October 23, 2007

States of Things

Archbishop Rowan has clarified the intent of his earlier note to Bishop Howe, and this clarification is to some extent helpful, as it corroborates my suspicion that the Howe communication was a nonce letter and not intended as a formal policy statement. Still, it is disturbing to note even in this communication a persistent subtle diminishment of the “national church.”

It isn’t really a matter of “units” as such. Talk of “basic units” gets a bit odd, as we could say the basic unit of a church is a brick, but no one worships in a brick! So while I acknowledge the Ignatian notion that the sacramental fullness of the church can be found in the liturgy with all orders of ministry present — a notion celebrated by Bishop Zizioulas — yet when it comes to polity the province is the smallest church entity that can exercise all of the functions of a church — including the creation of new bishops.

So the Archbishop has clarified that what he was getting at is that priests must relate to the wider church through their diocese. What he doesn’t mention is the similar fact that bishops (and dioceses) no less relate to the communion through their province. There is an organic unity here that works on up through the various levels, about which I will speak more below. For the nonce, though, let me note that in support of the Archbishop’s view concerning priests, the defining canonical point for the licensing of foreign clergy both in TEC and the CofE is not merely that they are validly ordained and related to some bishop or other, but that they are a “member of a church in communion” with the receiving church. Yes, their membership is through a diocese (hence the need for a letter dimissory), but it is the connection of that diocese with a church — which is to say, a national, provincial, or particular church — with which the receiving church is in communion that makes the ultimate difference in their being licensed or not. Dioceses simply do not stand alone, apart from the national or provincial church, and they derive much of their competence to function from participation in the larger body.

Of course, bishops as individuals may well relate directly to Canterbury when he invites them to Lambeth — but even this invitation hinges to a large extent upon their being bishops of a church that is a member of the Anglican Communion. This importance of the national church is what appears to be missing, or downplayed, in Archbishop Rowan’s thinking.

The Fractal Church

We are at a point where the integrity of Anglicanism as a specific form of polity is in danger. I put this in the framework of the equilibrium of systems: the “equilibrium point” of Anglicanism (as opposed to that in other systems of church government) has been, from the at least the time of recognized ecclesiastical independence of Scotland and the US, to reside at the provincial level. We have never had a higher governing body to oversee the relationships of the various provinces. Anglicanism’s global identity has been that of a communion, a fellowship of autonomous provincial churches — neither a “world church” like the Roman Catholic Church, nor a federation like the Reformed Churches.

At the levels of polity below the international, Anglicanism (at least in the US and England, as well as a number of other provinces) has a fractal quality. Fractal structures, for those not familiar with them, are structures that replicate certain features at various scales. This gives them a certain organic robustness and resiliency. The Episcopal Church has such a structure — from parish to diocese to province — which has not yet been effectively mirrored to the communion level. That is, at every level we Episcopalians have governance by clergy and laity together — but then the interprovincial level gives us things like Lambeth and the Primates. Now, this is in part because — while The Episcopal Church has preserved lay involvement, inherited from England, at all levels (in part via Bishop White’s familiarity with the US Congress), and the Church of England continued its lay involvement (originally through the Crown, then King-in-Parliament, and later in the Synod) — not all of the other provinces in the Anglican Communion share in this particular aspect at either local, diocesan, or provincial levels. Generally speaking, the churches of the Communion that related most directly to England or the US (as opposed to churches arising out of the ventures of missionary societies) tended to preserve this kind of involvement by the whole People of God.

And that is, I firmly believe, part of the problem for many of those provinces in understanding how either The Episcopal Church and the Church of England function. Churches in which bishops are elected only by other bishops, or in which the Archbishop has ultimate veto power, will not well fit into a larger entity at a level of scale resembling that in the provinces in which the laity and clergy are more intimately involved in provincial government.

Rather, these churches are accustomed to their own more clericalized fractal hierarchy: the parish priest who sits in the diocesan house of clergy; the diocesan bishop who sits in the house of bishops; the primate who sits in the Primates meeting — it all seems very logical, but it leaves out that intrinsic element so vital to Anglicanism in its founding expression: the involvement of the whole People of God in the government of the church.

I think we are in definite need of some form of an Anglican Congress, involving laity and clergy as well as bishops, at the level of the Communion. Though the ACC is a move in that direction, it has been subsumed by the pressure towards the episcopate in Lambeth and the Primates.

