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Canonical Obedience

By Steve Rice

Some time ago, a bishop told me that when the hurricane is coming, you don’t call a vestry meeting to vote on who will put the tarp on the roof. Point taken. In cases of emergency, decisive leadership is required. In cases of real emergency, decisions are often made (and rightly so) at a speed that is faster than the authoritative process. In the case of the Episcopal Church, that authoritative process includes the Constitution and Canons and the Book of Common Prayer.

In March 2020, the hurricane was COVID-19 and tarps needed to be tied down. I am not aware of a single diocesan bishop who did not give to their clergy some form of restrictions regarding worship and the use of buildings. On March 12, 2020, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry issued a statement to the House of Bishops (which he later made public) affirming his support of bishops who, in the face of the emerging pandemic, take actions that are either not addressed by or in opposition to canons and rubrics of the Episcopal Church. While there were some raised eyebrows at the suspension of the common cup and the closure of churches, most clergy understood. The whole world was shutting down, including churches of every tradition. While many clergy acknowledged there was no canonical authority for such actions, I believe there was a generous reservoir of goodwill for the actions of their bishops.

From that goodwill, I do wish to raise the question of the canonical authority of bishops in continuing restrictions two years into the pandemic. In 2020 we did not know anything about the virus or the toll and toil restrictions would demand from our churches. In 2022, we do. I started writing this piece in January, as Omicron was in full ascendency. I am certain by the time this is published, federal, state, and local governments will have relaxed many, if not all, restrictions. Diocesan restrictions, however, may still be in place, oddly out of step with the very authorities it pledged to follow in the beginning of the pandemic. Now that COVID-19 is no longer an emergency situation, and the proverbial tarps are untethered, perhaps it is time to reflect on restrictions and the canonical structures that may or may not support them.  I do not wish to undermine the authority of bishops, rather I desire to affirm it by asking for clarification.

Closing Churches and the Suspension of Worship

Can a bishop close a church for worship? I cannot find a canon that authorizes a bishop to suspend public worship. Canon III.9.6.(a)(1), referenced by Bishop Curry’s statement, says,

The Rector or Priest-in-Charge shall have full authority and responsibility for the conduct of the worship and spiritual jurisdiction of the Parish, subject to the Rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer, the Constitution and Canons of this Church, and the pastoral direction of the Bishop.

Full authority and responsibility seems clear. The sticking point is the definition of “pastoral direction of the Bishop.” With the exception of this canon, “pastoral direction” is a term exclusive to Title IV (the canons that deal with ecclesiastical discipline). There, we find:

A Pastoral Direction must (a) be made in writing; (b) set forth clearly the reasons for the Pastoral Direction; (c) set forth clearly what is required of the Member of the Clergy; (d) be issued in the Bishop Diocesan’s capacity as the pastor, teacher and overseer of the Member of the Clergy; (e) be neither capricious nor arbitrary in nature nor in any way contrary to the Constitution and Canons of the General Convention or the Diocese; and (f) be directed to some matter which concerns the Doctrine, Discipline or Worship of the Church or the manner of life and behavior of the Member of the Clergy concerned; and (g) be promptly served upon the Member of the Clergy” (IV.7.2).

It should be noted that “pastoral direction” is also included in the examination of the priest in the Ordinal: “Will you respect and be guided by the pastoral direction and leadership of your bishop?” In his commentary on the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, Marion Hatchett notes that the examination is a more concise version of previous ordinals. In the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, the question is “Will you reverently obey your Bishop, and other chief Ministers, who, according to the Canons of the Church, may have the charge and government over you; following with a glad mind and will their godly admonitions, and submitting yourselves to their godly judgement?”

Obedience is rightly linked to the canons. Of note, some priests in the Church of England established a blog, entitled All Things Lawful and Honest, to present reasoned and faithful critiques of the Church of England’s response to COVID-19. “All things lawful and honest” is a reference to the oath of obedience (Canon C14) where every priest and deacon promises “canonical obedience” to the bishop and their successors “in all things lawful and honest.”

The term, “pastoral direction” does not seem to appear in the canons of the Episcopal Church until 1982, which makes sense following the publication of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. There, it is defined as meaning “godly admonition,” making the connection back to the 1928 Ordinal. While the definition has developed over 40 years, it is still defined as a written admonition. The 1982 and subsequent canons appear to view “pastoral direction” as a vehicle to correct canonical disobedience and not a lens for interpreting the canons. Even with a generous reading, a pastoral directive must address a matter of worship, faith, or discipline that does not conflict with canons, to which the restrictions imposed seem to do.

The canon immediately following, III.9.6.(a)(2), puts the use of buildings within the rector’s purview:

For the purposes of the office and for the full and free discharge of all functions and duties pertaining thereto, the Rector or Priest-in-Charge shall at all times be entitled to the use and control of the Church and Parish buildings together with all appurtenances and furniture, and to access to all records and registers maintained by or on behalf of the congregation.

The pertinent clause is “shall at all times be entitled to the use and control.” It is difficult to see how that right can be overruled without a canon that provides specific authorization.


