In contrast to the mood at the General Convention of 1898, which had resulted in a wiping of the slate clean and a fresh start on Constitutional revisions, the General Convention which met for the first time in San Francisco beginning on the first Wednesday in October 1901 was all sweetness and light. The changes finally adopted in 1898 had been circulated among all the Church's dioceses in the intervening years, and the deputies came prepared to finish the process of revision quickly.
On its second day of meeting, the House of Deputies took up one by one each of the first seven articles of the new Constitution, together with the proposed new title for that document, and approved them all by mostly overwhelming majorities of at least 50 of the 59 dioceses in the Church. The one exception was the first article, which was approved by the minimum majority of dioceses represented. Nevertheless, it was approved, and the first seven articles then went to the House of Bishops, which approved them on its third day.
The House finished its work on the remaining articles on its fourth day, without any significant dissent. Ratification of those articles followed in the House of Bishops on the fifth day, and the new Constitution was complete. So that this historical document may be compared with the current version, I reproduce it below.
CONSTITUTIONADOPTED IN GENERAL CONVENTION,IN PHILADELPHIA, OCTOBER, 1789,AS AMENDED IN SUBSEQUENT GENERAL CONVENTIONS.ARTICLE I.Section 1. There shall be a General Convention of this Church, consisting of the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies, which Houses shall sit and deliberate separately; and in all deliberations freedom of debate shall be allowed. Either House may originate and propose legislation, and all acts of the Convention shall be adopted and be authenticated by both Houses.
Sec. 2. Every Bishop of this Church having jurisdiction, every Bishop Coadjutor, and every Bishop who by reason of advanced age and bodily infirmity arising therefrom has resigned his jurisdiction, shall have a seat and a vote in the House of Bishops. A majority of all Bishops entitled to vote, exclusive of Foreign Missionary Bishops and of Bishops who have resigned their jurisdictions, shall be necessary to constitute a quorum for the transaction of business.
Sec. 3. The Senior Bishop of this Church in Presiding the order of consecration, having jurisdiction within the United States, shall be the Presiding Bishop of the Church. He shall discharge such duties as may be prescribed by the Constitution and the Canons of the General Convention. But if the Presiding Bishop shall resign his office as such, or if he shall resign his episcopal jurisdiction, or if by reason of infirmity he shall become disabled, the Bishop next in seniority by consecration, having jurisdiction within the United States, shall thereupon become the Presiding Bishop.
Sec. 4. The Church in each Diocese which has been admitted to union with the General Convention shall be entitled to representation in the House of Deputies by not more than four Presbyters, canonically resident in the Diocese, and not more than four Laymen, communicants of this Church, having domicile in the Diocese; but the General Convention by Canon may reduce the representation to not fewer than two Deputies in each order. Each Diocese shall prescribe the manner in which its Deputies shall be chosen.
To constitute a quorum for the transaction of business, the Clerical order shall be represented by at least one Deputy in each of a majority of the Dioceses entitled to representation, and the Lay order shall likewise be represented by at least one Deputy in each of a majority of the Dioceses entitled to representation.
On any question, the vote of a majority of the Deputies present shall suffice, unless otherwise ordered by this Constitution or, in cases not specially provided for by the Constitution, by Canons requiring more than a majority, or unless the Clerical or the Lay representation from any Diocese require that the vote be taken by orders. In all cases of a vote by orders, the two orders shall vote separately, each Diocese having one vote in the Clerical order and one in the Lay order; and the concurrence of the votes of the two orders, by not less than a majority
in each order of all the Dioceses represented in that order at the time of the vote, shall be necessary to constitute a vote of the House.
Sec. 5. In either House any number less than a quorum may adjourn from day to day. Neither House, without the consent of the other, shall adjourn for more than three days, or to any place other than that in which the Convention shall be sitting.