A fractal structure may help to restore some of our equilibrium: the balance we have enjoyed over the last two centuries or so is being pressured by various forces. This is, I think, the fundamental “tear in the fabric” that results when provinces have a different internal structure that is not replicated at the higher level: it is not just that some provinces have done things not all provinces approve of, but that we arrive at these decisions in very different ways, and yet have no overarching superstructure to govern the resulting tension — we are merely pulled back and forth in the quest either for more elasticity or more rigidity.

A properly fractal solution would be to work for an Anglican Congress — not more power to Lambeth or the Primates. The authority of such a Congress would have to be decided, of course, and agreed to by all — if, indeed we decide we need that level of governance. It might be good to begin by exploring the variations in polity in and between the member churches. A common agreed upon code of canon law might also be helpful, though it might equally be decided to take more of a live-and-let-live approach as far as internal affairs go.

Speaking practically, though, I would suggest that an Anglican Congress might be something a bit larger than the present ACC, with perhaps three persons in each order representing each province. My hope would be that this would be a body for discussion and implementation of broader global concerns, not primarily the place to hash out disagreements between the provinces — which I really do think are best handled ad hoc between the disagreeing parties, even to the extent of impaired communion. (I don’t think all problems have to be solved in the short run; some will take care of themselves in time.) So I see the primary utility of such a Congress as a more effective means at communication and mission organization. In fact, I think Anglican Mission Congress should be the proper name.

The dangers of final decisions

Ultimately, we may be dealing with a case of Schrodinger’s Church: we have been able to maintain our state of being neither congregational nor curial as a communion, but if we force the question, we may find that we will collapse into one form or the other — and Anglicanism’s experiment will be over. That, I think, would be a great loss to the Body of Christ.

Tobias Haller BSG


Marshall said...

Ooh, "fractal quality:" I quite like that. I also like the conundrum of "Schrodinger’s Church:" it speaks in an interesting way to the Church as mystery.

While I haven't had time yet to do any digging myself, I'm sure both Hooker and Jewel had something to say about the concept of a national church, distinguished within the Body of Christ has one is also able to distinguish a distinct national identity. Cranmer, in his commitment to the authority of the king operating by divine right, certainly felt he could posit such a distinction.

I wonder if a corollary difficulty in this instance is a set of different ideas about how to distinguish a nation. In post-Magna Carta English-speaking countries "nation" is less and less a matter of distinct differences of language and/or skin tone and/or cultural practices, and more a matter of constitutional ideology. The Orthodox and Romans have both struggled with this, if in somewhat different ways. So, what might define a "national church" will differ according to what defines a "nation."

RFSJ said...


Well said. I, too like the idea of a fractal church. However, I wonder if the idea at the Communion level is, or would seem to be, imperialistic, as in , "our way is the best way and everyone should just adopt that."

Having said that, I also suspect we're at an equilibrium ecclesiastically speaking, but I fear that ++Rowan's comment (perhaps we should title it that way, like Paschal's Wager) may well have disturbed whatever equilibrium we have to the point of not just teetering, but downright collapse.


Tobias Haller said...

Thanks Marshall and RFSJ.

I wouldn't want to impose a higher level authority with greater lay involvement. But it appears that the Communion-Level forum is where these differences are being played out. So it may not be possible to develop a synodical form at the international level until things cool off a bit. In the meantime, as long as the ACC is not shunted to the side, at least via that mechanism we have some degree of involvement by the broader Body of the Church.

obadiahslope said...

while I am in broad agreement with extending synodical government to the communion level, one of the building blocks in your argument is not factually correct.
You state "yet when it comes to polity the province is the smallest church entity that can exercise all of the functions of a church — including the creation of new bishops"
Dioceses with more than three bishops in them can consecrate their own diocesans. Alternatively a bishop from outside a province may take part in a consecration.
The extra-provincial units within the Anglican commuion seem to function quite well as churches. Eg the Church of Ceylon.
If provinces, (which exist as a matter of administrative convenience) were abolished tomorrow, dioceses and local churches would be able to carry on. I am not advocating the abolition of provinces, but pointing out that their function is not an essential one.

Tobias Haller said...

Thanks for the comment Obadiahslope.

I'm not so sure about the three bishops in a diocese having the right to consecrate. That violates the ancient canons (which only allow one bishop in a diocese!). This is ultimately what I'm referencing as it represents the early church's effort to keep bishops from becoming ends in themselves.

