Monday, February 15, 2010

Liberals as Fundamentalists

Reaction from the left side of the Episcopal aisle to the facts laid out in my previous post about South Carolina has been, if not completely predictable, then certainly telling. In fact, I find it downright fascinating. Here we have the liberals in the Church -- the reappraisers, the ones oriented to the left of center -- taking a fundamentalist approach to the issue of just what constitutes the "doctrine, discipline and worship" of the Episcopal Church (USA). In jurisprudence, we would call their stance one of "legal positivism" -- that is to say, "if there is not a law about it somewhere, then no law exists on the subject."

The issue boils down to the canonical (or, if you will, extra-canonical) effect, if any, of the following resolution adopted last October by the Diocese of South Carolina's special convention (and not by the Bishop, himself, mind you -- bishops preside at conventions, and do not vote unless they step down from that role; the bold has been added for emphasis):
Further Resolved, that the following statement shall constitute our understanding of the doctrine, discipline and worship of The Episcopal Church and shall be read at all ordinations in The Diocese of South Carolina, and a copy of which shall be attached to the Oath of Conformity signed by the ordinand at such service of ordination:

“In the Diocese of South Carolina, we understand the substance of the 'doctrine, discipline and worship' of The Episcopal Church to mean that which is expressed in the Thirty-Nine Articles, the Creeds, the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral and the theology of the historic prayer books.”
Here is a typical reaction to this act, as stated by Father Mark Harris:
The reader will note that there is no reference in this to the Constitution and Canons of TEC, and no reference to the question asked of the ordinand in the Presentation at the beginning of the service of ordination,
"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 answer is to a question involving the canons as discipline - obedience being a matter of discipline. "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?"

So, where in the list of the Diocese of South Carolina will one find the Constitution and Canons of TEC?
Indeed, one might well ask: where in the Oath of Conformity (since the Church's founding in 1789, required of all ordinands by Article VIII of the Church's Constitution) is the requirement that the ordinand vow to conform to the Constitution and Canons? There is no doubt that the liberals understand the words "doctrine, discipline and worship" as equating to those governing documents. Here is Father Harris again:
But the thing is, the DSC has cleverly weeded out any reference to canons at all - diocesan or national - and vacated the intent of the word "discipline" in the oath of conformity. That, dear friends, is less than kosher.
"Cleverly weeded out"? Is that what is going on here? A commenter at Father Harris' blog, Father Bill Moorhead, seems to think so, as well (emphasis added):
What is it people don't seem to get about the phrase, "doctrine, discipline, and worship"? "Discipline" means the Constitution and Canons of The Episcopal Church, and the Constitution and Canons of the Diocese in which a member of the clergy is canonically resident. "Worship" in this context means the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, together with such supplementary liturgical provisions that may be officially authorized; it does not include the 1928, 1892, 1789, or 1662 BCPs except as valuable documents of liturgical history. I think it would be appropriate for (Lower) South Carolina to hold their hands out to demonstrate that their fingers are not crossed.
And, lest there be any doubt, Father Marshall Scott spells it out even more plainly in another comment on the same post:
. . . We promise (I have done so twice, and Bishop Lawrence has done so three times) to be loyal to the doctrine, discipline, and worship. That is the heart of the question asked, and of the answer signed and sworn. But, it is through Constitution and Canons that we understand that doctrine, discipline, and worship. The General Convention tells us where to find our doctrine and worship, in the Book of Common Prayer, and specifically the 1979 Book. It lays out our discipline, the processes of our life together, in Constitution (structures) and Canons (procedures). One can't understand the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church except with reference to Prayer Book, Constitution, and Canons. So, a "signing statement" that implies ignoring or rejecting all three would seem a clear violation, would it not?

Now, one might say that there's nothing un-Christian, or even un-Anglican about the "signing statement." However, we live within our particularities. There are no "Generic Christians," or even "Generic Anglicans." The question asked refers to "this Church," and is answered and sworn with reference specifically to the Episcopal Church. Those of us who have made that commitment understood that particularity, and understood the role of Prayer Book, Constitution, and Canons in doctrine, discipline, and worship. A "signing statement" that defines them differently and without reference to them, may have an appropriate place in the Christian spectrum, but it clearly moves outside of this Church, the Episcopal Church. We can infer what it means that Bishop Lawrence, having thrice sworn, would now not only support diocesan leaders in this but require it of new ordinands.
And on this blog, commenter Eli Miamiensis takes the case one step further, and maintains that only General Convention can specify just what is the "doctrine, discipline and worship" of the Church:
More importantly, DioSC's "signing statement" equivalent (i.e., attempt unilaterally to define what language in the Oath of Conformity means (at least, within that Diocese) by attaching it thereto), equates a set of items with the "doctrine, discipline and worship" of ECUSA. By making that equation, it states that all those items are part of such "doctrine, discipline and worship," and items not so listed are not included.

