The Dangers of Church Centralization: Some Remarks on the Proposed Changes in the TEC Constitution

Posted by Kendall Harmon

The tendency in all such bodies as our General Convention, is to centralize power; and unless there are well defined checks and barriers to it, we can not avoid its dangers. A centralized ecclesiastical power is an unqualified evil, and as surely results in corruption as if that were the goal of its ambition. A very superficial glance at the history of the American Church will show, that we have been drifting with accelerated velocity towards this danger, with almost the drowsy indifference of the lotus eaters.


"Let us alone. What pleasure can we have
To war with evil? Is there any peace
In ever climbing up the climbing wave?"
When the first steps were taken to form a Church Union, each State had its own Church; which was, to all intents and purposes, a National Church, and was so regarded. Each State might have any number of dioceses within it. In the General Convention—no matter how many dioceses there might be within it,—each State was entitled to but one body of delegates. The Church Constitution, like that of the Government, did not seek to interfere with the political theory, that each State is sovereign in all local matters. Even the trial of bishops remained within the States until 1841, when, by reason of the change which had been made in 1838, allowing dioceses to be represented in the General Convention, a necessity arose for such a provision.

Read it all and look carefully at the date.

Filed under: * Anglican - Episcopal- Anglican: AnalysisEpiscopal Church (TEC)TEC ConflictsTEC Conflicts: South CarolinaTEC Polity & Canons* South Carolina

Posted October 3, 2011 at 6:16 am [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]

1. New Reformation Advocate wrote:

This thread goes nicely with the one above featuring the astute analysis of A. S. Haley about the follies and dangers of the “statist” tendencies of the PBs of TEC over the last half century or so.  But I’ll raise here the same qualification of their valid protests that I did on that thread. 

Namely, the problem isn’t so much with greater centralization of power per se within the polity structures of TEC (or the worldwide Anglican Communion [AC], as represented by the infamous new “Standing Committee” of the AC).  No, the real problem is the lack of checks and balances within Anglicanism, and especially within national churches like TEC, where there is simply no check on the legislative powers of General Co0vention and apparently there is no effective checks on the vastly increased executive powers of the PB, who is now a virtual metrpolitan or archbishop.  That is the real problem.

To use a historical analogy, the traditional polity of TEC at the national level resembles the extremely weak powers of the federal government in the initial setup devised after the conclusion of the Revolutionary War.  Because of their natural fear of tyranny, the Articles of Confederation adopted by the second Continental Congres and ratified by all 13 colonies or states in 1781 left the balance of power totally in the hands of the states, with the national government little more than, as George Washington put it, “a shadow with no substance.”

Although it has become commonplace to describe the constitutions of the USA and TEC as based on the same principles and drafted by basically the same group of men (yes, all men back then) in the same city at basically the same time (late 1780s), that popular notion is actually quite inaccurate and misleading.  For the constitution created for the Protestant Episcopal Church actually resembles the ill-fated and inadequate Articles of Confederation of 1781 more than the masterful US Constitution of 1789.  And not the least problem with the constitutional polity of TEC/PECUSA is the glaring absence of any check on the legislative power of General Convention.

The big difference between the history of the US government and the history of the governance of TEC is that everyone woke up to the inadequacies of the initial secular model, the Articles of Confederation, right away, and that totally decentralized model was scrapped and rightly replaced very quickly, in less than a decade.  Whereas, TEC has been limping along with a very similar sort of setup for over two centuries.  And the same general diagnosis applies to the worldwide Anglican Communion, which has treated all its national or regional churches as virtually autonomous up until now.  The fatal weakness of that whole system has been all too clearly exposed over the last decade, when it has been demonstrated over and over again that there was no effective way to reign in recklessly independent and wayward provinces like TEC or the ACoC.

I submit that it’s high time to bite the bullet and face the grim fact that the inherited polity structures of TEC at the national level, and of the AC at the international level, are hopelessly obsolete and counter-productive. 

However, I claim that the real problem isn’t that we face the clear and present danger of power being usurped by the PB (or the ACO) and grossly misused.  Yes, that danger is very real, as has already been demonstrated in obvious and abhorrent ways.  Witness the PB’s nefarious and uncanonical depositions of orthodox bishops and her outrageous spending of over $20 million on unjustified lawsuits against departing parishes without any real accountability, etc.

But while the dangers of an unchecked, vastly increased executive branch are now glaringly obvious to all with eyes to see, I would contend that our real problem isn’t so much the danger that we Anglicans will create some pale reflection of papal tyranny by establishing some new imitation of the Roman curia in Manhattan, or at St. Andrew’s House in London with the ACO.  No, given the fundamentally Protestant nature of Anglicanism historically, the real problem is in fact the opposite, the even greater danger of unlimited autonomy and Protestant anarchy.  Internationally, reckless provinces like TEC and the ACoC are acting like the loose cannons they are, with no fear of any real consequences.  And since there is no “king” in Anglicanism, i.e., no pope or even any international council with binding transprovincial powers, a chaotic state exists very similar to that in the days of the Judges, “when every man did what what right in his own eyes” (Judg. 21:25).

Now I’m well aware of the complexity of the difficult issues suggested by that biblical analogy, in that the book of 1 Samuel clearly reflects a deep-seated ambivalence about the establishment of the institution of kingship in ancient Israel, with clear anti-monarchical and pro-monarchical strands being found side by side in 1 Sam. 8-15.  I won’t rehash that well-known data here.  But all I’m saying is that I think it’s simplistic to assume that the whole problem is the danger of greater centralization occuring in either TEC or the worldwide AC through the unelected and unaccountable ACO.

Rather the deeper problem is the lack of checks and balances in the whole Anglican system of polity.  And personally, as I’ve said so often here at T19, I believe the place to start is with creating a wholly unprecendented judicial branch for both TEC and for the international AC.  There simply MUST be a way to clip the wings of General Convention and to limit the autonomy of the various national provinces in order to provide real accountability and preserve orthodoxy.

But that new centralized authority need not be vested in one person, as in the papal model, but can instead be vested in a genuine international college of bishops (ala Cyprian or the Eastern Orthodox model) and especially through creating a real Anglican judicial branch independent of both the legislative and executive branches.  I fully recognize how radical and indeed revolutionary such a profound change in Anglican polity would be.  But dire, severe, systemic problems sometimes call for drastic, systemic solutions.

That’s why we need nothing less than a full fledged New Reformation.  It has become, as Jaroslav Pelikan aptly called the (first) Reformation, “a tragic necessity..”  I firmly believe that we are witnessing the beginnings of the Second Reformation unfolding before our uncomprehending eyes.  {ersonally, I have no doubts that this New Reformation will prove just as bitterly divisive and ugly (unfortunately) as the 16th century Reformation.  But I’m also optimistic that it will prove in the end just as beneficial and life-giving.

David Handy+

October 3, 11:45 am | [comment link]
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