Sec. 6. The General Convention shall meet in every third year on the first Wednesday in October, unless a different day be appointed by the preceding Convention, and at the place designated by such Convention; but if there shall appear to the Presiding Bishop of the Church sufficient cause for changing the place so appointed, he may appoint another place for such meeting. Special meetings may be provided for by Canon.ARTICLE II.Section 1. In every Diocese the Bishop or the Bishop Coadjutor shall be chosen agreeably to rules prescribed by the Convention of that Diocese. Missionary Bishops shall be chosen in accordance with the Canons of the General Convention.
Sec. 2. No one shall be ordained and consecrated Bishop until he shall be thirty years of age; nor without the consent of a majority of the Standing Committees of all the Dioceses, and the consent of a majority of the Bishops of this Church exercising jurisdiction within the United States. But if the election shall have taken place within three months next before the meeting of the General Convention, the consent of the House of Deputies shall be required in place of that of a majority of the Standing Committees. No one shall be ordained and consecrated Bishop by fewer than three Bishops.
Sec. 3. A Bishop shall confine the exercise of his office to his own Diocese or Missionary District, unless he shall have been requested to perform episcopal acts in another Diocese or Missionary District by the Ecclesiastical Authority thereof, or in a vacant Missionary District by the Presiding Bishop of this Church, or unless he shall have been authorized and appointed by the House of Bishops, or by the Presiding Bishop by its direction, to act temporarily in case of need within any territory not yet organized into Dioceses or Missionary Districts of this Church.Sec. 4. A Bishop may not resign his jurisdiction without the consent of the House of Bishops.ARTICLE III.Bishops may be consecrated for foreign lands upon due application therefrom, with the approbation of a majority of the Bishops of this Church entitled to vote in the House of Bishops, certified to the Presiding Bishop; under such conditions as may be prescribed by Canons of the General Convention. Bishops so consecrated shall not be eligible to the office of Diocesan or of Bishop Coadjutor of any Diocese in the United States or be entitled to vote in the House of Bishops, nor shall they perform any act of the episcopal office in any Diocese or Missionary District of this Church, unless requested so to do by the Ecclesiastical Authority thereof.ARTICLE IV.In every Diocese a Standing Committee shall be appointed by the Convention thereof. When there is a Bishop in charge of the Diocese, the Standing Committee shall be his Council of Advice; and when there is no such Bishop, the Standing Committee shall be the Ecclesiastical Authority of the Diocese for all purposes declared by the General Convention. The rights and the duties of the Standing Committee, except as provided in the Constitution and Canons of the General Convention, may be prescribed by the Canons of the respective Dioceses.ARTICLE V.A Protestant Episcopal Church in any of the United States, or any Territory thereof, not now represented, may, at any time hereafter, be admitted on acceding to this Constitution; and a new Diocese, to be formed from one or more existing Dioceses, may be admitted under the following restrictions, viz.: —No new Diocese shall be formed or erected within the limits of any other Diocese, nor shall any Diocese be formed by the junction of two or more Dioceses, or parts of Dioceses, unless with the consent of the Bishop and Convention of each of the Dioceses concerned, as well as of the General Convention, and such consent shall not be given by the General Convention until it has satisfactory assurance of a suitable provision for the support of the Episcopate in the contemplated new Diocese.No such new Diocese shall be formed which shall contain less than six Parishes, or less than six Presbyters who have been for at least one year canonically resident within the bounds of such new Diocese, regularly settled in a Parish or Congregation, and qualified to vote for a Bishop. Nor shall such new Diocese be formed if thereby any existing Diocese shall be so reduced as to contain less than twelve Parishes, or less than twelve Presbyters who have been residing therein and settled and qualified as above mentioned : Provided, that no city shall form more than one Diocese.In case one Diocese shall be divided into two or more Dioceses, the Diocesan of the Diocese divided may elect the one to which he will be attached, and shall thereupon become the Diocesan thereof; and the Bishop Coadjutor if there be one, may elect the one to which he will be attached; and if it be not the one elected by the Bishop, he shall be the Diocesan thereof.Whenever the division of a Diocese into two or more Dioceses shall be ratified by the General Convention, each of the Dioceses shall be subject to the Constitution and Canons of the Diocese so divided, except as local circumstances may prevent, until the same may be altered in either Diocese by the Convention thereof. And whenever a Diocese shall be formed out of two or more existing Dioceses, the new Diocese shall be subject to the Constitution and Canons of that one of the said existing Dioceses to which the greater number of Clergymen shall have belonged prior to the erection of such new Diocese, until the same may be altered by the Convention of the new Diocese.ARTICLE VI.Section 1. The House of Bishops may establish Missionary Districts in States and Territories, or parts thereof not organized into Dioceses. It may also from time to time change, increase, or diminish the territory included in such Missionary Districts in such manner as may be prescribed by Canon.