Regarding music and singing, Canon II.5 states,

It shall be the duty of every Member of the Clergy to see that music is used as an offering for the glory of God and as a help to the people in their worship in accordance with the Book of Common Prayer and as authorized by the rubrics or by the General Convention of this Church. To this end the Member of the Clergy shall have final authority in the administration of matters pertaining to music. In fulfilling this responsibility the Member of the Clergy shall seek assistance from persons skilled in music. Together they shall see that music is appropriate to the context in which it is used.

The rector or priest-in-charge is the final authority in the administration of matters pertaining to music. Again, it should be admitted that this canon does not anticipate a global pandemic. However, it does trust the rector or priest-in-charge to use good judgement, common sense, and local resources and invests the rector or priest-in-charge with the authority to decide whether or not they should sing.

The Chalice

In his charge to the House of Bishops, Bishop Curry rightly quotes the rubric from the prayer book which does not grant permission to suspend the common cup. In the beginning, it was assumed that people would abstain from the chalice anyway. The rubric requires that the chalice must be offered, but the doctrine of concomitance means not everyone must take it to receive the sacrament’s full benefit. My conscience was assuaged in part by the knowledge that there is precedent in English Law. The Sacrament Act of 1547, which one might argue is still in effect, prescribes the administration of the chalice at Holy Communion “excepte necessitie otherwise require.” I would argue a global pandemic, at which time we did not fully understand the mode of transmission, constituted a “necessitie.” Parish clergy are best suited to determine when something is necessary, while being held accountable by our bishop. We know if our people are fully vaccinated. We know their communion habits. We know the pastoral pitfalls and consequences that surround everything. Christmas Eve may not be the best time to bring it back. But the daily Mass, where I know everyone, can be an appropriate place. Otherwise we run the real risk of scaring people away from the sacramental blood of Christ forever. I cannot imagine the level of anxiety that will be at some altar rails when the chalice returns.

Charge to the Clergy

It has been suggested that canonical authority of which I am addressing is found in the bishop’s authority to give an occasional charge to the clergy. Canon III.12.3(b) says,

The Bishop Diocesan may deliver, from time to time, a Charge to the Clergy of the Diocese and a Pastoral Letter to the people of the Diocese on points of doctrine, discipline, or worship. The Bishop may require the Clergy to read the Pastoral Letter to their Congregations.

The contents of the charge are not defined, other than that they may address points of doctrine, discipline, or worship. To interpret this canon with such broad authority would grant bishops unlimited power, and I think the plain reading of this canon is a spiritual charge and/or teaching and not a directive on public health matters.

It would be unfair to unnecessarily critique the response of bishops and clergy during the early days of the pandemic. Everyone was doing their best, and the information seemed to changed moment by moment. That is not my intent. I think it is fair to say that the bishops saw the hurricane coming and put the tarp on as fast as they could. I have spoken to several bishops regarding their canonical authority in imposing restrictions, including my own. I am completely convinced they all acted in good faith, and to a bishop, they all recognize the ambiguity of the canons, and the great diversity of restrictions imposed across the Episcopal Church seems to illustrate this. I also imagine that they would make different decisions if they knew then what they know now.

The question of canonical authority regarding COVID-19 restrictions is an important one, and is the focus of this article, but there may be a related issue that is more pressing at the moment. What has become of the relationship between clergy and their bishops? While I’m certain this is not universal; I have witnessed a palpable frustration from clergy across the Episcopal Church and spans theological and liturgical perspectives. Priests have been limited by restrictions they cannot explain nor defend, and they have paid the price pastorally. I actually appreciate Bishop Curry’s address to the House of Bishops in March 2020, but I wonder if it was viewed not merely as pastoral support to Title IV charges regarding the chalice (the presiding bishop takes the roll of bishop diocesan in Title IV cases against bishops), but as canonical immunity. It might have been seen by clergy and bishops as a judge declaring the ruling before ever hearing the case. I wonder if the presiding bishop’s statement had the unintended consequence of silencing faithful critique of the restrictions. Now that worship has returned and many of the restrictions are on their way out, will that fear over raising canonical concerns remain?  I mentioned earlier the Church of England blog All Things Lawful and Honest, which seems to have had real influence on bishops by giving voice to parish clergy without fear of reprisal. I wonder if American clergy have the same confidence to speak their minds when not of the same mind as their bishop. If the answer is no, I think we should explore why.

Restrictions, whether they are canonical or not, may have been meet and right at the beginning of the pandemic. Their impact two years on, however, is undeniable. Attendance, pastoral care, budgets, mental health, and trust have all been affected. Parish clergy are responsible for leading their communities forward and rebuilding what has fallen apart. We feel the weight of the responsibility, but the message has not always been clear that we have the authority. We all pray this will soon be a closed chapter, but what will happen, for instance, when the flu comes around this fall? Will bishops suspend worship or the chalice? I have no interest whatsoever in promoting a pharisaical approach to the canons. Fidelity, however, is not the same as pharisaism. With good sense and generosity, our canons govern our common life as Christians. They rightly entrust bishops with preserving, promoting, and protecting the faith and worship of the Church. They also rightly entrust the public worship and spiritual life of the parish to the clergy. We have been given the cure of souls. We can also be trusted with their bodies.


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