And well you might. Let me begin with a little historical sketch.
Once upon a time there was the Church of England. The Church of England was Catholic, and recognized the Bishop of Rome as its head.
Then the King of England got into a major disagreement with that Bishop (known as the Pope, from the Italian for "father"). He had Parliament pass a law making him the head of the Church of England. The Church kept its Catholic rites and services, but the King executed Sir Thomas More for refusing to acknowledge him, rather than the Pope, as the head of the Church.
Meanwhile, Martin Luther's Reformation of the Church was under way. Under the monarchs who followed the King who executed Sir Thomas More, the Church of England veered first to the Protestant, then to the Catholic, and finally (spurred on by papal plots to take back the throne) back toward the Protestant side. Today the Church is more Protestant than Catholic, but the British monarch remains its Supreme Governor, and (with the advice of her Prime Minister) appoints its two Archbishops. Those Archbishops in turn exercise hierarchical (i.e., metropolitan) powers over Church clergy in their respective juridictions. Each Archbishop governs a province, which is made up of dioceses. Those dioceses and their respective bishops meet in what is called General Synod for the purpose of adopting canons and legislation for the Church, under authority granted by Parliament. (Parliament retains final authority to enact legislation that is binding on the Church.) Unless any act passed by General Synod has been previously authorized by Parliament, or is ratified by Parliament after it has been passed, it is of no force or effect in the Church.
During Britain's colonial period the rites and liturgy of the Church of England were carried throughout the world by its missionaries and clergy. There evolved, over time, branches of the Church of England in each such colony governed by the British. The clergy in those colonial churches were (in theory) controlled from London.
Beginning with the American colonial churches, however, the branches in each colony gradually became independent of the Mother Church, as the colonies themselves became independent. The American churches sent candidates to Scotland and England to be consecrated as bishops, who then returned and consecrated further candidates. In an important decision involving Bishop Colenso of the province of Natal in South Africa, the Queen's Privy Council ruled that the Queen's mandate investing a bishop with administrative authority over a foreign province did not carry with it any metropolitical authority over other bishops in that province. The ground of the decision was that the Queen's authority over ecclesiastical matters extended only to the shores of England, and not further, and that it was up to each local church (and its country's government, if appropriate) to establish lines of ecclesiastical authority for that church.
Over time, then, these colonial churches each became independent of the Church of England and established their autonomy in their own country, or region. They were governed by their own bishops and Archbishops, whether elected or appointed by local authority. Each bishop, priest, or deacon was ordained into the "one holy, catholic and apostolic church", and the bishop of any diocese could license to preach in that diocese any priest who had been ordained in any of the other branches of what came to be known as the "Anglican Communion" (a term first used in 1847 by an Episcopal missionary bishop to the Middle East, Horatio Southgate).
The formal equivalency of the world-wide Anglican episcopate was established by the convocation of the first Lambeth Conference in 1867. From the tradition of his primacy, the Archbishop of Canterbury was recognized as the appropriate ecclesiastic to invite other bishops to attend. However, so strong was the sentiment against establishing any kind of super-Anglican synodical authority in the bishops assembled at Lambeth that a number of English and other bishops refused to attend, including the Archbishop of York. It was only when the gathering was seen as a harmless affair, which passed a few resolutions and referred several matters out for reports to the next Conference, that the bishops who stayed away felt comfortable with attending the second one, held eleven years later.
After the Lambeth Conference had become a tradition, a resolution was enacted at the Conference in 1930 (Resolution 49) attesting that "[t]he Anglican Communion is a fellowship, within the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, of those duly constituted dioceses, provinces and regional Churches in communion with the See of Canterbury." These Churches, the Resolution went on,
have the following characteristics in common:a. they uphold and propagate the Catholic and Apostolic faith and order as they are generally set forth in the Book of Common Prayer as authorised in their several Churches;
b. they are particular or national Churches, and, as such, promote within each of their territories a national expression of Christian faith, life and worship; and
c. they are bound together not by a central legislative and executive authority, but by mutual loyalty sustained through the common counsel of the bishops in conference.
Beginning with the Lambeth Conference of 1897, the bishops had called for the creation of a "Consultative Body" which could function in the period between the (roughly) decennial Conferences. It was expressly stated to be consultative in function only, and without any executive or administrative authority. At the Lambeth Conference in 1948, a resolution was passed to hold in June 1953 "a congress representative of the Anglican Communion", and out of this gathering (held in Minneapolis in the summer of 1954) came the impetus for the reconstituting of the "Consultative Body" at Lambeth 1958, with an executive officer and a small budget. The first officer so appointed was the Rt. Rev. Stephen Bayne of Olympia, who resigned his see to become "Executive Officer of the Anglican Communion."
