The New Episcopal Church: What Hath General Convention 2015 Wrought?

The Episcopal Church runs the risk of cutting itself off from the very documents that give it identity (including Holy Scripture, the Book of Common Prayer and the Constitution). This is now a fait accompli. We have before us a New Episcopal Church. 

The Anglican Communion Institute has followed with care and interest the decisions of The Episcopal Church’s (TEC’s) General Convention 2015. We have pondered key aspects of these decisions, and spoken to a range of participants and members of the broader Anglican Communion.

In summarizing our reflections, we note that the following things are clear:

  1. A Trial Rite for same-sex marriage (A054) was passed in the House of Bishops a) without a roll call vote and b) without a majority of all the Bishops entitled to vote, as prescribed by the Constitution. By this action, the plain sense rules agreed to by all in the form of Constitutional order have now been reduced to whatever decision General Convention agrees at the time.
  2. The scriptural texts and the plain language of the Book of Common Prayer Pastoral Office for the Celebration and Blessing of a Marriage are now subject to a generic fallacy: the particular language and logic of one man and one woman are held to be examples of the use of “mankind” to refer to men and women in earlier times. That this is manifestly not analogous is made clear by the necessity of the removal of Mark 10 as one of the central texts to be read at marriage services. Neither Genesis nor Mark refer to “man and woman” as examples of non-generic language meaning “people” or “persons.” So by this canonical action (A036), the character of the Book of Common Prayer rites has been reduced to societal accident and happenstance. It is little wonder then, by this same logic, that the rubrics and core understanding of the sacrament of Holy Communion were only narrowly upheld over against appeals for “open communion.” This is the result of treating the Book of Common Prayer as a kind of smorgasbord of liturgical possibilities: a set of suggestions which each new age’s aspirations are to transform. The need for constitutionally approved measures for altering the BCP is now a former age’s quibble.

By contrast, we believe that Genera Convention 2015 has left the following things quite unclear.

  1. On the one hand, the HOB insisted that a Trial Rite has in some sense to be authorized by a Diocesan Bishop before it can be used “throughout the church” in his or her diocese. This is consistent with the regulations governing a Trial Rite (we can leave aside whether the origins of Trial Rite usage presupposed wholescale BCP revision, which is not at issue in the case of creating rites just for a new understanding of “generic marriage”). Yet A054 also insists that Diocesan Bishops must “make provision” for the new rites. Just what does this collision between a Diocesan Bishop’s authority to regulate rites and a requirement for making provision mean? The answer is, “no one knows because this is what happens when you set up a collision as has been done.” This means that various proposals can be envisioned or are being formally declared. Bishop X works with neighboring Bishops to see that the rites are provided elsewhere and not within his diocese or by his clergy. Bishop Y attempts this and neighboring Bishop says No. Bishop Z uses some version of the “Doyle Plan.” Bishop W wants flying Bishops to come into his diocese, but finds that LGBT couples want marriages in parishes where the congregations are divided. So how does this all shake out?
  2. Given the latitude with which the BCP and the C/C are being treated, and given that The Episcopal Church has no Historical Confessions, supreme Ecclesiastical Court, Book of Discipline, Barrier Act or other mechanisms for ordering its common life, how are we to understand the future of this church body? And how are we to understand the role of a Bishop and a Diocese, itself governed by constitution and canons?

The current situation

The Anglican Communion Institute has over the past decade argued that The Episcopal Church runs the risk of cutting itself off from the very documents that give it identity (including Holy Scripture, the Book of Common Prayer and the Constitution). This is now a fait accompli. We have before us a New Episcopal Church.

Even the illusion of the Episcopal Church as its own kind of world-wide Communion—a notion invented to offset the concerns and claims of the Anglican Communion as such, after the consecration of Bishop Robinson—suffered a grievous blow at General Convention 2015. We witnessed the entire bloc of Central American Bishops, on behalf of their dioceses, dissenting from the actions of General Convention in the area of canonical and Prayer Book revision regarding marriage. Where that new development will lead is but one further area of confusion post General Convention 2015.

What is not unclear is that all calls to adhere to our historical polity, constitutional governance and the rule of law have been rejected by those who gathered at the last GC. We will now witness a new kind of NEC “Bishop”; a new understanding of the NEC Diocese and its Constitution and Canons vis-à-vis General Convention’s most recent actions; a new conception of the authority of the Book of Common Prayer; a fresh confusion over just how the new A054 will find its footing in conservative dioceses, perhaps only clarified via disciplinary action or social-media campaign and advocacy.

The time ahead

All this points to a time ahead of stress and uncertainty for Anglicanism in the United States. ACI believes that the following elements, however, must be recognized and acted upon if this time ahead is to prove fruitful rather than simply destructive.

First, we must acknowledge that TEC as a national body is no longer recognizably “Anglican” in an Anglican-Communion sense. A broad range of commonly defining features of Anglican Communion churches – e.g. the Lambeth Quadrilateral, which makes Scripture the “rule and ultimate standard of faith”; the definition of Anglicanism specified in TEC’s own constitution and in 1930 Lambeth Conference Resolution 49 (i.e., “upholding and propagating the historic Faith and Order as set forth in the Book of Common Prayer”); other Lambeth resolutions including 1998 I.10; the Windsor Report and its moratoria that were subsequently adopted by all the Instruments of Communion; the framework of an Anglican Communion “Common Law” (as N. Doe and others have identified it), etc. — no longer exists in TEC.

Second, dioceses, bishops, priests, and laity who are currently members of TEC, but who do​ continue to hold their identity within the common Anglican elements noted above, need to set about, corporately and in a coordinated way, to work with the larger Anglican Communion for a way forward. That kind of work has, in the past, been subverted by a range of local and larger factors, including personal ones. Something different has to happen at this point, and both the American and Communion leadership concerned with this must work with a new consultative forthrightness and clarity.

Third, we believe that American Communion-minded Anglicans must formally call on Canterbury, and the Primates to respond to the need expressed above expeditiously and constructively. Past reticence, foot-dragging, deference to local politics, and simple failures to follow through are no longer viable ways forward.

Fourth, we urge friends and ecumenical partners to play a consultative, constructive and creative role in this process.

Insofar as TEC has claimed it has a life in the Anglican Communion it cares about, just to that degree it is necessary for the Anglican Communion to clarify what that might be, in the light of General Convention actions and the new self-understanding in NEC. General Convention has acted and declared its mind. What will the response of the Anglican Communion be?

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