Saturday, March 8, 2008

What authority does General Convention have?

We have agreed (see previous post) on a basic principle of Episcopal polity: the mandate of General Convention does not, and cannot, include the power to decide that TEC will no longer be a constituent member of the Anglican Communion.  Such a decision, which goes to our very identity, can be made only by the members of TEC themselves, and not by their elected delegates. (See also the full analysis of this point by Dean Paul Zahl, R.R. Reno, Christopher Seitz and Philip Turner here.)

Likewise, the mandate of General Convention does not extend to banishing the Holy Bible from Episcopal services of worship.  Despite what some of its defenders may claim, General Convention is limited in the things it can properly do.

Another limitation on the powers of General Convention is that it does not get to define what it is to be "Anglican".  Being Anglican comes from having an identity in common with others who are outside of TEC, and beyond the jurisdiction of General Convention.

At the same time, the Anglican Communion is not hierarchical, and there is no central authority with the power to set requirements to be called "Anglican".  By tradition and custom, to be an Anglican Church has meant to be "in communion with"---that is, to share liturgies and rites with---the Archbishop of Canterbury as the spiritual head of the Church of England.  (Even that custom, however, is changing.  Some churches declare themselves Anglican even though they do not consider themselves in communion with the See of Canterbury.)

The closest thing to a definitive body of rules and rubrics that can be called "Anglican" is the Book of Common Prayer and the collective resolutions adopted at previous Lambeth conferences.  While the latter are advisory, rather than binding, they nonetheless represent the collective sense of all the bishops within the Anglican Communion.  Just as there are no rules requiring what opening you have to play when starting a chess game, Lambeth resolutions do not mandate what you can and cannot do in your church.  If you begin a chess game as though you knew the Ruy Lopez opening, but then deviated from that line because you felt like trying something different, people who know chess will not credit you with being a Ruy Lopez player. And in the same way, if you disregard the resolutions adopted at Lambeth in your church, then people who are familiar with them will not credit you with being Anglican. 

This, then, is the dilemma of being in TEC and the Anglican Communion at the same time. General Convention followed its own internal procedures when it ratified the election of V. Gene Robinson to be Bishop of New Hampshire, but at the same time it violated the advice of Resolution 1.10 when it did so.  Because being identified as Anglican is dependent (among other things) on following Lambeth resolutions, General Convention started down a path that threatens TEC's Anglican identity.  And since we are agreed that General Convention lacks the authority to take TEC out of the Anglican Communion, it follows that although General Convention may have had the authority to ratify the election of an Episcopal bishop, it should have declined to exercise that authority in this instance---if it meant defying a Lambeth resolution.

In just the same manner, General Convention could undoubtedly follow all of its internal procedures correctly and adopt a canon banning the use of the Holy Bible in Episcopal services. (Just as the Emperor Caligula once proposed to use his authority to make his horse Incitatus a Roman consul.)  That it could do so by no means is a demonstration that it has the power to do so; adopting such a canon would turn TEC into a laughing-stock of organized religion, and would call into question its identity as a Christian faith.  That is (on a slightly smaller scale) what has happened with its ratification of the election of V. Gene Robinson.  Once again, the fact that it did ratify the election is no proof that it had the power to do so, to violate a Lambeth resolution, to elect and to consecrate as a bishop a man whom the rest of the Communion would refuse to acknowledge as a bishop---and still call itself Anglican.

Does this mean, as some have said, that the ratification of Robinson's election was an unconstitutional act?  Not in the strict sense of that word, since Resolution 1.10 was not a part of TEC's constitution.  I submit, however, that it was an act beyond the authority of General Convention, since by so acting, TEC placed itself at odds with the Anglican Communion, and signaled that it would not abide by a Lambeth resolution.  That was not the act of "a constituent member of the Anglican Communion", and so was beyond the authority given to General Convention by TEC's members to maintain TEC's place in that Communion.  It was also a usurpation of the power to decide questions of our Anglican identity, which, because they go to our essence, can be exercised only by TEC's members, as a collective whole.  Finally, it was an abuse of the power residing within TEC's polity to elect and to consecrate bishops of the Anglican Communion.  Instead, it served only to put TEC onto the path where today it claims sovereign authority to elect bishops without regard to whether they are acceptable to the Anglican Communion or not, although some---but by no means all---of TEC's bishops for the time being promise to use "caution" in exercising that power. 

Indeed, it is remarkable that General Convention has arrogated to itself powers to decide questions of identity which it denies to individual dioceses and parishes.  That is, it is all right for General Convention to flout a Lambeth resolution, but it is not all right for the Diocese of San Joaquin to decide to affiliate with a different province, or for the parish of Falls Church in Virginia to align with a different Anglican church.  In General Convention's view, what is sauce for the goose is definitely not sauce for the gander.  Yet TEC would not be having these problems of identity if General Convention 2003 had preserved the Church's Anglican identity by remaining faithful to the terms of Lambeth Resolution 1.10.  It is hypocritical not to accept full responsibility for the consequences of that one act.  Once a group is perceived as having abandoned its collective identity, those who disagree with such actions will do what is required to maintain the identity they perceive as having been abandoned.

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