Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Problem in a Nutshell

This will be an uncharacteristically brief post (no remarks from the peanut gallery, please). In preparation for some longer ones, I have been reviewing the history of the ordinal vows for the clergy.

As originally published in March 1550, the Ordinal of the Book of Common Prayer prescribed, in the ceremony of ordination of a priest, the following interrogatory and response:

The Bishop.

Will you then give your faithful diligence always so to minister the Doctrine and Sacraments, and the Discipline of CHRIST, as the LORD hath commanded, and as this Church and Realm hath received the same, according to the commandments of GOD; so that you may teach the people committed to your Cure and Charge with all diligence to keep and observe the same?


I will do so, by the help of the LORD.
As so written (probably by Archbishop Cranmer), the question formed part of the ordination ceremony called the "Exhortation", in which the Bishop "called out" the ordinand to undertake the special responsibilities of a life in the priesthood. That interrogatory and response continued in the same words in all subsequent editions of the Book of Common Prayer, including those adopted by the Protestant Episcopal Church (USA), down through the 1928 Edition. (The American version dropped only the words "and Realm".)

As a completely separate and different kind of undertaking, all English clergy were required to subscribe, before entering into office, an oath of allegiance to the Crown, the Thirty-Nine Articles, and an "Oath of Canonical Obedience". This was done separately, apart from the service of ordination. The 1913 Prayer Book Dictionary explains the latter oath as follows:

The earliest form of the Oath was the solemn declaration of a bishop after consecration to obey and maintain the "Sacred Canons" of the Church. It was not a promise of obedience to a person; and, though eventually it took a personal form, the meaning and scope was not thereby changed. . . The obedience promised is therefore limited to what is prescribed by the law and custom of the Church. This was very clearly stated by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in the case of Long v. The Bishop of Capetown (Broderick and Fremantle 313): "The Oath of Canonical Obedience does not mean that the clergyman will obey all the commands of the Bishop against which there is no law, but that he will obey all such commands as the Bishop is by law authorised to impose"; that indeed is what is signified by the qualifying word "Canonical". . . .

The form of the Oath of Canonical Obedience as taken by a priest or deacon is: "I, [name], do swear that I will pay true and Canonical obedience to the Lord Bishop of A. and his successors in all things lawful and honest. So help me God."

When the newly formed Protestant Episcopal Church (USA) split off from the Church of England and adopted a Constitution in 1789, the Oath of Canonical Obedience was carried over in the following form, required to be subscribed by each new ordinand (which, since it did not invoke the Deity as witness, was not literally an "oath", but rather a "declaration"):
. . . I do solemnly engage to conform to the doctrines and worship of the Protestant Episcopal Church in these United States.
This declaration remained in that form until the Constitution was completely revised by the General Convention of 1901. As so altered, the new declaration of canonical obedience required of all ordinands read:
. . . I do solemnly engage to conform to the Doctrine, Discipline, and Worship of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America.
The 1901 amendments also required the ordinand to "subscribe and make" the declaration of conformity; i.e., both to sign a written form of the declaration, and to repeat it orally at the service of ordination. However, the Book of Common Prayer was not revised to include the declaration in the service as such until 1979. And to do so, the revisers collapsed it in with the previously quoted ceremony of Exhortation, so that the two different forms of adjuration---one a response to a "calling out" to the ministry of Christ, and the other an affirmation of obedience to lawful canons---became hopelessly mixed and confused in purpose:
The Bishop says to the ordinand

Will you be loyal to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of Christ as this Church has received them? And will you, in accordance with the canons of this Church, obey your bishop and other ministers who may have authority over you and your work?


I am willing and ready to do so; and I solemnly declare that 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 Episcopal Church.

The Ordinand then signs the above Declaration in the sight of all present.
Do you see what has happened here? For over four hundred years, the clergy of the Anglican Communion were called upon "to minister the Doctrine and Sacraments, and the Discipline of CHRIST" in such a way as to teach the people under their care "with all diligence to keep and observe" those things. Then the separate Declaration of Canonical Obedience was mingled in with that promise in a manner that confuses the "Discipline of CHRIST" with the "Discipline of this Church."

The recent charges and depositions against bishops and clergy for "abandonment of the Communion of this Church" have all grown out of this doctrinal confusion. What has happened is that the "Discipline of this Church" has eclipsed the "Discipline of CHRIST", to which "this Church" is and always must be subject. The Declaration of Canonical Obedience has been transformed into an Declaration of Disciplinary Obedience, from a commitment to obey "all such commands as the [Church] is by law authorised to impose" into an (imputed) requirement to obey "all such commands of the [Church] against which there is no law"---thereby turning the meaning of the original statement upside down.

General Convention, of course, enacts the Canons and makes changes to them. And, given the fact that Jesus Christ does not appear currently to have sufficient representation in General Convention, that is the Church's current problem in a nutshell.


  1. I quite see Mr. Haley's point, but I can see good reasons for the change from "the discipline of Christ" to "the discipline of this Church."