Sec. 2. The General Convention may accept a cession of the territorial jurisdiction of a part of a Diocese when such cession shall have been proposed by the Bishop and the Convention of such Diocese, and consent thereto shall have been given by three-fourths of the parishes in the ceded territory, and also by the same ratio of the parishes within the remaining territory.
Any territorial jurisdiction or any part of the same, which may have been accepted from a Diocese by the General Convention under the foregoing provision, may be retroceded to the said Diocese by such joint action of all the several parties as is herein required for its cession: Provided, that such action of the General Convention, whether of cession or retrocession, shall be by a vote of two-thirds of all the Bishops present and voting and by a vote of two-thirds of the House of Deputies voting by orders.
Sec. 3. Missionary Districts shall be organized as may be prescribed by Canon of the General Convention.ARTICLE VII.Dioceses and Missionary Districts may be united into Provinces in such manner, under such conditions, and with such powers, as shall be provided by Canon of the General Convention; provided, however, that no Diocese shall be included in a Province without its own consent.ARTICLE VIII.No person shall be ordered Priest or Deacon until he shall have been examined by the Bishop and two Priests and shall have exhibited such testimonials and other requisites as the Canons in that case provided may direct. No person shall be ordained and consecrated Bishop, or ordered Priest or Deacon, unless at the time, in the presence of the ordaining Bishop or Bishops, he shall subscribe and make the following declaration:"I do believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation; and I do solemnly engage to conform to the Doctrine, Discipline, and Worship of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America."No person ordained by a foreign Bishop, or by a Bishop not in communion with this Church, shall be permitted to officiate as a Minister of this Church until he shall have complied with the Canon or Canons in that case provided and also shall have subscribed the aforesaid declaration.ARTICLE IX.The General Convention may, by Canon, establish a Court for the trial of Bishops, which shall be composed of Bishops only. Presbyters and Deacons shall be tried by a Court instituted by the Convention of the Diocese, or by the Ecclesiastical Authority of the Missionary District, in which they are canonically resident.
The General Convention, in like manner, may establish or may provide for the establishment of Courts of Review of the determinations of Diocesan or other trial Courts.The Court for the review of the determination of the trial Court, on the trial of a Bishop, shall be composed of Bishops only.
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.
None but a Bishop shall pronounce sentence of admonition, or suspension, deposition, or degradation from the ministry, on any Bishop, Presbyter, or Deacon.
A sentence of suspension shall specify on what suspension, terms or conditions and at what time the suspension shall cease.ARTICLE X.The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments and other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church, together with the Psalter or Psalms of David, the Form and Manner of Making, Ordaining, and Consecrating Bishops, Priests, and Deacons, the Form of Consecration of a Church or Chapel, the Office of Institution of Ministers, and Articles of
Religion, as now established or hereafter amended by the authority of this Church, shall be in use in all the Dioceses and Missionary Districts of this Church.No alteration thereof or addition thereto shall be made unless the same shall be first proposed in one triennial meeting of the General Convention, and by a resolve thereof be sent within six months to the Secretary of the Convention of every Diocese, to be made known to the Diocesan Convention at its next meeting, and be adopted by the General Convention at its next succeeding triennial meeting by a majority of the whole number of Bishops entitled to vote in the House of Bishops, and by a majority of the Clerical and Lay Deputies of all the Dioceses entitled to representation in the House of Deputies voting by orders. Provided, however, that the General Convention at any meeting shall have power to amend the Tables of Lessons by a majority of the whole number of Bishops entitled to vote in the House of Bishops, and by a majority of the Clerical and Lay Deputies of all the Dioceses entitled to representation in the House of Deputies voting by orders.ARTICLE XI.No alteration or amendment of this Constitution shall be made unless the same shall be first proposed at one triennial meeting of the General Convention, and by a resolve thereof be sent to the Secretary of the Convention of every Diocese, to be made known to the Diocesan Convention at its next meeting, and be adopted by the General Convention at its next succeeding triennial meeting by a majority of the whole number of Bishops entitled to vote in the House of Bishops, and by a majority of the Clerical and Lay Deputies of all the Dioceses entitled to representation in the House of Deputies voting by orders.
