September 18, 2008

Is The Episcopal Church Hierarchical?

On September 6, 2008, a paper by Mark McCall was posted on the Web site of the Anglican Communion Institute with the improbable title of “Is The Episcopal Church Hierarchicial?” The paper was introduced in an essay by Philip Turner, Christopher Seitz, and Ephraim Radner titled “Constitution and Canons: What Do They Tell Us About TEC?’

McCall, offering legal and historical arguments, concludes that The Episcopal Church is not hierarchical in the sense of other churches (such as the Roman Catholic Church, for example). Although I am neither an historian nor a canon lawyer, even I could spot certain flaws in McCall’s arguments. (He mistakenly believes, for example, that giving consent for the consecration of bishops has always been the primary responsibility of dioceses, whereas the original church constitution assigned that responsibility to the General Convention.)

What I lack in legal and historical qualifications is perhaps partly compensated for by my command of logic, and I have brought what expertise I do have to the analysis of Episcopal Church polity, arguing elsewhere that dioceses are inextricably bound to The Episcopal Church and subject to the General Convention. (See “Unqualified Accession.”) Certainly, this is what Progressive Episcopalians of Pittsburgh has long argued in the Diocese of Pittsburgh.

After reading McCall’s essay, I happened upon a paper copy of Dr. Joan Gundersen’s essay “History Revisited: Historical Background of the Proposed Amendment to Article I, Section 1 of the Constitution of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh.” Joan wrote this in 2004 in response to an opinion by the chancellor of the Diocese of Pittsburgh asserting that diocesan convention was free to modify the accession clause of the diocese’s constitution. From historical facts, Joan argued otherwise. (Her paper is available here.)

Rereading Joan’s paper convinced me that I should write a post about the problems I found in McCall’s arguments. I intended to direct readers to “History Revisited” in my essay. Discussing the matter with Joan, however, I discovered that she was eager to write a direct rebuttal to McCall’s arguments herself, and I was quick to encourage the project.

In fact, Joan produced a brilliant reply to McCall that, I think, blows his arguments out of the water. Moreover, she did this in very short order—I was particularly impressed with her efficiency—seemingly producing the 8-page essay “A Response to Mark McCall’s ‘Is The Episcopal Church Hierarchical?’” in no time. I think we spent more time editing and formatting the piece than she spent actually writing it. (Well, maybe not.)

Here is an excerpt from “A Response to Mark McCall’s ‘Is The Episcopal Church Hierarchical?’” This paragraph addresses the troublesome word “accede,” about which I also wrote:
To begin with, anachronistic assumptions permeate McCall's essay. If we are to understand what the eighteenth-century organizers of The Episcopal Church had in mind, we must be sure we are not reading later understandings into their documents. For example, McCall uses a U.S. Court of Appeals decision to define “accession” as becoming party to a treaty and refers to it as an “unusual” term in the law of contracts. That may be, but a simple consultation of the Oxford English Dictionary reveals a number of eighteenth-century examples of the use of the word “accede” to mean agreeing to a plan or opinion. Current dictionaries often use “submit” as a synonym. The founders thus used a word in a common context that people then would understand easily.
More typical (and more engaging) is the rich historical detail that Joan brings to her narrative. Here is a sample:
On March 29, 1784, a small group of clergy and laity from three congregations met to discuss forming an organization in Pennsylvania. However, they “were of the opinion, that a subject of such importance ought to be taken up, if possible, with the general concurrence of the episcopalians in the United States.” Two days later, at another gathering of the group, they called a meeting for May 24 for clergy and lay representatives from every Pennsylvania parish. When that convention met, it appointed a standing committee to “confer with representatives from the episcopal church in other states, or any of them; and assist in framing an ecclesiastical government.” This convention then outlined a list of principles for forming such a government and called for a meeting of the larger church in New York in October 1784. One of the principles was “That no powers be delegated to a general ecclesiastical government, except such as cannot conveniently be exercised by the clergy and laity in their respective congregations.” McCall reads this as reserving power to the state conventions (dioceses). However, that is not what it says. State conventions are not even mentioned, since Episcopalians in many states, including Pennsylvania, had no such convention. Pennsylvania numbers its state conventions beginning with that of 1785, rather than with the 1784 meeting.
(I spare you the footnotes in the above passages.)

It is hardly worthwhile for me to discuss “A Response to Mark McCall” in detail here. Instead, I invite you simply to read Joan’s essay and marvel at its effortless scholarship. You can find it here.

Of course, my interest in Episcopal Church polity is intensified by the upcoming vote for “realignment” (i.e., removing the Diocese of Pittsburgh from The Episcopal Church and making it a part of the Anglican province of the Southern Cone). The McCall essay seems designed to offer a credible argument for the propriety of such a move.

Because the Anglican Communion Institute has not encouraged schism in The Episcopal Church—senior fellow Ephraim Radner famously resigned from the Anglican Communion Network upon concluding that it was schismatic—I was surprised to find McCall’s essay offered under its sponsorship. McCall apparently offered the essay to the ACI unsolicited, and the ACI folks seem to have been taken in by McCall’s argument, even if they had qualms about its implications. I suspect that McCall is a proponent of “realignment,” but the ACI is not, though its principals seem willing to consider ecclesiastical arrangements within the Anglican Communion that I would consider destructive. I hope they will re-evaluate their embrace of Mark McCall’s arguments after they have read Joan Gundersen’s rebuttal.

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