    There is a long and sorry history in England, in the US, and elsewhere of confuising the discipline of Christ for the maintenance of the staus quo. Even today we can hear of pastors who minister the discipline to adused women by ordering them to return to their abusers. We also saw in Anglican circles in the past the idea that people should be content in the station in life in which God had seen fit to place them.

    Conforming to discipline of this Church is not something to be sneered at. It comes second in the list to doctrine, suggesting, I think, that it is not of primary importance, but even matters of secondary importance are very important. In a Church which is not the Established Church, the discipline of this Church is important, perhaps especially in a country where the congregational polity is so popular.

    While I am not always happy being conformed to the discipline of this Church - I am dreading filling out the Parochial Report - I realize that that discipline is needed for an ordered ministry of Word and Sacraments.

  2. Rev. Weir,

    In writing "…perhaps especially in a country where the congregational polity is so popular" you seem to be overlooking the concomitant problem of being in a church where a purely democratic polity is so popular—popular to the point where it is often difficult to discriminate between those who actually believe in the leading of the Holy Spirit tested against Scripture and those who see the Holy Spirit as little, if at all, different from vox populi. If the "discipline of THIS church" is somehow significantly and substantively different from the "discipline of Christ," I think you (by which I mean TEC) have a very considerable problem.

    Blessings and regards,
    Keith Toepfer

  3. Martial Artist,

    Yuo wrote, "If the "discipline of THIS church" is somehow significantly and substantively different from the "discipline of Christ," I think you (by which I mean TEC) have a very considerable problem."

    I would agree with you if you had written, "is inconsistent with...." I think that the discipline of the Episcopal Church is significantly different for the discipline in the sense that it prescribes certain things, like how many deputies a diocese gets, about which I suspect Christ is indifferent. We order this Church in a specific, but that does not mean that all other ways of ordering a Church are contrary to the discipline of Christ. I believe that our polity is consistent with the discipline of Christ, but I also believe that about congregational polity. I would not choose to be a congregationalist, but I cannot assert that our polity is better, only that I prefer it and find that it works in ordering the mission and ministry which Christ has entrusted to us.

    As to your important point about mistaking the vote of the majority for the judgment of the Holy Spirit, the same could be said about mistaking the judgment of the Pope for that of the Spirit. Our discerning the Spirit is never perfect no matter what our polity may be.

  4. Rev. Weir,

    I gladly accept your revision of my wording—it is actually closer to what I intended. As to the issue of differing polities, I do not inherently disagree, but, like yourself, have my own preference, which you seem somehow to have managed either to intuit, or else know about me. However, my experience is that the manner by which the Holy Father discerns the leading of the Holy Spirit is not particularly close to your characterization of it. Thank you for your thoughtful response.

    Blessings and regards,
    Keith Toepfer

  5. Your post … well written and thoughtful as always … goes to the deeper question of what is the church? What are its attributes, its marks?

    Anglicanism has always taught---or until the recent generation---that there are three marks of the church.

    Article XIX enumerates two of the three: The church is that place where the “pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly administered according to Christ's ordinance.”

    The Homilies develop this theme and develop a third, implicit in the first two. The church is not the bishop, not the diocese, not the General Convention, Bishop Jewel wrote in the Homily Concerning the Coming Down of the Holy Ghost and the Manifold Gifts of the Same.

    “The true church” Bishop Jewel (tradition ascribes this to his pen) wrote “hath always three notes or marks, whereby it is known: Pure and sound doctrine; The sacraments ministered according to Christ's holy institution; And the right use of ecclesiastical discipline. This description of the church is agreeable both to the Scriptures of God, and also to the doctrine of the ancient Fathers; so that none may justly find fault therewith.”

    The church is always correcting itself, always reforming itself. Can the Episcopal Church be said to be doing so today?

    George Conger

  6. Thank you very much for that illuminating gloss on the post, Father Conger. I find it worthy of note that the First Book of Homilies (commended in Art. XXXV of the 39 Articles along with the Second) was written by Cranmer and others at just about the same time that he was assembling the English Ordinal from early and medieval sources. By the time Jewel wrote the ones in the Second Book, the clergy in England had been put through the wringer---from Henry VIII to Edward VI, from Edward to Mary, and then from Mary back to Elizabeth and her reforms. So they could certainly be seen as in need of some guidance as to the "marks of the true church."

    Bishop Jewel's singling out of "ecclesiastical discipline" as the third of his marks must have been a harkening back to the days when the Church had kept a steadier course. As you note, the question for today is whether we, too, will come through the current turmoil with the other two marks of a true church intact.

  7. Interesting that there's never any mention of "discipline" when it comes to somebody like Peter Akinola - who has been actively working with his own (secular) government in an effort to imprison people who haven't committed any crime. Nobody seems to see how much that looks like Nazi Germany in the 1930s, and church collusion with fascism in that era.

    Yet only one offical voice anywhere in the Anglican Communion has been raised in protest - that of the Anglican Church of Canada. What an incredibly sad witness to the Gospel - but very telling, I'd say.

    (I love all the intricate argument on this blog! Unfortunately it all goes to obscure one simple fact: that the dioceses attempting to split away from the church would be slapped down in a nanosecond if they tried it in any other branch of the "one, holy, and aspostolic Church." Image the Catholic hierarchy permitting such a thing! Well, you can't, of course.)

