Bishop Stanton—Diocese and Covenant: Reflections on Dallas, its History and Future

Posted by Kendall Harmon

We have heard a great deal about our unique polity in the Episcopal Church over the last several years. Polity is just a fancy word for how we do things – what rules and principles govern our corporate actions, and what structures are involved in governing. Perhaps more pointedly, the Greek word from which we get our English term connotes the rights and obligations inherent in being part of a larger body. St. Paul uses this very term when he describes the Gentile Christians. Once, he said, we were excluded from citizenship (politeia) in Israel, excluded from the covenants of promise which God had made to them. But now, in Christ, we are made fellow citizens (sumpolitai), fellow members of God’s household.

So what characterizes this “unique polity”? Bishop Garrett understood this polity, this citizenship, in a particular way. “Every Diocese is an independent and sovereign state.”

It is evident that Bishop Garrett did not see this striking statement as something new. Indeed, he looked back to the founding of the Church by her Lord and its spread as the basis for the statement. “Responsibility,” he said, “involves power.” It would have been a vain thing if Jesus had commanded his Apostles to go into all the world and to proclaim the Gospel, if at the same time he did not commit to them the necessary authority to do so. He gave them the right and the power “to teach, ordain, confirm, place, support and [discipline]” within their places of responsibility. This was the mode of operations in the earliest Church – a community of men and women carrying out the work of their Lord in each location, but joined in their common sense of mission.

Sovereignty, the power or authority to work and order a common life in a territory, was based both upon the mission of the Church and in turn the practical necessities of the Church. The mission was to proclaim Christ and to make his saving work known.

Read it all.

Filed under: * Anglican - EpiscopalAnglican CovenantEpiscopal Church (TEC)TEC BishopsTEC Diocesan Conventions/Diocesan Councils* TheologyEcclesiology

10 Comments
Posted October 26, 2009 at 11:22 am [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]



1. WestJ wrote:

This is an excellent summary of the autonomy of dioceses. It makes you realize how impotent general convention really is.

October 26, 1:25 pm | [comment link]
2. Br_er Rabbit wrote:

“Every Diocese is an independent and sovereign state.”

Ah, the “unique polity” of TEC: the “power or authority to work and order a common life in a territory.”

But what this attitude has led to—in reappraisers, at least—is the belief that “it’s our church and we can do what we want.”

Or more baldly: “This is my church—mine and my friends in the majority. If you don’t like the way our polity works, then you can just…” ...but I’ll let Chief Reappraiser Susan Russell speak for herself here… “... Go in Peace.”

I thought that Jesus said it was his church (Matthew 16:18).

October 26, 1:45 pm | [comment link]
3. palagious wrote:

Sounds like a shot across someone’s bow to me…

October 26, 1:48 pm | [comment link]
4. New Reformation Advocate wrote:

Yes, lots of interesting, colorful history here, brought to life nicely in +Stanton’s retelling.  In particular, I appreciated his strong emphasis on the fact that the Constitution of TEC resembles the earlier Articles of Confederation much more than the US Constitution.

That model has both strengths and weaknesses, of course.  Personally, I think the weaknesses outweigh the strengths, and that TEC is about 200 years late in recognizing that the polity that leaves each diocese as “an independent, sovereign state” is inherently ineffective.  The Articles of Confederation were quickly and rightly seen as inadequate for governing a nation like ours.  It only took a little over a decade to discover that fact in the political realm.

Alas, it’s taken us a lot longer to wake up and realize the inadequacy of the “unique polity” of TEC.  And likewise, we’re woefully slow in coming to our sense and realizing that the Articles-of-Confederacy-like international structures of the AC are similarly unworkable for GOVERNING a world-wide communion.  (Naturally, I’m well aware that Lambeth, the ACC and the Primates’ Meeting were expressly designed for mere consultation and NOT for governance; that’s the problem).

Now needless to say, I’m not saaying this to lend any support whatsoever to the outrageous attempt by the PB, the President of the HoD, and their noxious ilk to hijack the national structures of TEC and thereby to advance the “progressive” political and social agenda that they so idolize, deluded as they are by the illusory dream that they are thus advancing social justice.