More importantly, in the US at least the consent to the consecration requires a majority of all bishops with jurisdiction (of which there really can only be one in each diocese) -- suffragans don't get to vote, though they can participate in the consecration. I think in most provinces there is more to becoming a bishop than just the consecration -- the electoral or appointment process is a major factor -- which in England is where the Crown comes in.

So what I'm saying is that ultimately, as with a village and a child, it takes a province to make a bishop.

I'm not familiar with the Australian canons, but would welcome learning more if there is a difference in how bishops are chosen and consecrated.

obadiahslope said...

here in Sydney the archbishop (the diocesan) is nominated and elected directly from the floor of synod.
This is arguably a purer form of democracy than in TEC and other Australian dioceses where an appointed vetting committee is interposed.
(I should point out that in practice bishops from other diocese do take part in consecrations here. My point was that while this is desirable it would be possible for things to continue of the provincial structure was not in place. The Australian church only federated in 1962, we lived a long time without it. For most of the communion the provincial structures are newish, you Americans have beem PECUSA/DFMS/TEC for a long time)
In Australia the influence of the national church is limited to the presence of consecrating bishops when a bishop is seated. The constitution of the anglican Church of Australia reserves few powers for the centre; canons of the General synod only apply in a diocese if they are ratified by that diocese.
No vote of the wider church is required to appoint/elect a bishop. However
Sydney, Melbourne Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth have archbishops who as metropolitians are required to be part of theconsecration of the bishops in the regional diocese of their states.
At the general Synod currently running in Canberra, the Primate Phillip Aspinal archbishop of brisbane, who you might remember as present in your New Orleans, argued strongly that the Australian system of a weak federation in our national church offerred a way forward for the wider communion and provinces with disputes.
In effect he argued that TEC has too powerful a centre, which made it harder to live with dissenting viewpoints.

Tobias Haller said...

Dear Obadiahslope,
Thanks for this; it is helpful to see the differences. For the record, the Canon I was referring to is Canon 4 of the first Council of Nicea:

It is by all means proper that a bishop should be appointed by all the bishops in the province; but should this be difficult, either on account of urgent necessity or because of distance, three at least should meet together, and the suffrages of the absent [bishops] also being given and communicated in writing, then the ordination should take place. But in every province the ratification of what is done should be left to the Metropolitan.

It looks to me, though, that what you have in Australia is more like a federation of provinces (an Archbishop being the traditional head of a province) -- that your "dioceses" are functioning more like provinces, with multiple bishops and an archbishop. Canada has a similar structure, at least as far as internal provinces. We have them in the US too, but they were introduced after the national church, not before, and lack archbishops. (In fact, the Province President, as they are called, can be a cleric or lay person).

In reflection on your correctly observed strong American love/hate relationship with centralization, there was a move a few years back to loosen the bonds a bit along the lines of the internal provinces, by allowing bishops to be consented to by the bishops of each province, rather than the whole national church. This was voted down in the interest of greater national unity. As you rightly point out, the tensions in the US sometimes lead to a fragile unity at the national level, and a great deal of compromise. It is not surprising to look at a map along which bishops voted to assent to Gene Robinson and which didn't, noting the strong difference between north and south --- some American divisions will be with us for many years to come!

obadiahslope said...

To clarify: Yes, the Archbishops of Adelaide, Brisbane, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney are metropolitans. The mainland states are provinces and each contain at least three dioceses. Like the US, Canada and England we have provinces within a "province" in the Anglican Communion sense. I take it though that the provinces in the US do not have metropolitans.

I have read that some in the US believe that your General Convention or the nationwide confirmatory vote for a bishop functions as your metropolitan.

thomas bushnell, bsg said...

i believe that the archbishop's point is clear in the clarification.

i am a member of the episcopal church specifically through my parish, in which my baptism is recorded. and that parish is episcopal because it is part of the diocese of los angeles.

at every level, there is exactly this relationship, it's why the word "hierarchy" means what it does.

the archbishop's point is that there is no such thing as a priest being part of the anglican communion without being connected to their bishop. and, yes, a diocese can't be "anglican" without being part of a province. but that isn't directly relevant when the question is (as it is in florida) about the relation of priests to their bishop. the archbishop is saying "you can't claim to be an anglican priest while not being connected to your local anglican bishop".

