Friday, November 5, 2010

Constitutional Changes: A Look Back at the Church That Never Was

The Constitution of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America, originally adopted in 1789, was completely revised and rewritten, starting on its one hundredth anniversary, in 1889. The process took five succeeding General Conventions to complete. The history of that process is instructive, and deserves to be told in detail, as it is largely unknown and ignored. That will be the purpose of this series of posts.

At the General Convention held in New York City from October 2-24, 1889, three different questions arose, from entirely independent sources, which impacted the then-hundred-year-old Constitution.

The first question came from the rapidly expanding Dioceses of Nebraska and of Michigan, whose extent and population had in each instance become too great for a single bishop to oversee. At the same time, much of the population in the expanded areas was too thinly scattered to support the creation of additional full-fledged dioceses, by dividing the existing ones. Since the areas in question could not stand as dioceses on their own, it was felt that they should be organized as missionary dioceses, under the responsibility and care of the whole Church. Both dioceses therefore petitioned General Convention to accept a cession of the respective portions of their territory which they were unable to support.

The Constitution, however, contained no provision for General Convention to do any such thing. Before any Diocese could cede territory to General Convention, a majority of the Dioceses and their bishops felt that the Constitution would have to be amended to allow for such a procedure, and to set standards for its application. (Note the implications of this prevailing sentiment in 1889 for the argument that General Convention, as a body unlimited in its powers, may do whatever a majority of its dioceses decide to do.)

The second question involved a matter of ecclesiastical discipline. From its adoption, the Constitution had provided in its Article VI: "In every State [Diocese], the mode of trying Clergymen shall be instituted by the Convention of the Church therein." Pursuant to this provision, there were in 1889 no national courts of review to which a member of the clergy could appeal any sentence of deposition for violation of a Church canon or rubric having to do with doctrine or worship.

As is well-known to students of church history, issues concerning worship, liturgy and doctrine readily become points of division, fiercely contended for by the various groups of believers. The sentiment among the clerical deputies to General Convention 1889 ran strongly in favor of the creation of a national court of appeal which would be superior to whatever courts the individual dioceses might provide. At the same time, many bishops also welcomed uniformity in the Church on matters of doctrine and worship, and felt that a single national court of review could help to achieve that goal.

But again, the language of Article VI seemed to leave no role for the national Church to play in matters of clergy discipline. Thus, once again, a Constitutional amendment would be necessary in order to delegate any such authority in this area to General Convention.

The third major issue before the General Convention of 1889 was a weighty one indeed -- and one with ramifications down to the present day. The Dioceses of Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Long Island, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Central Pennsylvania had introduced petitions (called "Memorials") requesting that General Convention take up the subject of "proportionate representation" of dioceses in the House of Deputies, i.e., assigning more clerical and lay deputies to those dioceses with the greater numbers of registered communicants. Let me introduce the implications of this request by quoting from a resolution proposed by a lay deputy from Chicago, upon the referral of the Memorials to the Committee on Amendments to the Constitution:
Resolved, That the Committee on Amendments to the Constitution, to whom was referred the subject of "Proportionate Representation," brought before this House, are hereby instructed, after considering the subject, to report their conclusions as to the source of the legislative authority and functions of the House of Deputies of the General Convention . . .
". . . [T]he source of the legislative authority and functions of the House of Deputies . . ." -- now that topic was guaranteed to get the attention of General Convention. The resolution continued on to propose several alternatives as to that source. First, it suggested that the Committee might find the source of the Deputies' authority and functions in the people who elect them:
. . . if such Committee shall be of opinion that such legislative authority and functions are derived from our Clergy, other than Bishops, and from the mass of our communicants or confirmed or baptized persons, or from the mass of worshippers in the congregations of "this Church," as legislative authority in the State is derived from the people; and if such Committee shall further consider that the present system of Diocesan representation in the House of Deputies is inadequate, unjust, and improper, and should be changed to the basis of numerical representation, then they are instructed to mature and report for the consideration of this House such measures as, in their judgment, will (if adopted) secure a fair and real "Proportionate Representation" on the basis of numbers . . .
Alternatively, this resolution suggested that all authority and functions of the House of Deputies could derive from the apostolic authority of the assembled bishops of the Church:
. . . but if, on the other hand, such Committee shall consider that all power and functions of legislation and chiefly in government in the Church of God descend and are derived from tbe Divine Master, our blessed Lord, and are vested in the Bishops, or College of Apostles, and that whatever part the House of Deputies is permitted to take in the legislation of the American Church is by virtue of Constitutional grants and concessions by tbe Bishops of "this Church," under which the members of such House of Deputies act merely in an advisory and consentient relation, the Bishops in effect agreeing in and by such Constitutional concessions that no legislation by them shall be binding upon the National or Provincial Church without the consent of the House of Deputies . . .
As a third alternative, the source of the Deputies' authority could come from the dioceses themselves, which were entitled to representation on an equal, and not proportionate, basis:
. . . or, if the Committee shall consider that the Diocese in "this Church" is the proper unit of representation in the House of Deputies, and, therefore, that" Proportionate Representation" of the masses, as proposed, is not in harmony with our system of Church government, and is untenable and ought not to be favored, then, in either of the latter cases, such Committee are directed to report, recommending that the further consideration of the subject be indefinitely postponed.
The proposal for a "proportionate representation" thus squarely presented for the national Church the basis of its organization: given that its bishops assemble in their own House, and do not admit any new members except upon the consent of a majority of those sitting, what role do those in the House of Deputies play? Are they supposed to be representative of the Church's lay and clerical members, without regard to diocesan boundaries? Or is their function to act for the diocese which sent them? And if they have a wider responsibility to the whole Church, what defines the boundaries of that responsibility?