I commend +Jim Stanton for putting up forthright resistance to the tyrranous “reign” of the PB and company.  “it is meet and right so to do.”  But I auestion his tactics, and even the strategy here.

We don’t need more stress on diocesan indendence, so that each diocese can sign the Covenant even if TEC as a whole doesn’t.  I know that’s the CP/ACI strategy, and that many fine orthodox Anglican leaders find it the most attractive (including +Stanton as one of the foremost among them), but personally, I think it’s hopelessly inadequate.  Just as the old Articles of Confederation were hopelessly inadequate for GOVERNING.

Therein lies the rub.  The Articles weren’t really designed to govern a new nation; they were designed to prevent tyranny.  Just like the international structures of the AC, where each province is likewise “an independent and sovereign state,” if you will.

No, there MUST be a central magisterium.  But it need not be like Rome’s.  And it certainly must not be in the hands of blatant heretics like the despicable PB.

And that is why nothing less than an outright New Reformation will do.  The old wineskins have failed us.  New ones will have to be devised.

And the GAFCON/FCA movement is leading the way in doing just that.

But I still commend +Stanton for his courage.  It’s a fine speech, as far as it goes.  I just wish it went a lot further.

David Handy+

October 26, 2:55 pm | [comment link]
5. Undergroundpewster wrote:

Any comments on the Indaba type plan for their convention?

So, it seemed to me, the time for suspending “business as usual” and spending some time in conversation about where we are and how we see our future would be especially helpful. It is to that work I call you at this Convention.

We have planned this Convention around a series of three talks concerned with the Anglican Covenant. I ask you to sit, not with the delegates of your parish, but at tables with those of other congregations. I ask you to listen to the talks, and then to speak to one another about what you have heard and what it means or might mean to you and the brothers and sisters in Christ whom you represent.

The point of these times together is not to decide anything. I have asked that we hold all resolutions of any substance to another time when we can engage in our customary format of debate. For this time we have together, we are to share with one another our thoughts, questions, feelings as appropriate, and concerns. We are not here to argue or to persuade. If anything, we are here to appreciate: literally, as the dictionary puts it, “to grasp the nature, worth, quality, or significance of something; to recognize with gratitude; to judge with heightened perception or understanding.” In our case, I would hope that we grasp the nature, worth and significance of who we are, who we are to one another and where we stand; that we recognize with gratitude the ministry we share together; and that we grow in the perception and understanding of the character of our Diocese and the proposed Anglican Covenant.

Again, we are not here to do something in particular, to take some proposed action.

October 26, 3:20 pm | [comment link]
6. Sarah wrote:

RE: “And that is why nothing less than an outright New Reformation will do.  The old wineskins have failed us.  New ones will have to be devised.

And the GAFCON/FCA movement is leading the way in doing just that.”

Um . . . if the GAFCON/FCA vision is the “New Reformation” that you keep talking about, NRA . . . I’ll stick with the old.

I’m sure a lot of folks like it a lot—but I don’t.  I have zero interest in that vision.

October 26, 4:01 pm | [comment link]
7. New Reformation Advocate wrote:

That’s fine, Sarah.  I understand that.  And of course, you’re not alone.  There are LOTS of admirable, orthodox Anglicans who are turned off by the GAFCON/FCA movement, much less my own even more radical ideas of a Post-Christendom style Anglicanism with a strong central magisterium (albeit a corporate, not an individual one).

After all, the Master himself warned us that when it comes to new wine and new wineskins, there will always be people who think that the old wine is better (Luke 5:39)!

And likewise, I’m sure you’ll understand that in a similar fashion, I have ZERO interest in the CP/ACI/Covenant vision.

David Handy+

October 26, 4:43 pm | [comment link]
8. Br_er Rabbit wrote:

Okay I read the whole thing.

First impression: The “unique polity” of the Protestant Episcopal Church is a grand undertaking of mankind, and the Bishop feels we should congratulate ourselves on just how grand it is, this polity ordained of men.

True, there are a few bones thrown to Bible-made polity, viz. conciliar action at Jerusalem, and to (unacknowledged) Traditional Church polity, viz. three orders of Clergy. But the process was mostly human-driven (i.e the Confederacy, etc.) rather than Bible- or Tradition-driven. Reason is not the strongest wheel on the tricycle.

