July 4, 2007

Missing Episcopal Words

Episcopalians have a reputation for—and perhaps even pride themselves on—having names for everything. Every architectural detail of a church and every liturgical object seems to have a special name, as do our rules, our meetings, our officers, and our very movements during worship. When writing about the church, however, I sometimes discover that we have failed to create a word where one is needed.

I got to thinking about this when I tried to write about church members resident within a particular diocese. Members of a parish, of course, are parishioners, but what are they vis-à-vis their diocese? If a bishop wants to send a letter to all laypeople under his or her care, what do we call the people being addressed?

Church Structure and Episcopalians. These questions are trickier than one might imagine, and it helps to begin by talking about church structures, which can provide a framework for understanding what some of the words are that Episcopalians have and, perhaps, need.

The Episcopal Church is often spoken of as a hierarchical church. We can, in fact, identify three distinct structural levels of the church. The most visible level is the one on which everyday worship and mission take place, the level of what we normally refer to as churches. Episcopalians certainly use this word—I attend St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Mt. Lebanon, for example—but they also use the more precise words parish, congregation, and mission. The most general of these terms is congregation, which simply denotes a worshiping community. A parish, on the other hand, is a financially independent congregation, and a mission is a congregation financially aided by the diocese. Congregation is used in two other ways. It may refer to the people of a worshiping community, as opposed to the local institution of which they are a part. There are also parishes (and perhaps even missions) that have more than one worship site, each of which has a separate congregation, though under common leadership.

At this local-church level, we speak of a parish’s parishioners. We might speak of congregants of any worshiping community, though, in practice, Episcopalians usually don’t. As far as I can determine, there is no special word for members of a mission. Missioners would seem to be a candidate, but I have never seen the word used this way. A canon missioner is often a person on a diocesan staff responsible for such matters as congregational development, however, which, I think, makes missioner a poor choice for designating a worshiper at a mission.

The geographical area served by The Episcopal Church is partitioned into dioceses, each led by a bishop. This is the next level in the church hierarchy, and considering it brings us back to our original question of what to call the laypeople of a diocese. They are not parishioners because not all of them belong to a parish. Although one could call them congregants, this would not distinguish them specifically as residents of a diocese. The Episcopal Church does talk about members (of a parish, say), but, technically, laypeople are not members of their diocese. Clergy, who are not considered members of the parishes they serve, are considered members of a diocese, though not always the one in which they live. Parishes and missions are not members of a diocese, by the way, but are described as being in union with the diocese, a quaint Episcopalian formulation.

The size of a diocese is often given as the number of communicants within diocesan congregations. There is a technical definition of communicant given in Canon I.17 which has to do with members who actually take communion in their local church, but this word, too, is not specifically tied to the diocese; one can speak of the number of communicants in a parish or in the entire church. Our missing word is still missing.

We can speak of Episcopalians in the diocese or Episcopalians of the diocese, but it would be handy to be able to use a single word instead. Dictionary.com suggests that diocesan can be used of clergy or laypersons of a diocese, but I have never encountered this usage within The Episcopal Church, and it invites confusion with usage of the same word to mean diocesan bishop. (Speaking of diocesans would be confusing indeed, as only one bishop in a diocese can be the diocesan bishop.)

I should mention that dioceses in The Episcopal Church are organized into provinces, not to be confused with the regional-church members of the Anglican Communion sometime referred to by the same term. The nine provinces of the church represent something of a degenerate level—in the mathematical, not the moral sense—of the church hierarchy. Dioceses usually interact directly with the top level of the church hierarchy, although some interactions are mediated by provinces. Nobody speaks of Episcopal provincials—the members, say, of Province III—or seems to have any pressing need to do so.

At the top level of our Episcopal hierarchy are what we might call the trans-diocesan elements of the church, those people and institutions concerned with the church as a whole: the Episcopal Church Center in New York City, the Presiding Bishop, the General Convention, and so forth. We refer to all the structures and people of the church as The Episcopal Church, but we often need to speak specifically of the top level of the hierarchy. Episcopalians used to speak of the National Church, but this term has fallen into disfavor, as The Episcopal Church has dioceses in areas outside of the United States. One could hardly refer to the International Church, as this would invite confusion with the Anglican Communion, which is “more” international, even though it isn’t a church at all. There is, I think, a pressing need to find a replacement for National Church, though I don’t know that many people are working actively on the problem. The recent appellate court decision in California refers to the general church. I’m not sure this phrase has a chance of catching on, but it (or, perhaps, General Church) is not an unreasonable substitute for the politically incorrect National Church. at least until someone comes up with something better.