The resolution of these three issues by the Convention would lead eventually to a review and reconsideration of the full Constitution, a topic which I shall cover in the succeeding posts. For the present purposes, it will suffice to quote from the report presented to the House of Deputies, by its Committee on Amendments to the Constitution, on the merits of the proposals for "proportionate representation" (N.B.: I have added the hyperlink to provide additional background for the repeated references in the report to "first" or "fundamental" principles of the Church's founding):
The Committee on Amendments to the Constitution have had before them Memorials from the Dioceses of Pennsylvania, Central Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh, Massachusetts, Long Island, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, asking for such a change in Article 2 of the Constitution, as shall make the number of Deputies in General Convention proportionate to the number of clergy or parishes or communicants in the Diocese, and some of these Memorials favoring also such a change in the manner of voting as to take away the right of voting by Diocese; and having also before them a Memorial from the Diocese of New Jersey objecting to any such proposed alteration. They have given the subject careful consideration, and beg leave respectfully to report:

That the proposed amendments are plain departures from the "Fundamental Principles" on which our Ecclesiastical Constitution was formed, and on which it has for a century continued: first, the equality of the Dioceses, in their representation in General Convention: and second, the right of the Diocese, on any question, to demand that the vote be taken by Dioceses, not by individuals. Twice only, within the century, has the formal effort been made to unsettle these first foundations; once in 1832, indefinitely postponed; and once in 1883, signally defeated. The question naturally arises why this apparently organized effort to subvert fundamental principles is again so soon renewed.
The proposals thus represented, in the eyes of the Church attorneys who made up the Committee on Amendments to the Constitution, an "organized effort to subvert fundamental principles" on which the Church was established. Their report first addressed the claim to derive a principle of "proportionate representation" in the House of Deputies by analogy to the United States's House of Representatives. It is striking to find, as a basis for the Committee's conclusion that no such parallel may legitimately be drawn, an application of the same reasoning applied by attorney Mark McCall, in his paper for the Anglican Communion Institute, on the point that the Church's founders did not intend to create a national Church that was supreme in authority over its member dioceses (bold emphasis added):
I. It seems to be taken for granted by many, and indeed in one, at least, of the Memorials presented, it is so stated, that our Ecclesiastical Constitution had, in the minds of its founders, the National Constitution for its model; and hence, if this be so, it is but right to make the conformity more perfect. Your Committee, on the other hand, find no ground for such an opinion. The National Constitution was an untried thing. The same men were, to some extent, in the Conventions of both Church and Nation, and the fact that not one of them, - so far as the records of the Conventions, the comments of Bishop White, the writers of American Church History, reveal the facts, - not one of them ever proposed any other fundamental principles in the organization of the House of Deputies than equal representation, and a vote by States, or Dioceses, which were then coterminous; this fact, as your Committee take it to be, rather proves that they did not consider one a model for the other.
The Committee's report then considers the unfounded appeal to "changed circumstances":
II. It is thought and said, in some of these Memorials, that the growth of the country, the rapid increase of population, the multiplication of Dioceses, are bringing about such disproportion between Dioceses, that equal representation becomes more and more inequitable and unjust. The question to your Committee's mind is, Did these inequalities exist a century ago? The answer is, They did exist when the Constitution was established, and were greater then than now. The ratio now in the number of clergy, between the largest Diocese and the smallest, is eighteen to one. One hundred years ago, the ratio was thirty to one, between Virginia and Rhode Island; twenty to one, between Virginia and Delaware; fifteen to one between Virginia and Massachusetts.