At another Anglican Congress held in Toronto in August 1963, Bishop Bayne presented his vision for the Anglican Communion, "Mutual Responsibility and Interdependence", which proposal was endorsed at Lambeth 1968. That same Conference, by its last Resolution, set up the framework for the Anglican Consultative Council, with an initial Schedule of Membership as follows:
(a) The Archbishop of Canterbury.
(b) Three from each of the following, consisting of a bishop, a priest or deacon, and a lay person: The Church of England; The Episcopal Church of the United States of America; The Church of India, Pakistan, Burma, and Ceylon; The Anglican Church of Canada; The Church of England in Australia.
(c) Two from each of the following, consisting of a bishop, and a priest, deacon, or lay person: The Church in Wales; The Church in Ireland; The Episcopal Church in Scotland; The Church of the Province of South Africa; The Church of the Province of West Africa; The Church of the Province of Central Africa; The Church of the Province of East Africa; The Church of the Province of Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi; The Church of the Province of New Zealand; The Church of the Province of the West Indies; Nippon Sei Ko Ki; The Archbishopric in Jerusalem; The Council of the Church of South-East Asia; The South Pacific Anglican Council; Latin America; any province of the Anglican Communion not at present represented.
(d) Co-opted members: The Council shall have power to co-opt up to six additional members, of whom at least two shall be women and two lay persons not over 28 years of age at the time of appointment.
The Council was by the same Resolution given the following functions:
1. To share information about developments in one or more provinces with the other parts of the Communion and to serve as needed as an instrument of common action.
2. To advise on inter-Anglican, provincial, and diocesan relationships, including the division of provinces, the formation of new provinces and of regional councils, and the problems of extra-provincial dioceses.
3. To develop as far as possible agreed Anglican policies in the world mission of the Church and to encourage national and regional Churches to engage together in developing and implementing such policies by sharing their resources of manpower, money, and experience to the best advantage of all.
4. To keep before national and regional Churches the importance of the fullest possible Anglican collaboration with other Christian Churches.
5. To encourage and guide Anglican participation in the ecumenical movement and the ecumenical organisations; to co-operate with the World Council of Churches and the world confessional bodies on behalf of the Anglican Communion; and to make arrangements for the conduct of pan-Anglican conversations with the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Churches, and other Churches.
6. To advise on matters arising out of national or regional Church union negotiations or conversations and on subsequent relations with united Churches.
7. To advise on problems on inter-Anglican communication and to help in the dissemination of Anglican and ecumenical information.
8. To keep in review the needs that may arise for further study and, where necessary, to promote inquiry and research.
As its very title indicated, the Anglican Consultative Council was seen from the outset as an advisory body, with participation from both the laity and the clergy of the member churches. Note that with regard to the formation of new provinces, as well as with regard to their division, its role was to "advise" only -- but advise whom, specifically? The remit did not say in so many words, but presumably the idea was to advise the bishops of the Communion, and in particular, the primates among those bishops, who were the heads of the existing provinces.
Where, one may well ask, is the hierarchy in all this? Obviously the Church of England itself has a hierarchical structure, with the monarch its ecclesiastical head and Parliament as the ultimate legislative authority. But the Church of England is what is called an established church: its structure is part and parcel of the British government.
In contrast, the Anglican Consultative Council is the paradigm of a non-hierarchical assembly. It is the body through which the various churches in the Anglican Communion come together to deliberate on matters of common concern, and to which the primates may, when they wish, turn for advice from the other orders there represented.
There are disturbing recent signals that the character of the Anglican Consultative Council could be undergoing a change, and that certain bodies may be engaged in a power grab to control the budget and the program of both the Council and the Anglican Communion itself. But until those peculiar alarms sounded, no one would have thought to speak of an "Anglican hierarchy".
Now compare the arguments often advanced for the "hierarchical" character of the Episcopal Church's General Convention. A typical presentation of the argument runs thus (taken from Professor Robert B. Mullin's affidavit filed with the court in Fort Worth):
. . . The canons and thereafter the Constitution of the newly-formed Episcopal Church set out a structure that mirrored that of the Church of England - significantly different from that of the new United States, whose Constitution was also adopted in 1789. Like its predecessor, the new Episcopal Church was a three-tiered hierarchical church, governed by a national parliamentary body and comprised of regional bodies containing local parishes. The American Church was distinctive, however, in allowing lay participation in church governance and having both lay and clerical representatives elect bishops, as well as in lodging the highest authority in the Church in its General Convention, rather than in a monarch or a primate.
