We are witnessing this currently in the campaign to prevent the confirmation of the election of the Reverend Dan Martins to the episcopate. Witness the misguided remarks of Jim Naughton, openly challenging anyone to prove his suspicions wrong (hint: he's not interested in your response unless you agree with him at the outset that dioceses are not now, and never have been, autonomous):
I could imagine voting in favor of his election if I were on a Standing Committee except for one thing. The Rev. Martins has said he has no firm opinion on whether bishops have the authority to lead their dioceses out of the Church. The idea that he thinks that this issue is somehow open to debate—that the authority of the General Convention is open to question—alarms me. It seems to me a notion invented out of whole cloth by poorly qualified tailors to suit the political needs of a dissatisfied minority. Simply put, I am not sure how the church can consent to the election of a bishop who won’t say what powers he believes he is entitled to wield.
I sense that voting in the Rev. Martins’ favor would in some significant ways be good for the Church. So I would happily surrender this objection if someone could explain to me why a person who is never going to embrace the notion of diocesan autonomy (i. e., me) should support a bishop who has not made up his mind about this issue.
"[A] notion invented . . . to suit the political needs of a dissatisfied minority." Rather says it all, doesn't it? The original fundamental principles on which the Church was founded in 1789, and then re-established in 1901, have now -- in the eyes of Mr. Naughton and his ilk -- become the concoctions of a minority -- and not just any minority, but a dissatisfied minority. (Could that possibly be a case of self-reference?)
Diocesan autonomy is not, and could never be, an "invented notion"; it is inherent in the very concept expressed by the word "diocese." Mr. Naughton's claim that he will never "embrace the notion of diocesan autonomy" is on a par with claiming that he "will never agree that grapefruits taste sour", or that "mosquito bites itch." The roots of "diocese" go back to the Greek dio, "thoroughly", and oikos, "house", the combination of which yielded the verb diaoikein, "to control, govern, manage a house," and the noun diaoikesis, meaning "government, province, administration." When borrowed for the administrative units of the early Church, the word kept its connotation of governmental autonomy, under a single bishop.
Sovereign, autonomous dioceses came to this country with the founding of Jamestown in 1607 and the holding of the first communion service using a log nailed between two trees as an altar. The "Diocese of Virginia" thereby established was soon followed by similar autonomous branches of the Church of England in New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Maryland and Delaware. It was those autonomous dioceses (without, at first, any bishops) which came together in 1785 to 1789 to assemble the framework of a national Church.
In forming that Church, the dioceses delegated to it certain powers to ensure uniformity of doctrine and worship, but they did not surrender their autonomy. Liberals who maintain that dioceses cannot be independent of the national Church have no way of accounting for the formation of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Confederate States of America -- another national Church that was formed by autonomous dioceses, which previously had belonged to PECUSA. As John Adams long ago observed, "Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence." At its last Council in Augusta, Georgia, in November 1865, that Church adopted the following resolution, again affirming the autonomy of the dioceses which made it up:
WHEREAS, The several Dioceses, which we, as Bishops and Deputies represent at this Council, were impelled by political events to separate, in a legislative capacity, from the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States, and did decide, upon grounds sanctioned by Scripture and Primitive Antiquity, to unite together and adopt, for their better government and more convenient action, a Constitution and Code of Canons, and did meet, in pursuance of that Constitution, in General Council, in November, 1862; and
WHEREAS, This Church, so organized, although arising out of political events, was from that time a duly organized branch of the One Catholic and Apostolic Church, and may of right so continue to be, or may, through the action of its several Diocesan Councils, form any other Synodical association; and
WHEREAS, In the opinion of several of the Dioceses which co-operated in the formation of this independent branch of the Church Catholic, the exigency which caused its arrangement no longer exists; and
WHEREAS, The spirit of charity whioh prevailed in the proceedings of the General Convention of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States, at its late session in Philadelphia, has warmly commended itself to the hearts of this Council; therefore,
Resolved, I. That, in the judgment of this Council, it is perfectly consistent with the good faith which she owes to the Bishops and Dioceses with which she has been in union since 1862, for any Diocese to decide for herself whether she shall any longer continue in union with this Council;
. . .
V. That whenever any Diocese shall determine to withdraw from this Ecclesiastical Confederation, such withdrawal shall be considered as duly accomplished when an official notice, signed by the Bishop and Secretary of such Diocese, shall have been given to the Bishops of the Diocese remaining in connection with this Council.
A political strife over the autonomy of the States in the Union drove the Church apart in 1861; and a political strife over the autonomy of Churches in the Anglican Communion is driving the Church apart again. There were, of course, those in PECUSA who refused to recognize that the Southern dioceses had left. They continued to call the roll of all the dioceses at the General Conventions of 1862 and 1865. But notice one thing PECUSA did not do: it did not try to organize the Union sympathizers in each of the departing dioceses, appoint for them "provisional bishops", and use those figureheads as plaintiffs in lawsuits filed to recover what the Church claimed was its property! In that observation lies the single greatest difference between the PECUSA of 1861 and the ECUSA of today.
The double standard of the Church claiming to be fully autonomous within the Communion, but denying that its member dioceses are autonomous within the Church, is indefensible and unworthy of Christians to maintain. It treats both the Communion and the Church as more political than religious organizations. It is characteristic of a political organization that parties within it jockey for power, and for control of the organization's priorities and budget -- because the differing factions are expected to, and do, have legitimately differing views of the best policies for that organization to follow.
But the best policies for a Church as a Church (and not a social justice society) are not up for debate or disagreement: they were set for the Church long ago by Jesus Christ, when he gave his disciples the Great Commission. As a result, anything which hinders the Church in the performance of the Great Commission should be regarded as the intrusion of politics into the religious sphere.
We have, as additional examples of my point, the recent messages delivered by the Bishops of San Diego and of East Tennessee -- shots fired across the bow of the Diocese of South Carolina and its Bishop, and urging them not to set themselves apart from the lockstep of the Church in adopting the recent unconstitutional changes to Title IV of the Canons. They might as well have borrowed the famous political sentiment of Stephen Decatur, exulting in his rather irregular defeat of the Barbary Pirates, and declared: "My Church, right or wrong!"
The Bishops of San Diego and East Tennessee, as well as all those in lockstep with them, would do well to have in mind the improvement on Decatur's declaration offered by Senator Carl Schurz in response to an opponent who quoted it:
The Senator from Wisconsin cannot frighten me by exclaiming, “My country, right or wrong.” In one sense I say so too. My country; and my country is the great American Republic. My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.
"If right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right" -- that is the proper course for the Episcopal Church to maintain instead of the disastrous one it is currently pursuing. Those who cry "My Church, right or wrong!" might also wish to take to heart this trenchant observation from G. K. Chesterton, who wrote in 1901:
'My country, right or wrong' is a thing that no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying 'My mother, drunk or sober.'