  8. Fr. Conger,

    I would humbly add my thanks for your remarks to those of Mr. Haley, including the pertinent question. One of my conscious reasons for choosing some 3-½ months ago to "swim the Tiber" was that the Episcopal Church being apparently "hell bent" (an expression I think particularly apt today) on abandoning the third mark, and the Instruments of Communion in the AC in apparent disarray, or at least in sufficient disagreement, as to result in no meaningful action being taken within the Communion aimed at restoring discipline, I was, and am, not particularly sanguine about a positive outcome. That was not the principal reason, but neither did I consider it trivial nor insignificant, especially from the perspective of where modern Western society seems bound.

    Blessings and regards,
    Keith Toepfer

  9. bls, I am glad you come here to comment; I enjoy following your blog, which I find very thoughtful, as well---hence my linking to it.

    As you probably know, Nigeria recently enacted one of the most severe pieces of expressly anti-gay "legislation" anywhere. I use the quotation marks because the statute is really in furtherance of shari'a law, and was pushed primarily by the current Nigerian president, Yar'Adua, who is a devout Muslim and a very strong supporter of shari'a. Let me give you one quote from the article I linked, which dates from February of 2007:

    "Islamic Sharia law, which makes homosexuality punishable by stoning, has been imposed in 12 of the 36 states in the Federal Republic of Nigeria -- all of which have Muslim majorities and are located in the north of the country.

    "And now the nation's term-limited authoritarian president for the last eight years, General Olusegun Obasanjo -- having been denied a third term when the National Assembly, disgusted at his regime's high-handed corruption, refused him a constitutional amendment allowing him to stay in office -- has bypassed the primaries of his ruling People's Democratic Party to hand-pick as his successor the governor of one of those Sharia states, Umaru Yar'Adua, known as a strict advocate of the Islamic legal code.

    "Obasanjo, a favorite of President George W. Bush, has been accused by opposition parties of trying to rig the April elections in favor of Yar'Adua, who is expected to be an enthusiastic enforcer of the proposed new anti-gay law if, as seems likely, he is elected."

    The Most Rev. Peter Akinola is Anglican, of course, but he is in a country in which the Muslims dominate much of the territory and internal politics. It would be sheer folly for any religious leader in Nigeria to support the civil rights of homosexuals. Criticizing Archbishop Akinola for not doing so is like criticizing a giraffe for not being able to quack---it just isn't going to happen, and it would make no sense, given who he is and where he is.

    Besides, discipline of the Archbishop---if any were needed---would be for his own House of Bishops to mete out. And there is about as much a chance of that as there is of the Episcopal House of Bishops deciding to discipline the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori.

    And I agree with you---there is no chance that a diocese could leave the Roman Catholic Church: now that is a hierarchy.

    As I say, thanks again for commenting here.

  10. Fr. Conger beat me to it. Article XIX leapt to mind right away as I read the The Problem...

    That Article goes on to say that the institutional church errs. There is no "one true church" save that which is manifested by a faithful gathering that ministers the Word and Sacraments of Christ.

    By extolling the institution over its Lord (or maybe conflating them?), TEC's behavior trashes the Anglican ecumenical approach outlined in the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral. No longer do all churches share responsibility for division. Rather, TEC is under unique guidance of the Spirit (New Thing), with the rest playing catch up.

    I'd not noticed that glaring change in the ordination vows. Wow - problem in a nutshell indeed.

  11. Mr. Haley,

    I cannot let your defense of Arbp Akinola's support for the Nigerian legislation to go unchallenged. I was struck by your use of an African analogy, but it doesn't work. The Primate can't be excused for not speaking out on the grounds that he can't, in the same way that a giraffe can't quack. He could have spoken out, even though it would have resulted in the disfavor of the powerful in Nigeria. When did threats like that stop courageous Christians from speaking out? I may not be right about this, but I take the support that the Primate and his Church have given to this legislation as an indication that they really are in favor of this legislation and aren't just playing it safe.

    I am thankful that bls raised this question. I do recall some official Episcopal Church statement against this legislation, but I could be wrong, as I often am.

  12. Father Weir, your comment illustrates the point of my analogy: we here in the liberal Episcopal Church can have no idea of what it is like to shepherd tens of millions of Anglicans (more than thirty times our ASA) in Christian life that is faithful to Biblical teaching---in a country that is ruled mostly by Muslims, who follow Shari'a law.

    It is impossible to predict how many innocent lives would be lost in rampaging violence against Christians in Nigeria were ++Akinola to speak out in support for gays. You and bls evidently want to draw a fine distinction between gay civil rights and Shari'a law: let me inform you that under Shari'a law, there are no "gay civil rights."

    If you want to protest that fact, I suggest you take it up with the mullahs---but I really would prefer not to get off the track here. Later on I will see if I can put up a post explaining ++Akinola's rather difficult situation, and you and bls can have at it there.

    Let's keep further comments on the subject of this post: if the "discipline of this Church" deviates from the "discipline of Christ", which is to prevail?