A different Problem. as long as I’m talking about names for church structures, the matter of the name of the church itself is, I suppose, unavoidable. In this instance, rather than having a dearth of names, we have a surfeit. One need only read a handful of newspaper articles on The Episcopal Church to know that there is confusion about what to call it. At the time that people were referring to the National Church, the church was commonly called ECUSA, the Episcopal Church (USA), or the Episcopal Church in the United States of America. In actuality, none of these was quite appropriate. The official name of the church is the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America. This is the name in the constitution of 1789 and all of its successors. In times past, therefore, the church was sometimes referred to as PECUSA, although the acronym is seldom used today.

In fact, Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America seems to have been a good name choice for what had been part of the Church of England but suddenly found itself in a new, independent Republic. It reflects both the Protestant and Catholic (in the word Episcopal, of course) heritage of Anglicanism. Over the years, Episcopal became less of a description, however, and more of a brand name, which gradually made Protestant seem like a denial of any Catholic heritage, hence ECUSA. Anglicanism has always seen itself as neither Roman Catholic nor Protestant, but as some synthesis of the two.

In fact, the Preamble to the church’s constitution, which was added in 1967, and which has been used by traditionalists to claim that acting contrary to the wishes of the Anglican Communion—however one might determine that to be the case—is a violation of the constitution, actually had virtually nothing to do with the Anglican Communion and everything to do with what to call the church. For years, Anglo-Catholics wanted to remove Protestant from the church’s name, and Evangelicals passionately opposed the change. Various other alternatives were proposed and rejected over the years. By the time the church seemed able to change its name without inviting schism, questions were raised as to whether a name change would have any untoward legal consequences. The “solution” was to keep the original name and to make official the common name of the church: “The Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America, otherwise known as The Episcopal Church (which name is hereby recognized as also designating the Church)….” The business about the Anglican Communion in the preamble was thrown in as lagniappe without any substantial discussion by the General Convention.

A new sensitivity to the constitution’s Preamble has led to the church’s being officially called The Episcopal Church or TEC, as opposed to all the forms discussed above, and as opposed to the Episcopal Church, which, all things being equal, seems more natural. (It used to be common to include The in front of institutional names—think of The Borden Company, for example—but, in 21st-century America, the church is bucking the trend.) The change seems to have been the brainchild of the director of Episcopal News Service—perhaps this organ now should be called The Episcopal News Service—and one could argue that it has only led to confusion and occasional derision. In any case, the capitalized article in the Preamble, although a product of the mid-20th century, probably reflects 18th-century orthography more than it does the intention of the General Convention always to put The before the name of the church.

As if the foregoing was not confusing enough, one sometimes encounters the name Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society. (One can reach the church’s Web site using either the URL http://episcopalchurch.org or http://dfms.org. I tend to use the latter, which is shorter.) The Episcopal Church, governed by the General Convention, has never been incorporated. The DFMS was created in the early nineteenth century by the General Convention and incorporated in the state of New York. For all practical purposes, the DFMS is The Episcopal Church, although the distinction matters in certain legal contexts.

A Side Issue: In enumerating the circumstances of people overseen by a diocesan bishop, all of whom may be called Episcopalians, the general name for members of the church, I began to wonder if there might be Episcopalians in a diocese who are not members of a specific worshiping community. I think the answer is no, but the matter isn’t clear-cut. According to church canon, a church member moving from one parish, say, to another, should execute a formal transfer. This does not always happen, so that, technically, the person remains a member of his or her old parish. The canons do not address the possibility of leaving one congregation and going nowhere in particular, but people do ask to be removed from parish registers without joining another church elsewhere, be it Episcopal or otherwise. A person doing this may have a self-image as an Episcopalian, but the church has no way of counting that person among its members.

Update, 8/22/2014. Since I wrote the above post, http://dfms.org/ has ceased to take the visitor to the Episcopal Church site. Instead, a page is displayed whose title is “Home” and which displays “DFMS” and “Welcome” in large letters. The page directs the visitor to “www.episcopalchurch.org.” Unhelpfully, the (incomplete) URL is not actually a link, so getting to the real church site is not as easy as one might like. There are also icons at the left edge of the page for Facebook, Twitter, etc., the purpose of which is something of a mystery. See my post “Home at the DFMS.”

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