16. The same basic three-tiered structure exists today. At the highest tier is The Episcopal Church, traditionally a national body that in the Twentieth Century has expanded outside of the United States on a missionary basis into several other countries that lacked an established Anglican presence. Next are regional, geographically-defined dioceses, which belong to, are subordinate to, and are under the jurisdiction of The Episcopal Church. Finally, there are local worshipping congregations, generally called parishes or "missions," which belong to, are subordinate to, and are under the jurisdiction of The Episcopal Church and the individual diocese in which the worshipping congregations are located.17. As stated above, at the topmost level The Episcopal Church is governed by its General Convention, a bicameral legislative body made up of a House of Bishops, composed of most of the Church's active and resigned bishops, and a House of Deputies, composed of clergy and lay representatives elected from each of the Church's dioceses. Const. Arts. 1.2, 4. Legislation must be approved by both houses. Const. Art. 1.1.18. The General Convention meets at least once every three years to establish the policies, rules, and programs of the Church. It has adopted and from time to time amends the Church's governing documents, its Constitution, canons, and Book of Common Prayer. Together, these documents are the ultimate authoritative statements governing the spiritual and temporal affairs of the Church and are applicable to every tier of the Church.19. The General Convention is the highest authority for questions of the Doctrine, Discipline, and Worship of The Episcopal Church and cannot be limited by actions of other bodies in the Church, including its dioceses.
There are so many misstatements and exaggerations in this presentation that one hardly knows where to begin. (I have already dealt with Professor Mullin's fallacy of synecdoche -- of mistaking the whole for its parts -- in this earlier post.) But let us start with just the last assertion: "The General Convention is the highest authority for questions of the Doctrine, Discipline, and Worship of The Episcopal Church and cannot be limited by actions of other bodies in the Church, including its dioceses."
Question: When was the last time that you can recall General Assembly acting as the final authority on questions of "Doctrine" or "Discipline"? Prof. Mullin's outlandish claim must come as news to those bishops who served in the trial of Bishop Righter, and who determined just what was, and what was not, a "core doctrine" of the Church. And it also must come as news to the House of Bishops that General Convention has the "authority" to override them on a question of discipline. In fact, Article IX of the Church's Constitution expressly contradicts Professor Mullin on this point, and he ought to be ashamed for contending anything to the contrary. It reads in part:
The General Convention, in like manner, may establish an ultimate Court of Appeal, solely for the review of the determination of any Court of Review on questions of Doctrine, Faith, or Worship.
Thus by the express language of the Constitution, authority to make final decisions on questions of "Doctrine, Faith and Worship" is given to a Court of Appeal, to be established by General Convention, but obviously completely autonomous and independent of it. (To date, General Convention has seen no need to create such a court, and that fact reflects the lack of any real concern over questions of "doctrine, faith and worship" in the Church.) Earlier in the same provision, the Constitution makes clear that ultimate questions of Discipline are similarly consigned to the highest ecclesiastical courts, and not to General Convention itself.
It is true that General Convention defines what is in the Book of Common Prayer, and so has some authority over "worship", but how does it do so? By making recommendations on changes to the several dioceses, which then approve (or reject) them in their local conventions and instruct their deputies on whether to adopt them at the next General Convention.
No one has any difficulty in perceiving that the Anglican Consultative Council is a deliberative, but not a hierarchical, body. Then why does the fog descend upon them when they argue that General Convention is "hierarchical"? Because of its authority to enact canons, which are supposedly "binding" on each diocese?
Oh, yes: certainly Canon I.17.7 ("No unbaptized person shall be eligible to receive Holy Communion in this Church") is an example of the binding authority of the Church's canons on the many dioceses which allow communion for the unbaptized. And certainly Canon IV.9, which requires that a bishop be first inhibited with the consent of the Church's three most senior bishops before he can be deposed, is binding on the Presiding Bishop and the House of Bishops -- just look at the votes to depose Bishop Cox and Bishop Duncan.
The plain truth is that General Convention can enact canons, but it cannot enforce them. The reason is obvious: each General Convention, such as it is, exists for only ten days out of every 1095 (or 1096, when there is a leap year), and so it is incapable of enforcing any of its so-called "binding" canons. No, the reality is that the canons require bishops, standing committees and ecclesiastical courts to enforce them. (The recent changes in Title IV made by GC 2009 are but another example of its making changes which are left up to the several dioceses to implement.)
And has General Convention -- this "highest authority" of the Episcopal Church (USA) -- ever reigned in a Presiding Bishop, or called him or her to account for spending money it did not authorize, or for commencing unwarranted litigation in the name of the Church? Pray tell, when did that ever happen?
The hierarchical buzzword is just a shibboleth, invoked by those who want to get away with something which -- if the Church were truly hierarchical -- they could not do. It is an attempt to hitch a ride along with the current inanities of church property law as muddled out by the secular courts. Had the Supreme Court never used the word "hierarchical" in its obiter dicta in Watson v. Jones, we would not be paying money to so-called "experts" to opine whether the Church is "hierarchical" today.
The word "hierarchy", when applied to the Episcopal Church (USA), is an oxymoron -- an ill-begotten juxtaposition of words which do not belong together. An oxymoron is usually conceived for its shock effect, as a joke, to make one laugh. The truly sad thing for our Church is that it is such a very expensive joke.