Yesterday a friend of mine posted a piece in which he referred to many of the statements adopted by various pan-Anglican bodies regarding the responsibilities of bishops collectively and, in particular, the responsibilities of primates and the Primates’ Meeting (Zachary Guiliano, “Anglicans on primacy: a selective amnesia”). He was impelled so to do because the Anglican Consultative Council is about to meet in Lusaka, Zambia. At issue is the matter of whether representatives of the Episcopal Church may be there, or, if there, what matters they may vote on and what matters they are banned from voting on by the authority of the primates.
Last January in Canterbury, the primates (chief or presiding bishops of the ecclesiastical provinces and national churches) voted by a substantial majority to ban TEC from representing the Anglican Communion on ecumenical or interfaith bodies. TEC members were not to be elected to “an internal standing committee,” and while participating in the internal bodies of the Communion, they were not to take part in making decisions about doctrine or polity.
The presenting issue was the decision of TEC’s General Convention to define Holy Matrimony in such a way that it includes same-sex as well as opposite-sex couples (Resolutions A036 and A054). By so doing TEC created a doctrine not generally received in the Anglican Communion and, by acting unilaterally, challenged the good order (polity) of the Communion.
Many in the Episcopal Church have attacked the primates for overreaching their authority: the primates and their meeting have no constitutional authority to act. This is something of a red herring. Of all the “Instruments” of the Communion only the ACC currently has a constitution and bylaws because it is incorporated under English laws governing not-for-profit charitable trusts. Yet these legal provisions are in no manner similar to a national church’s Constitution and Canons. To quote Ephraim Radner, the ACC’s
original constitution from 1968, vetted and ratified by the Lambeth Conference and member provinces, emphasized “advice” and “coordination,” hence the council’s “consultative” purpose. A new 2010 constitution, however, was put in place for legal purposes, ordering the council as a registered local company under U.K. and applicable EU law. This constitution had no comparable Communion ratification, and its lines of responsibility and accountability are now locally constrained. It is unclear, in fact, what the ACC now is vis-à-vis its Communion status. Obviously, the ACC continues to have a representative function in the Communion, and one that should be engaged. But rather than directing discussions of Communion governance, the ACC is in a position of being the object of such discussions in a fundamental way.
Not even the ACC has legislative or juridical authority in the Communion.
Most defenders of TEC’s actions echo points raised by those in TEC who deplore the fact that its House of Bishops also meets independent of General Convention, as if bishops collectively have an authority not dependent on concurrent meetings of the House of Deputies. Some argue further that the president of the House of Deputies presides not only over a House of General Convention but also over the Episcopal Church, perhaps not in a primatial sense, like the presiding bishop, but in function.
Function here is an important word. Those who oppose hierarchy in any form often describe episcopacy and indeed all forms of ordained ministry in terms of job description, a description created and authorized by General Convention. Ordination doesn’t indelibly mark someone set apart and incorporated into an apostolic ministry. Rather, authority is delegated to such people by the will of the laity. There are variations on this theme, and most would agree that the consent of the laity is and always has been an important aspect in recognizing vocation and recognizing the spiritual authority of the ordained. Many at this point would use a familiar argument. A purely functional and delegated doctrine of ministry is but an extension or perhaps a correction of the sort of thinking that brought about a bicameral General Convention. (I sense the shade of Samuel Seabury quivering with indignation.)
In a similar fashion, many argue that primates of the Communion have no authority except in areas defined by legislative action. In practical terms, such a view implies that the only way to authorize the primates to act in a binding fashion would be for all the synods of the constituent churches of the Anglican Communion to adopt and ratify a set of regulations. We have recently witnessed an attempt to adopt an Anglican Covenant, which did not attempt to give the primates binding legislative or juridical authority but that many still opposed. The precedent is not encouraging.
The managerial function is so much more appealing than that of first-century apostles meeting in Jerusalem. However, there remains another authority variously described as moral or “spiritual” — a word burdened with exotic baggage. Such authority assumes that ordained ministry is more than delegated function, and is appropriately regulated not only locally but by tradition, councils, and Scripture. This authority is exercised precisely by the episcopate locally and globally and particularly by primacy.
I would argue that this moral and spiritual authority is of far greater import than that locally afforded by canonical job description. May such authority be abused? Of course: as may the authority of synods and conventions. This issue is not so much about who may tell TEC what to do — an issue TEC hasn’t yet resolved in is own internal affairs — but rather whether apostolicity is to remain a feature of Anglicanism.
Fr. Tony Clavier has made the study of Anglicanism his lifelong passion and blogs at Anglican Thoughts: Shreds and Patches. He oversees two mission congregations in the Diocese of Springfield. His Covenant posts are here.
The featured image is a 14th-century crozier at the Victoria and Albert Museum.