As already noted, at least one of those items would not be generally recognized around ECUSA as more than a "historical document"; arguably, additional items would be included if defined not unilaterally but by General Convention. (Where in the C&C is a Diocese or Bishop permitted unilaterally to determine, even just within the bounds of such Diocese, what constitutes ECUSA's "doctrine, discipline and worship"? That power belongs to GC alone.)
This is quite a conformity of viewpoints on the left, and I (for one, at least) am somewhat taken aback by the legal positivism of it all:
Question: In what, exactly, does the "doctrine, discipline and worship" of the Episcopal Church consist?

Answer (from the left): In just the Constitution and Canons of the Church, because General Convention has told us so.

Question: And just where has General Convention done exactly that?

Answer: Well, not in so many words . . . It's rather implicit in their insistence on conformity to "discipline" as an ordination vow.
Do you see the obvious circularity of the argument? What the Episcopal left contends is that because General Convention adopted the Constitution, which requires that every ordinand take a vow to conform to the "doctrine, discipline and worship" of the Episcopal Church (USA), that the term "discipline" must mean the Constitution and Canons, because every ordinand must, as a condition of ordination, be subservient to the Constitution and canons.

The reality, of course, is that the Church's history bears out no such conclusion whatsoever. When the Oath of Conformity was written into Article VII of the Church Constitution in 1789, this is what it said (bold emphasis added):
. . . Nor shall any person be ordained until he shall have subscribed the following declaration: "I do believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be the word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation: and I do solemnly engage to conform to the doctrines and worship of the Protestant Episcopal Church in these United States."
Please notice (because it is very important in understanding the point being made): nothing whatsoever was said when the Church was formed in 1789 about conforming to the "discipline" of PECUSA -- the only requirement was conformity to "the doctrines and worship" of the Church. And as I explained in this earlier post, the "discipline" to which the new ordinand promised to conform himself was not the "discipline of this Church", but the "discipline of Christ":
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.

The phrase "doctrine, discipline and worship" had thus nothing to do with the Oath of Conformity or the vows sworn at ordination; when it was used, it referred instead to the conformity of the entire American Church to the traditions of the Church of England. It appeared, for example, in the Preface to the very first Book of Common Prayer approved for use by the General Convention of 1789 -- the same one that drafted the Constitution and the first ten canons of the Church (emphasis again added):
. . . It seems unnecessary to enumerate all the different alterations and amendments [to the English Book of Common Prayer]. They will appear, and it is to be hoped, the reasons of them also, upon a comparison of this with the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England. In which it will also appear that this Church is far from intending to depart from the Church of England in any essential point of doctrine, discipline, or worship; or further than local circumstances require.
It should be unnecessary to note that the Book of Common Prayer does not contain or embody either the Constitution or the Canons of the Episcopal Church (USA) -- either as originally adopted in 1789, or at any time subsequently. Therefore, just what did the drafters of the original American Book of Common Prayer understand by including the word "discipline" in their description of the respects in which the new American church did not differ from its English parent? It is instructive to quote this passage from the opening paragraph of the Preface to the 1789 Book of Common Prayer (which, along with the passage just quoted, has been maintained intact in each subsequent edition, including that of 1979):
IT is a most invaluable part of that blessed liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, that in his worship, different forms and usages may without offence be allowed, provided the substance of the Faith be kept entire; and that, in every Church, what cannot be clearly determined to belong to Doctrine must be referred to Discipline: and therefore, by common consent and authority, may be altered, abridged, enlarged, amended, or otherwise disposed of, as may seem most convenient for the edification of the people, "according to the various exigencies of times and occasions."
(Emphasis added.) "Discipline", therefore, as originally applied to the American Church was not to be understood as something immutable -- i.e., fixed at one point in time and unchangeable thereafter. Instead, it is that part of the Church which may be "altered, abridged, enlarged, amended, or otherwise disposed of, as may seem most convenient for the edification of the people, 'according to the various exigencies of times and occasions.'" This could refer to specific disciplinary canons, but it also refers to a broader sense of the word, as explained by Francis Vinton, a professor of ecclesiastical law and polity General Theological Seminary in New York, in A Manual Commentary on the General Canon Law and the Constitution [of PECUSA] (New York: E.P. Dutton and Co., 1870), at p. 23 (emphasis added):
Q. What is the sense of the term " discipline" in Ecclesiastical writings?
A. Twofold. (1) The administering of punishment for offenses. (2) The regulation and government of the Church.
The problem came, as I described in my post linked earlier, with the extensive changes made to the Constitution and Canons by the General Convention of 1901. The word "discipline" was added to the Oath of Conformity in Article VIII of the Constitution for the first time, and the ordination vows in the Prayer Book were changed to a mishmash of promises which has created all the ensuing difficulties (bold and bold italics added):
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.
Asked whether he will be loyal to the "discipline . . . of Christ," therefore, the Ordinand is told to answer that he will conform to the "discipline . . . of The Episcopal Church." And the fundamentalists on the left take it from there. Regardless of the phrasing of the question, they see only the answer, and read into it a promise to be obedient to whatever Canon is ever enacted, now or in the future -- regardless of whether that Canon conforms to the discipline of Christ which this Church received, and to which it was subject, for the first 111 years of its existence.