This disproportion decreases as population increases. The new Dioceses of to-day are the strong Dioceses of the near future. The larger Dioceses divide. The tendency is toward a greater equality. Meanwhile the larger Dioceses increase in numbers, and the possibility of their votes being outweighed by the votes of the small Dioceses becomes yearly more remote.
In conclusion, the Committee reminds the Convention that constitutional amendments which would recast the fundamental principles on which the Church was established are not to be lightly undertaken:
Your Committee see no reasonable ground of apprehension of possible evils in the future that would justify the attempt to take away the right to call for a vote by Dioceses and Orders. This provision of the Constitution is meant to guard against any hasty legislation. It is perhaps as effectual a safeguard as can be devised.

Your Committee have entered more fully than is their wont, into the grounds of their disagreement with so many Memorials, out of regard to the great importance of the subject, its recent wide agitation in the Church, and out of respect to the highly honored and influential Dioceses from which these Memorials come. Other reasons which might be urged against the proposed amendments we do not now adduce. . . .
The report concluded with two recommended resolutions for the House to adopt, with yet another reminder of the "fundamental principles" on which the Church was founded:
Feeling that it would be unwise to attempt to subvert fundamental principles, on which the General Convention of a great expanding National Church has for a century stood strong and safe,

Your Committee offer the following resolutions:

Resolved, That it is not expedient to make any change in the basis of representation in the House of Deputies, or in the manner of voting.

Resolved, That the Committee be discharged from the further consideration of the subject.
A proposal to substitute a further referral of the matter to study, and for a report to the next Convention, was voted down. Both of the Committee's resolutions were adopted, and that ended the consideration of this matter by the Convention.

[UPDATE 11/07/2010: I am reminded by Messrs. White & Dykman that when a similar proposal for proportionate representation in the House of Deputies was made to General Convention of 1877, i.e., twelve years before the one I was discussing, the Committee on Amendments to the Constitution recommended that the idea be rejected on the same basis, namely, that changing the method of representation would violate the fundamental principles on which the Church was established. Except that in 1877, the Committee's language was even more explicit about the nature of those "fundamental principles":
. . . the framers of the Constitution intended to establish the principle of Diocesan equality as the foundation upon which the Church in the United States was to be built; upon that foundation it has been built. . . .
The founding idea that all dioceses are equal in the national Church, as we shall see, is what makes the current canonical changes, which will take effect next July, unconstitutional. If the Presiding Bishop takes advantage of the powers given to her under those changes, she will be superior to any diocese or its bishop, and will have the power to interfere in the operations of a diocese. (For example, starting next July she could inhibit Bishop Bennison again, on her own, and stop him from functioning.) If that comes to pass, the principle of diocesan equality in the Church will have been jettisoned.]

Nevertheless, the other two issues referred to above remained unresolved at the end of the 1889 General Convention. They, and other pressing concerns that the Constitution needed an overhaul for the next century, would lead to proposals in the Conventions of 1892 and 1895 which eventually resulted in a brand-new Constitution, together with a considerable revision of the canons.

Along the way, we will see how General Convention time and again continued to reaffirm the Church's fundamental principles, by rejecting attempts to establish a strong central authority, and by reaffirming that the Convention functioned only as an association of individual dioceses, each with their own independence and authority in matters not delegated to the Convention as a whole. The story is timely, and it has not recently been examined. Check back here soon for the next installment.


  1. There might be another parallel church-state thing to examine here.

    It is easy to assume from 2010 the House of Bishops was the equivalent of the US Senate and the House of Delegates is the US House. But, did these institutions exist as such when the Episcopal Church was first formed?

    Not really. The current US constitution was adopted in 1789 (although written in 1787).

    The Articles of Confederation did not have proportional representation for the US Congress. There were many other limitations on the federal government, which lacked an executive and court system.

    One could argue that the Episcopal Church was created with an eye more to the Articles of Confederation. The presiding bishop was very equivalent to the president under the Articles: one who presides. Neither had courts.

    Just as the 13 states came to realize the federal government needed a stronger central government, eventually the Episcopal Church came to recognize that, too, as the church grew.

  2. Thank you for that comment, rrchapman. As this series of posts proceeds, however, I think you will find that the Church expressly rejected the choice of a strong national executive and legislative government in 1901, just as it had done when it formed in 1789. The recent attempts at 815 to accomplish on their own that which General Convention twice expressly rejected thus become that much more troubling.

  3. Great stuff, Curmudgeon. I will look forward to the latter end of this series when I hope to find the evidence of when the worm first began to turn, and the "Fundamental Principles" began to be laid on the wayside.