Be serious on polity

The Rt Revd James M. Stanton, Bishop of Dallas, takes the rest of The Episcopal Church to task: if much is made of its unique 'polity' then it must be serious in thinking through what this actually means

The response of the House of Bishops to the Communique from the Primates saddens me; but it was not a surprise. The Bishops' work is grounded on the fundamental principle of the independence and autonomy of The Episcopal Church. In the run-up to this meeting, and during the meeting itself, many bishops appealed to 'the polity of our church as the basis for rejecting what was asked of the House. Let us consider this representation.

Is it our polity?

In 1991, the General Convention adopted the following resolution,

'That this Church receive the report of the Standing Committee on Human Affairs as clear evidence of no strong consensus in the Church on the human sexuality issues considered or the resolutions proposed; and

'That the Office of the Presiding Bishop now be directed to propose to all the provinces of the Anglican Communion and all churches with whom we are in ecumenical dialogue that a broad process of consultation be initiated on an official pan-Anglican and ecumenical level as a bold step forward in the consideration of these potentially divisive issues which should not be resolved by The Episcopal Church on its own.'

This resolution was a mandate of the General Convention directed to the Presiding Bishop. Such mandates are relatively infrequent. Nevertheless, this one was never acted on. It remained in effect up to the Convention of 2003, as was pointed out by many at that time. It was effectively violated by the action of giving consent to the consecration of the bishop of New Hampshire, but was never rescinded.

Arguably, had this mandate of the whole of the General Convention been acted on, The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion would have been spared the wrenching divisions that we now see. That is speculation, of course.

As once understood

What is not speculation is that the General Convention itself understood the weight of the matters involved in human sexuality in such a way that it was prepared to act, and in fact acted, to surrender some part of its own autonomy for the sake of the larger good. 'These potentially divisive issues.. .should not be resolved by the Episcopal Church on its own.' Appeals to 'our polity' would be more convincing if we actually took our polity seriously.

Concerning the Pastoral Scheme, the first claim in the House of Bishops' response was this: 'First, it violates our church law in that it would call for a delegation of primatial authority not permissible under our Canons and a compromise of our autonomy as a Church not permissible under our Constitution.'

The Presiding Bishop, Katharine Jefferts-Schori, went over the matter of 'primatial authority' on Sunday evening. She was quite candid. She said that such primatial authority as she had was 'pretty limited.' When it came to the matter of delegating certain acts of the Primate of this church, she offered examples of how delegation was, in fact, possible and was already a reality. She offered her opinion that the Pastoral Scheme could be carried out 'under our Constitution and Canons'

As for a 'compromise of our autonomy' the action of the General Convention in 1991 belies the claim that this is 'not possible under our Constitution.' Of course it is possible, if the larger good of the unity of the Communion and our place within the ecumenical body of Christians is important enough.

The claim that the Bishops cannot clarify what they intended by their own action in adopting B033 (2006), on the matter of giving consents to consecrations, because of'our polity' rings hollow. And so does the claim that the Bishops cannot respond to assurances that same-sex blessing rites will not be authorized. (See Canon III.9.5.a(l).) Both of these are well within the purview of the Bishops under 'our polity'

The 'most important' concern expressed in the House of Bishops' response is purportedly this: 'The pastoral scheme encourages one of the worst tendencies of our Western culture, which is to break relationships when we find them difficult instead of doing the hard work necessary to repair them and be instruments of reconciliation.'

As to the substance of this concern, the Presiding Bishop's stated view was that the intention behind the Scheme was to provide a 'container' and a 'space' for 'dealing with our own stuff' and so find a way to hold together.

Fidelity to vows is the principle that should have been lifted up at this point. Bishops are ordained to guard the faith, unity, and discipline' of the Church. If discipline serves unity, and unity serves the cause of faith, then a failure to live by 'our polity' our discipline, marks the unravelling of unity and the obscuring of faith. The 1991 resolution faithfully expressed what our Constitution says: we are 'constituent members of the Anglican Communion.' It was on that basis that we bound ourselves not to act unilaterally, but in a conciliar way. We should not, we said, resolve these issues on our own.

But we do not remember what we have said. We do not live by our vow

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