Tobias Haller said...

Thanks Obadian; that helps explain the different emphases.

Thomas, I think that was the Archbishop's point, but his seeming diminishment of the importance of Provinces (or the exaltation of dioceses) had fed fuel to the schismatic fire at the diocesan level. One cannot be too careful or precise these days...

John B. Chilton said...

To my economist's mind Tobias' reference to an equilbrium point is key. I would draw attention to what could change the equilibrium - the falling cost of communication and travel leading to the ease of finding neighbors who are no longer geographic neigbors. Is the servicable fractal equilibrium sustainable in this context? Geographic distance used to help sustain it. (Just as it made sense of the assignment of geographic territories to parishes (and thereby persons to parishes) before the advent of the automobile.) But now we see the difficulty in preventing foreign incursions (provoked, say the invaders, because globalization has put our culture in their face) - respecting the boundaries of provinces is only voluntary, there is no system of enforcement by a higher authority.

Bishop Minns is fond of saying that in this age of globalization the church is flat. He may not be invited to Lambeth, but he is not illegal, merely irregular. In the days if you disagreed strongly enough with the province on principle you chose to forgo your Anglicanism - e.g., the Reformed Episcopal Church in the 19th century. Now - with lower communication costs, and the proliferation of provinces around globe, you just find yourself a friendly province primate.

Tobias Haller said...

You are definitely on the beam here. Just as the Reformation couldn't have happened without the printing press, modern travel and technology, combined with (though also perhaps synergistic with) a greater toleration of pluralism, makes the older idea of watertight national churches (established by law and don't you forget it!) less relevant. Charlemagne's idea of "the parish" with its les banalités has long been a thing of the past. No suburban parish can long survive without ample parking; and the old saying about telling an Anglo-Catholic by the number of Protestant Episcopal parish churches passed by on the way to worship is now the rule across the boundaries of churchpersonship. The boutique parish is now writ large as the boutique province.

I think perhaps we ought to accept that fact, and let the laissez faire do its work rather than trying to manage the organic changes. But that means greater, not less, toleration -- and those on the far right do not seem willing to play by that rule.

J-Tron said...

Your idea of an Anglican Congress intrigues me, particularly since it would pick up on an earlier model of Communion-wide discussion. I agree that it would be helpful to have a Communion wide body with powers of discernment on inter-Communion issues that includes not just bishops or primates but also priests, deacons, and lay people. I am most especially troubled by the continuing growth in power of the "primates." Personally, I think the very notion of a "primate" is much more abstract than the relatively stable notion of a national province.

Nevertheless, what I think would be necessary in an Anglican Congress or any other body would be a certain weight or emphasis given to the bishops. This is not because I think the rest of us have no sense or no authority, but because historically the bishops have been blessed with the role of governance. It is, after all, the role of the bishop to be an "overseer."

One of the things I like about TEC's polity is that all orders of ministry are involved but the bishops still hold a place of privilige in which they can act in their historical role as pastors. The House of Bishops holds equal authority to the House of Deputies, which in fact tips the balance slightly in the Bishops' favor. While some may think that this is an unfortunate and undemocratic idea, I think it makes perfect sense. The Church is not a democracy, nor should it be. The truth is not discerned through majority rule.

Tobias Haller said...

Thanks, J-Tron. There are times our bicameral GC drives me crazy (it can be awfully inefficient, and there are times I wish the Deputies could hear the Bishops, and more often, vice versa) but at the same time I agree that keeping the Bishops in a separate House does have its advantages. I could well see an Anglican Congress having both unicameral and bicameral sessions, for different purposes.

obadiahslope said...

Why not Tricameral? Bishops/clergy/laity? Moving to a tricameral system of synodical elections seems to me to be a long overdue reform of TEC.

Tobias Haller said...

Dear Obadiahslope,
We have a rough approximation of a tricameral structure in GC (and at least some if not all of our diocesan synods) in that many actions are decided in a vote by orders. That is certainly the case in all electoral decisions (clergy and laity vote separately, and a majority is required in both orders). We do sit in the same "camera" of course. My personal preference would be a unicameral session (bishops, clergy, laity) but with all votes by orders and requiring a majority in all orders for passage. I like the idea of the whole church gathered for discussion, though I respect the varying gifts each order brings. Joint sessions with separate voting might make for an interesting mix of the various strengths.