriate to understand General Convention’s purpose. That purpose is to be a link in the ongoing process of debate, discussion, and discernment that marks the discipline of Christian reasoning in general; but it is a link that must constantly be shaped by the overriding movement of this larger process of Christian reasoning that embraces the whole Church of the world, and of all still-separated churches. That is to say, General Convention’s authority serves the facilitation of its bishops, pastors, and people as they engage “catholic” reasoning; and her authority is subverted and contradicted to the extent that she facilitates their resistance to such reasoning.

This conclusion permits us to evaluate the “argument” between law and theology within the Episcopal Church. My evaluation comes down to this: it is not so much that our juridical lines — in the Episcopal Church’s constitution and canons, say — are too vague, or that law and theology lie in some kind of conflict. Rather, it is the case that the scope of TEC’s claims regarding its own Convention-constituted laws has been far too broad of late, undermining the actual purpose of these laws. The laws have been adequate, and have indeed served the reasoning priority of parish and diocese; but the politically driven need to bend their scope beyond their purpose has involved the exercise of power outside appropriate juridical (and theological) bounds, aimed at creating a coercive centralized legal structure that is opposed to both catholic and evangelical hopes.

Anglicans — from Cranmer through Hooker to the leaders of the early Lambeth conferences and nascent ecumenical movement — have always placed a central trust in the authority of a “General Council” of all Christian churches. That trust has not been either blind or total, and has been expressed in different ways. But General Convention’s own theological and juridically limited self-understandings are consistent with this trust; and they indicate that her decisions are, as it were, held in trust for such a larger process of Christian decision-making. It is appropriate to speak of General Convention as an ecclesial “council,” but only in this diaconal way: she is a “council for the sake of Christian counsel and council”; she is not a council in her own her right, and all Episcopalians must hold her accountable to this vocation, one that has increasingly been slipping from her sight.

The Rev. Dr. Ephraim Radner is professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College, Toronto.