Laid beside the claims of Rome to be in posession of God-ordained polity, our polity suffers, if only from our hubris. Susan Russell is just as proud of our polity as is Bishop Stanton.

I must agree with Fr. Handy that our polity is lacking. A universe of atom-like autonomous dioceses do not flow into the Unified Church, or anything like it, simply on the basis of good intentions. Our polity has failed us, and it will fail us again unless we do something different.

Something critical is missing. Bishop Stanton proposes that the missing element—the glue that will hold the atoms together—is the Covenant. Perhaps he is right. But the Covenant is currently mired in Anglican Communion politics and resides seemingly beyond our ability to influence its outcome.

That is why the good bishop gives this advice to his convention:
DON’T DO ANYTHING! We’re just going to converse, see?”

Fr. Handy posits that the Covenant will be stillborn, and that we should place our hope in GAFCON and FCA, and in the creation of a conciliar magisterium. But reading the latest manifestos from those sources provides little encouragement that either will produce the magisterium so ardently desired by him.

With some hesitation, I look to the polities in evidence at more recently-formed groups such as the ACNA and my own CEEC. At the ACNA, the strength of the Episcopal quadrant is enhanced at the expense of the others, that is, presbyters, deacons, and laity. This at least has Biblical and Patriarchal warrant. At the CEEC, conciliar bishops hold the entire governance task.

Creating an Episcopal governance system is more complicated in our post-Christendom era. We cannot for long continue to scratch lines in the dirt and say, “This side is for my bishop, that side is for yours.” In this rapid-transit world, for one, the laity has demonstrated that they just aren’t going to buy it.

Virtually all the churches of our day consist of folk who drive past many closer churches to get to the one of their choice, and scratches in the dirt are irrelevant. The non-geographic, interest-based diocese will be a key feature in the polity of the future. We have to learn to live with it; nay, to thrive upon it.

There is much to criticize here, as there is with CP, Covenant, GAFCON, FiF, etc, etc. But our polity has failed us. If none of the above is useful, then what is? We can spend all day tearing each other’s ideas down, and declaring “I have zero interest in that vision.”

What we need are new visions that have something useful to contribute. I fear that TEC cannot be rebuilt until it has been utterly destroyed. That will take another generation to accomplish. In the meantime, shall we follow Bishop Stanton’s advice, and DON’T DO ANYTHING? Or shall we put our shoulders to the plow and open our minds to what the Spirit may have to say to us?

There is no man-made polity that does not have the potential for failure. Even when Christ is here among us as the head of his Church, Revelation tells us that mankind will still fail and fall into disarray. But I submit to you that Bishop Stanton’s path—like Archbishop William’s path—of Not Doing Anything will make things worse rather than better.

October 26, 6:21 pm | [comment link]
9. Sarah wrote:

RE: “After all, the Master himself warned us that when it comes to new wine and new wineskins, there will always be people who think that the old wine is better (Luke 5:39)!”

Certainly—and Holy Scripture warns us also that dogs may leave their vomit, but often will return to it.

And that live dogs are better than dead lions.

; > )

So we both feel better now, I’m sure, having self-servingly quoted meaningless scripture at one another.

RE: “And likewise, I’m sure you’ll understand that in a similar fashion, I have ZERO interest in the CP/ACI/Covenant vision.”

Well no, I don’t understand your stating that at all, and it’s not at all “in a similar fashion” as I did not bring up the CP/ACI/Covenant vision, nor did I laud it to the stars and parade it about and talk about its stark contrast with the silly Gafcon/FCA movement.

So no. It’s not at all “in a similar fashion.”

October 26, 8:27 pm | [comment link]
10. New Reformation Advocate wrote:

Sarah (#9),

I was teasing, sister. 

The similarity I had in mind between my #7 and your #6 was the rather gratuitous expression of “zero interest” in an alternative vision.  I’m well aware that you aren’t enthusiastic about the CP/Covenant approach.  I was just trying to inject some levity into the thread.

David Handy+

October 27, 1:50 pm | [comment link]
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