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A way forward together (2): ecclesiology

Editor’s note: This is the second post of a three-part series. Part 1 is “Christ-centered comprehension.” Part 3 is “Prayer book.” 

By Jordan Hylden and Keith Voets

We write as priests of the Episcopal Church, which through its 78th General Convention has now institutionalized doctrinal disagreement on the nature of Christian marriage. We find ourselves on opposite sides of this painful division. We are near the beginning of our careers in ministry, and it is possible that decades from now we will still disagree, perhaps arguing in some retirement home for curmudgeonly priests. And yet we hope to continue serving together in this church until that day, and hand on to those who will come after us a church that embodies genuinely Christ-centered comprehension.

That there will be such a church in 30 or 40 years is no foregone conclusion. The Episcopal Church continues to lose members at an alarming rate. Tens of thousands of conservative Episcopalians have left, but they are not the only ones. Moreover, some members of our church, like George Clifford at Episcopal Café, have argued that bishops in the conservative minority should not be permitted to prevent same-sex marriages in their dioceses. Given such pressures, is there a case for maintaining a “mixed economy” in our church on this serious issue?

At least three questions bear on this issue. First, what does a genuinely Christ-centered comprehensive church look like? How to avoid shuffling off into a confused muddle, sacrificing truth for unity?

Second, what ecclesiology does this imply? What role do bishops play in our polity, those who stand in the apostolic succession and are charged with guarding the faith and unity of the whole Church Catholic?

Third, what does this imply for the Book of Common Prayer? For we are a church that relies upon the dictum lex orandi, lex credendi like few others. If we cannot pray in common about Holy Matrimony, can we continue as a church bound by common prayer?

We addressed the first of these questions yesterday: “A way forward together (1): Christ-centered comprehension.” The second question is addressed below, and the third shall be addressed tomorrow.

Ecclesiology in an episcopal church

As Stanley Hauerwas has said in his memoirs: “We’re all Congregationalists now.” Our full-communion partner, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, allows parish-by-parish for the “bound conscience” of members on same-sex relationships. So do Presbyterians, and Methodists are considering a similar solution. But thus far, the polity of the Episcopal Church has led us in a different direction. We have placed decisions not simply in the hands of General Convention and local congregations, but in bishops of dioceses. This has met with sharp criticism, as some resist the notion that the Episcopal dioceses of Dallas, Haiti, Honduras, Springfield, and so on will not allow what General Convention permits. Are the critics correct?

They are not. Bishops are not functionaries who carry out the policy directives of General Convention; they are successors to the apostles. The episcopate is not a creature of the Episcopal Church or of its synod; we gratefully received it from across the sea, from those who had received it themselves in a long line stretching back to the apostles. And bishops are not permitted to teach a faith of their own, but are charged to hand on the faith of the apostles taught to them by our Lord, in unity with the Catholic Church through time and space. We do not “possess” the episcopate. We bear only a small fraction of it.

For catholic ecclesiology, the basic unit of the Church is neither the parish nor the “national church” at General Convention or at 815 Second Avenue, but the diocese. The Church is the faithful gathered around the bishop at the altar, confessing and celebrating together in one place the one faith, one baptism, and one Lord. As Rowan Williams put it when he was Archbishop of Canterbury, “the Bishop and the Diocese” are the “primary locus of ecclesial identity,” and “the organ of union with the wider Church is the Bishop and the Diocese rather than the Provincial structure as such.”

We cannot then acquiesce to de facto congregationalism while claiming to be an episcopal church. Although we lament the state of affairs that has rendered wide swaths of our church as no-go zones for both of us, the answer is not live-and-let-live congregationalism. Bishops such as Andrew Doyle of Texas and Dorsey McConnell of Pittsburgh have admirably sought to maintain the unity of their dioceses while allowing for a diversity of practice, but this has made it more difficult for them to claim to teach and guard the faith and unity of the Church as bishops with respect to human sexuality.

The conservative Communion Partner bishops are aptly named, given their self-understanding. They understand that the authority of General Convention exists under a larger authority, so that on matters that touch on the common faith and unity of the church they ought not act, except in communion with the Anglican churches around the world. They believe they cannot do otherwise but act as bishops with the vows they have taken to “guard the faith, unity, and discipline” of the church. With Archbishop Williams, they understand that, as bishops, they are the focus for unity with the wider Church in their dioceses, and that the wider Church has not reached a consensus on the revision of our marriage doctrine. The “Communion across Difference” statement of the Episcopal Church’s House of Bishops recognized the Communion Partners at this past General Convention as an “indispensable” part of a church that “needs their witness.” If they are indeed “indispensable,” then they are so as bishops of dioceses in partnership with the Anglican Communion, not as persons with private opinions or as denominational functionaries.

We recognize the pressure of the criticisms leveled in their direction. Many people understand the Episcopal Church as progressive, and many sit in our pews for that reason. This is a matter of great consternation for some in conservative dioceses. We do not expect relief from the pressure caused by this contradiction in the foreseeable future.

The contradiction is felt sharply already: for although one way to “provide access” to rites for same-sex marriage might be to inform couples that neighboring dioceses will happily perform their weddings, that will not be good enough for many who will want to be wed in their hometowns. But acceding to this request would mark the end of Communion Partner dioceses. And for Anglicans who understand their episcopal church as more than a merely national Protestant denomination, this will not do.

This quandary can only be resolved by honest and open conversations, both within the Episcopal Church and the wider Anglican Communion, that do not shy away from the theological and ecclesiological questions at stake. In the past decade and more, too many of our ecclesial disputes have been pursued through one-size-fits-all General Convention legislation, painful and messy separations, and secular courts. It is easy to foresee in the not-too-distant future the present disputes coming to a similarly sharp point. As Karl Marx said, history always repeats itself: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.

If such farcical tragedy is to be avoided, “fierce conversations” are necessary. If we are indeed to hold together as a church and a Communion, we need more than a mere modus vivendi: we need a framework and a shared understanding that will last. The Communion Partner dioceses must know that there is a lasting place for them as such within the Episcopal Church, and that there is a Communion that recognizes and supports their place. Many Episcopalians in disagreement with their dioceses on marriage (conservatives and progressive alike) are now in a difficult position: Is there a future for them that avoids mere congregationalism? And many in the wider Communion will be concerned to know that the Episcopal Church contains within it a sustainable and substantively episcopal ecclesiola in ecclesia that has both received and preserved prayer book doctrine on Christian marriage. Ten years ago, at the request of the Anglican primates in Dromantine, Archbishop Williams announced the appointment of a Panel of Reference to address the problem that “certain parishes have been unwilling to accept the direct oversight of their diocesan bishops and that certain dioceses are in dispute with their provincial authorities.”

It may or may not be time for that just yet, but it is not too soon for some difficult conversations. The issues from 2005 have not gone away; in fact they have been heightened. But heads are cooler now than ten years ago, and time has passed. The atmosphere in Salt Lake City was charitable and collegial. There are new leaders around the table. It may be just the right time to take counsel together, and try again, not only in the Episcopal Church but across the Communion.

The Rev’d Jordan Hylden is a doctoral candidate in theology and ethics at Duke Divinity School, and an instructor at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary. His other posts for Covenant may be found here.

The Rev’d Keith Voets currently serves as Associate Rector at the Church of St. Barnabas in Irvington, NY.  He is a 2012 graduate of The General Theological Seminary and an active member of the Society of Catholic Priests. He blogs at The Means of Grace.

The featured image is “A Clear Path” (2008) by Michael Loke. It is licensed under Creative Commons. 


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