Even as so explained, the fundamentalist reading of the vows still makes no sense. Violations of specific canons are presentable offenses under the Canons themselves; clergy are charged in a presentment with transgressions of a particular canon, and not with a violation of Church "discipline" in general. By the same token, the charge in a presentment is not for breach of one's vow to uphold the discipline of the Church, but for the violation of the requirements of a specific canon. Thus a vow to conform to the "discipline" of the Church is not to be understood as a standard whose violation is punishable as such.

The term "Discipline" as added to the Oath of Conformity by a constitutional amendment in 1901, therefore, was still referring to the "discipline of the Church" in the broad sense given by Professor Vinton in the quote above. It was the Church's "discipline" in terms of its government and regulation -- chiefly, through the threefold orders of deacon, priest and bishop -- and did not (nay, could not) incorporate the canons of 1901 into the Oath. After all, any such intention would have been frustrated when new canons were enacted at three year intervals thereafter, and the language of the vow would have had to have been constantly updated for it to have any such effect. The intent of the addition was to secure conformity to the larger structure and government of the Church, which remained in the same traditional form as it had originally been in 1789.

In any event, to focus on the language of the Oath is useless for purposes of enforcing Church "discipline" under the canons. As already mentioned, facts amounting to the violation of the requirements of specific canons can be specifically set out in a presentment, without having to invoke the ordinand's Oath in addition. Thus commenters and bloggers who invoke the terms of the Oath as some sort of catchall for Church law and canons simply do not know what they are talking about.

And somehow I sense that parties on both sides of the aisle would agree with that point. But this brings us to what I regard as the essential fault line between conservatives and liberals (or reasserters and reappraisers -- take your pick) in the year of Our Lord 2010: liberals regard their innovations since 1979 as completely binding on everyone in the Church, just by virtue of the Oath of Conformity taken at ordination, and regardless of whether or not the Canons in question actually conform to the traditional discipline of the Church, in the sense of the "discipline of Christ" as the Church received it. When it comes to enforcing the actual measures so enacted, however, they have to proceed with a presentment specifying the particular provisions of the canons which were violated -- unless they are proceeding with a charge of "abandonment of the communion of this Church" under Canons IV.9 or IV.10.

Does one "abandon" the "discipline of this Church" when one violates a particular Canon? Not in the original sense of the abandonment canons, which I covered in a series of posts linked on this page -- but yes, in the eyes of the liberal fundamentalists who want to evade the necessity of a presentment and ecclesiastical trial, and proceed directly to judgment.

The "abandonment" canons are for those clergy who have literally left the Anglican Communion for a different denomination entirely, and not for those who have simply joined or transferred to another branch of it. Look at the definition of "abandonment" given in the Canons themselves: it consists in "formal admission into any religious body not in communion with [this Church], or (iii) by exercising episcopal acts in and for a religious body other than this Church or another Church in communion with this Church . . ." (emphasis added). One who has violated a specific canon, and not by transferring out of the Church to a different church not in communion with it, has not thereby "abandoned the communion of this Church."

The liberals' fundamentalist interpretation of the Oath of Conformity violates every common notion of fair play and due process -- but it bothers them not one whit. They are prepared, in 2010, to depose clergy for "abandonment" who, in upholding the discipline of the Church to which those clergy swore allegiance years earlier, thereby are viewed as falling short of requirements adopted by the activist majorities in the years since. But they do so without holding a trial, and proving the specifics of the charges, and without weighing the range of disciplinary options. No, there is just one judge and jury, and one sentence -- that of instant deposition. There have been over 400 of such depositions to date, in just the last four years. That is not Christlike. It is the Church, instead, that has lost its discipline.

The more the rules are bent to fit the circumstances, the less conformity there can be. And the more they depose those who fail to conform to their notions of what is required, the fewer there will be to "conform" in the future. Think of Calvin and Hobbes, and their exclusive club "G.R.O.S.S." -- its criteria for membership were defined so narrowly (and so constantly changing) as to admit of only two regular members -- who still managed to fight all the time over the rules.

Is that what we would wish for the Episcopal Church (USA)? That it define itself down until it has just two remaining members, who can fight to the finish about whatever rules still remain? We have to hope and trust that the process will be halted before it can reach that point. But I am no longer as sanguine as I once was about ultimate prospects for the church in which I grew up, and which I still serve (at the local level). "By the[ir] past shall ye judge [them]." The Episcopal Church is ignoring its past, in favor of requiring blind deference to an indeterminate future.


  1. Curmudgeon -

    I hate to be a pessimist, but just reading about the comments of Mark Harris and the sycophant comments of his blog (how can you stand to read such schlock?), it is clear to me that the Episcopal Church has become nothing more than a secular humanist cult.

    What was once a part of the Body of Christ has left and has set up shop on its own.

  2. Let me see if I get this straight.

    Rules are meant to be broken until you are the one making the rules; at which point, they are meant to be observed (as you define them).