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A Modest Proposal

At its General Synod this year, the Anglican Church of Canada will consider a Constitutional change that would diminish the role of its House of Bishops in ordering the life and affairs of the church. In view of this proposal, and for the sake of informed, responsible decisions at the synod, we have gathered essays from historians and theologians about the role of the historic episcopate within Anglican ecclesiology.

A motion is proposed to  General Synod to level the synodical playing field. Let there be no distinction of orders in canonical matters. Synod shall be ruled by majority vote of the whole. Since this is already the case in small matters, let it be the case in large matters, too. It is, this motion says, the voice of the majority at synod that we need to hear, and not the voice of the bishops speaking as bishops.

The proposal [1] is a response to the events of General Synod 2019, in which the voice of the Order of Bishops differed from the voice of the orders of laity and clergy. The bishops, voting as an order, said no to canon change. The clergy and laity said yes.

The people cried foul: should not the voice of the majority reign? Look at Pilate, after all. He listened to the crowd. Majority rule: it is the way of the world.

This motion  proposes that it be the way of the church. The motion proposes the following changes to General Synod: “change the threshold of required votes by Orders from two-thirds of each Order to two-thirds of General Synod as a whole with a majority in each Order.”

Concomitantly, the motion  proposes eliminating the need for approval on matters of canon change by two successive sessions of General Synod.

In their rationale, the proposers of the motion note that the current procedure (voting by order) “effectively allows one-third + 1 member of any Order to be able to veto” a motion on canon change. In the case of the Order of Bishops, this means 6 percent of the members of General Synod could “exercise a veto” over the whole. The proposers say it again: 94 percent of General Synod could be in favor of a motion, but if it fails in the Order of Bishops, it would nevertheless fail.

How undemocratic. To the proposers of this constitutional change, the problem is self-evident, and they  make a modest proposal for the betterment of the church: Eliminate the distinction between orders. In matters of doctrine, eliminate the voice of the bishops qua bishops.

The proposers may stress the modesty of their proposal: we will take away the authority of the bishop just at the national level, just at the level of doctrine. Bishops will still be bishops in their own dioceses. Yet if a bishop has no particular authority in the council of the whole church and in the matter of doctrine – those quintessentially episcopal loci of authority – why anywhere else?

The proposers are too modest. The proposal has implications – advantages, even – that reach far beyond General Synod.

How much simpler, now, the life of the diocese.  The bishop has, this motion declares, no special voice in the decisions of the church; in his or her diocese, then, the bishop is, by the council’s estimation, only one voice among others. No need now for episcopal prerogative, or leadership, for that matter. The bishop, as one voice among others, should be governed by the voice of the whole.

On what grounds shall the bishop in her own diocese withhold permission for a vote of synod once taken? On none, for there is no distinction between the voice of the bishop and the voice of the people.

On what grounds shall the bishop, as provided by the proposed change to the marriage canon, grant permission to this parish or to that in the matter of same-sex marriage? On none, for the bishop has no especial voice in the matter of marriage.

On what ground shall the bishop declare, over against the canon, a new “pastoral” practice of marriage within his diocese? On none, except the people agree.

The bishop has no more authority to bind or to loose, to uproot or to plant. With this motion the bishop cedes  that authority to the majority. The bishop has only the will of the people.

The bishop has now no more responsibility for guarding the faith: let it be upon us to bind and to loose, the people of the church will have said. Doctrine is to be determined by the crowd. What a weight off the episcopal shoulders.

How much simpler, Confirmation, now, and Ordination, too. No need any longer for the hand of the bishop, for there is no special charism, no authority passed on from the apostles by the gift of the Holy Spirit in the breath of the risen, present Christ. For the busy bishop, what a relief.

This motion  offers the church a modest proposal for relieving the bishop of the authority that has rested till now so heavy upon episcopal shoulders.

Why have we not thought of this before?

Imagine the money that can be saved. We do not need an expensive episcopal office. We do not need an elaborate system of archdeacons to uphold the bishops in their diocesan labors. The bishop’s work is the work of all the people. The bishop’s voice is the voice of all the people. We need only relieve the bishops of their descent from the confession of Peter, and from the power of the Holy Spirit breathed upon the apostles by the risen Christ in the upper room (cf. John 20:19-23).

“You are Peter,” Jesus said to Simon when Simon confessed him to be the Christ, the Son of the living God. “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it” (Matt 16:18). And then Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the Living God, gives to Peter — to Peter — the power to bind or to loose on earth.

Peter, tradition tells us, took the gift and the authority seriously, as did the church that sprang up at his witness. Peter became the first bishop of the church in Rome. We have liked to say that our bishops are descended by the laying on of hands in unbroken succession from him, and his confession, and the gift of authority from the living Christ.