The work of revising the Constitution and Canons of the Church was still not complete; the 1901 General Convention adopted further changes to Articles I, V and X of the Constitution which were sent out to the several dioceses for final action at the General Convention of 1904. Chief among these proposed changes was a provision for the election of the Presiding Bishop -- a change which, due to many intervening institutional changes of mind by the House of Bishops, would not finally be made until 1919. (Even then, the senior bishop then in office -- Bishop Daniel Tuttle, who had opposed making the office elective -- did not die until after the Convention of 1922, so that the first Presiding Bishop to be elected in General Convention was Bishop Murray of Maryland, in 1925.) Of the additional changes proposed in 1901 (including the rewriting of Article V into what is very close to its current form), the only such change not approved at Boston in 1904 was the proposal for an elected Presiding Bishop.
What lesson, then, may be drawn from this excursion through the history of the constitutional revisions which began in 1889? Surely this one: the proposal to strengthen the governance of the national Church, by making its General Convention into a supreme legislative authority whose enactments would automatically be superior to and binding on every member diocese, was overwhelmingly rejected by the votes of the member dioceses in 1898. Instead, the dioceses chose to adhere to the original model established by the founders, in accordance with the six fundamental principles they adopted at their first meeting in 1784, the last of which stated:
That no Powers be delegated to a general ecclesiastical Government, except such as cannot conveniently be exercised by the Clergy and Vestries in their respective Congregations.
The Church's governing structures, therefore, are structures of delegated powers. They may exercise only the powers granted to them in the Constitution -- and no others. This is why the latest changes to Title IV of the Canons are unconstitutional: they grant the diocesan bishops, and the Presiding Bishop in particular, wide-ranging powers of discipline over the clergy which violate the reserved powers of the dioceses themselves. And this is also why the Episcopal Church is not a hierarchical church, from a national point of view -- because General Convention has absolutely no power over individual dioceses, and cannot order them to do anything. General Convention, on the few days it meets every three years, is nothing more than a collection of the dioceses assembled for the purposes of deciding upon a common plan, budget and mission for the next three years. It is the dioceses themselves -- whose existence is continuous -- which must carry out the plan, budget and mission thus collectively decided upon, and ideally the bureaucracy at 815 exists only to assist the dioceses in that ongoing function.
Under a series of recent Presiding Bishops, however, 815 has taken on a life and power of its own -- and under our current Presiding Bishop, that office itself has assumed powers never dreamed of by the founders. There is an ongoing conspiracy among the bishops of the Church to allow Katharine Jefferts Schori to assert those unprecedented powers, and it has led to a deterioration in relationships among the several dioceses. It has also brought the Church to the brink of a constitutional crisis, which will become most evident after next July, if the Presiding Bishop and other bishops begin to wield the arbitrary powers granted to them under the new Title IV provisions.
It is time for the bishops to pause on their way to the edge of the cliff, and to look back at the Church's history before they decide to plunge over the precipice. If they will only do so now, there remains time to pull back, and to resume the more moderate path laid out for them by those who wrote the Constitution in 1789, and by those who revised it in 1901. The Church must remain true to its founding principles, or it will no longer be the Episcopal Church in the United States of America.