October 22, 2009

Dallas: A Diocese to Watch

The 113th annual convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas held this past weekend did not make much news. Episcopal News Service covered it in a single paragraph:
Dallas: “Great Fellowship” was the theme of the 113th annual diocesan convention, held at the South Fork Conference Center in Parker, Texas. Convention did not consider any resolutions; rather some 116 clergy and 194 lay delegates studied and discussed the Anglican covenant, according to Bishop Suffragan Paul Lambert of Dallas. Delegates approved a $3,169,600 budget, representing about a $29,000 increase from last year.
As ENS reported, no resolutions were considered at the convention, though, of course, the usual elections for Standing Committee and the like were held. To say that delegates “studied and discussed the Anglican covenant,” however, does not capture the essence of the event. It would be more correct to say that the delegates were propagandized or indoctrinated about the Anglican covenant.

The centerpiece of the convention was a trio of talks aimed at promoting adoption of the covenant and justifying the right of the diocese to approve it. These talks were given on Friday, October 16, 2009, by the Rt. Rev. James M. Stanton, Mr. Mark McCall, and the Rev. Dr. Philip Turner. The discussion was conducted in small groups at tables at which delegates from the same church were separated.

In case the names of the speakers do not immediately ring bells, I should point out that the speakers constitute an Anglican Communion Institute (ACI) tag team. Turner is vice president of the ACI. Stanton and McCall are members of the ACI Advisory Committee. (See the ACI “Contributing Theologians” page here.) It may be difficult to characterize precisely what the ACI stands for, but it would not be unfair to say that the ACI has virtually never had anything positive to say about The Episcopal Church or anything negative to say about its detractors. To its credit, however, it has not advocated breaking away from The Episcopal Church.

I will not attempt a full analysis of the message to which delegates to the Dallas convention were subjected. I will, however, offer links to the three talks and provide short summaries of them. I recommend reading the talks for yourself and drawing your own conclusions as to what Bishop Stanton is trying to accomplish. Apparently, he plans to call a special convention after a revised Section Four of the proposed Anglican covenant is available, at which time, he expects the Dallas convention to endorse—whatever that means—the covenant. I’m sure that this plan is not contingent on the details of the revised Section Four .

The first and longest talk was given by Bishop Stanton himself. It was titled “DIOCESE AND COVENANT: Reflection on Dallas, its History and Future.” (You can read Stanton’s talk here. The text is from a handout and contains all the typographical errors of the original.) Drawing on the history of his diocese, Stanton argued for the autonomy of dioceses, a novel notion promoted by attorney Mark McCall and the ACI. The talk mentioned the “unqualified accession” requirement imposed by the church on dioceses, though without suggesting that it has any real effect on church polity. After decoupling his diocese from The Episcopal Church, Stanton argued that the Christian message across dioceses must be coördinated, using a “conciliar”—another popular ACI buzzword—approach. This was his lead-in for advocacy of his diocese’s adopting the covenant. In one sentence, Stanton dismissed the constitution and canons of The Episcopal Church and embraced the convent: “A covenant is something higher and better than a code.” There is more than a little doubletalk here.

McCall was next to speak. His talk, “TEC Polity, The Civil Law and the Anglican Covenant,” is available here on the ACI Web site. McCall began with a discussion of the nature of The Episcopal Church, which, legally speaking, he says is a voluntary organization whose members are dioceses. Because the church’s constitution contains no “supremacy clause,” dioceses and the General Convention have “concurrent jurisdiction without supremacy,” which, given that diocesan conventions meet more often than the General Convention, effectively makes dioceses more powerful than the General Convention. (McCall’s legal discussion conveniently ignored the existence of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America, of which all Episcopalians are members. He has a very limited idea of how a hierarchical organization must be ordered—he, too, basically ignores the accession requirement—and he does not deal with the constitutional implications of the Episcopal Church’s being a church.)

McCall then turned to the matter of adopting the Anglican covenant, at which point, his talk became seriously weird. Neither the covenant nor the Communion generally claims a right to alter a province’s polity. Provinces will accept or reject the covenant based on their own internal rules. In the case of our own church, since McCall claims that dioceses and the General Convention share jurisdiction, the General Convention and individual dioceses may act as they choose, and the Communion will have to sort out what that means.

I cannot resist an aside here. Whereas I have always thought McCall’s view of Episcopal Church polity to be seriously flawed, there are those who actually believe (or who want us to think they believe) this stuff. The General Convention should be very careful about how it accepts (God forbid!) or rejects the Anglican covenant. If it does so by canon—surely not the most obvious way of weighing in on the matter, particularly in the case of rejection—then, because of accession, dioceses could not second-guess the General Convention’s decision.

Turner was the final speaker; his talk was titled “Crossroads Are For Meeting (Again).” (This can be found on the ACI Web site here. Curiously, Turner’s footnotes are missing from the ACI posting and some of the formatting is dropped, so you may want to look at the PDF version of the Dallas handout here.) Turner offered a break from legal arguments. His basic message seemed to be “don’t be afraid of the covenant.” He began with some history, suggesting that the Anglican Communion has long sought a coherent self-identify that the covenant seeks to supply. His ultimate conclusion in the talk was that the covenant is the last best hope for keeping the Communion together. In discussing the covenant, excepting Section Four, Turner argued that the current draft is indeed “Anglican.” He acknowledged dissenting opinions and tried to counter them. In the last section of the talk, however, Turner argued that The Episcopal Church has acted in ways that make it impossible for the church to accept the covenant with integrity. (Implicitly, I suppose, this means that dioceses should act to accept it.) Acknowledging that the final form of Section Four is unknown, Turner suggested that previous versions have preserved autonomy and relied on “the process of ‘recognition’ rather than adjudication.” (This is an interesting point, thought perhaps a distinction without a difference.) According to Turner, “The simple fact is that without a strong Section Four that creates credible procedures rather than additional hierarchies, the Anglican Communion will perish as a communion of churches.”

One can see in the Dallas convention talks the strategizing of the militant traditionalists for their next battle. The General Convention actually asked dioceses to offer their opinions on the covenant, but that body intended for a serious, unbiased evaluation to take place in each diocese. The Bishop of Dallas, however, has decided instead to manipulate his own diocesan convention to assure that the diocese comes to the “right” conclusion. Moreover, expecting (or fearing) that the General Convention will reject the covenant, Stanton plans to act preëmptively, not merely offering moral support for the covenant, as the Archbishop of Canterbury has suggested, but claiming actual ratification by the autonomous Diocese of Dallas. This promises to sow chaos not only within The Episcopal Church, but also within the Anglican Communion itself. Of course, it may be necessary to destroy the Communion in order to save it.


No Anglican Covenant

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