But if the bishop of an Anglican Synod has no special voice in the deliberations of that body, no authority qua bishop to bind or loose; if the voice of a bishop is a scandal where it rises against the majority even, especially, on a question of doctrine, the faith that the church has guarded; if it is only ever the people, we the people, all the people (or at least the most and loudest of us) who speak in the synods of the church with authority to bind and to loose, then there is no special claim for the bishop to relationship with Peter, or to any of the apostles who received the gift of the Holy Spirit, precisely the gift of doctrinal authority, in that upper room.

It is a neat proposal, the proposal to erase the distinctive voice and role of the Order of Bishops at Synod. It will please the people (for now). And it has a long reach. It will save time and money in the diocese. In fact, it might do away with the need for episcopally led dioceses altogether.  It clarifies a long-standing point of contention between Anglicans and Roman Catholics. It turns out the Catholics were right all along, in looking askance at us in the matter of episcopal succession. We don’t actually want to be episcopalian. We can go now and join the Congregationalists.

In view of the sweeping practical advantages, it is hard to object to the proposal before General Synod, this modest proposal for episcopal effacement. Yet I confess to some nostalgia, a sadness at the loss: nostalgia for the pomp of bishops, the robes befitting a throne like that of the thorn-crowned Christ; the staff as symbol of leadership, of the bishop’s teaching role in doctrine and worship, the bishop as guide and shepherd of the people. I feel some nostalgia for the apostolic succession born from the breath of the risen Christ, trailing glory and new creation, and a vast responsibility.

But this motion proposes progress, and who am I — who is Peter, come to that, and the whole long train of bishops who followed our Lord in Peter’s crucified footsteps — who are we to stand in its way?

The Rev. Dr. Catherine Sider-Hamilton teaches New Testament and Greek at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto, and serves as Priest-in-Charge of St. Matthew’s Anglican Church, Riverdale.


[1] *with thanks to Jonathan Swift

3 COMMENTS

  1. Many thanks for this article. Witty and wise! In TEC we have had similar conversations, but for the reasons you underline, we have backed away for the concept. On the other hand, if Canada goes the way that has been suggested, it also would mean that the bishops no longer have authority but also no responsibility. Rather like me, now that I am retired…

  2. Yes, it would seem that … so goes Catholic Faith, Catholic Order goes up for grabs, too. I truly hope not.

  3. I am grateful to the Reverend Catherine Sider-Hamilton for commenting on this motion proposed to General Synod 2023, thereby bringing it to the attention of readers in advance of the gathering.

    I have not yet made up my mind as to what way I would vote were I a delegate at the meeting later this month. However, I do think the motion deserves consideration (and not merely the sweeping dismissal that Sider-Hamilton has given to it in this article). Sider-Hamilton’s treatment of the proposal is built on the argument that it “clarifies a long-standing point of contention between Anglicans and Roman Catholics. It turns out the Catholics were right all along, in looking askance at us in the matter of episcopal succession. We don’t actually want to be episcopalian.”

    I would argue that the proposed motion suggests, not that Anglicans don’t want to be Catholic or episcopally led, but that we don’t want to be Roman. The idea that the authority of our national church would be considered equal in weight across orders suggests that the governance of our church be “held in common”—as in shared equally, as per Acts chapter 2; the example of St Barnabas; and indeed the monastic communities of our ancestors Cuthbert and Bede and others who, long before Henry VIII came on the scene, sought a different model of governance than their Roman forebears.

    If the monastic model isn’t a strong enough example, then perhaps readers will consider that the Anglican Church long ago departed from the Roman model of authority with Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer (BCP). The BCP’s move from seven divine offices to two services of morning and evening prayer was so that we might better hold in common the prayers of the church (i.e. amongst the people and not just in the cloisters).

    If even that isn’t enough to persuade readers, then perhaps we can consider the ordination of women priests and bishops. Need I remind my priestly colleague that, if our Roman Catholic siblings were to be “looking askance at us in the matter of episcopal succession” that indeed much shade would already have been cast at the Anglican Church’s ordination of women priests and bishops? And, if my colleague (who, I confess, I do not know personally) and others in our church are among those who are opposed to women bishops, then perhaps they would like to write publicly opposing the ministry of women bishops in our church, especially those who have been called to the ministry of reconciliation in the Indigenous Anglican Church? I suspect you would not be willing to do so (and for that I am grateful), but you might like to ask yourself why not? Is it that you see the fruit of this episcopal ministry, which diverts significantly from the Roman apostolic succession of Peter (but surely not of the apostle Mary and the other women who were the first to proclaim the Risen Christ)?

    Do not be fooled, readers: to consider seriously this motion before General Synod 2023 is not to bow to worldly appeals for democracy, as Sider-Hamilton has suggested. Not unlike the ordination of women priests and bishops, it is to consider a move to restore the church to the keeping of all things in common, including governance, so that the faith of our Anglican Church does not continue to belong to one, historically dominant, ruling minority alone.

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