The hierarchical nature of the church and the good news of Jesus Christ

Nine years ago, when Gene Robinson was elected bishop of New Hampshire, conservative Episcopalians—not to mention Anglicans elsewhere in the world—were adamant that the Presiding Bishop at the time, Frank Griswold, “do something” to prevent New Hampshire from going ahead with the consecration. Bishop Griswold replied that, as the election and confirmation process had proceeded as to canon, there was nothing he could do.

This dispute was, inter alia, a dispute about the hierarchical nature of the church. The conservatives argued there was some level of authority above New Hampshire that could reverse the diocese’s decision. There was—the General Convention, which approved Robinson’s election—but beyond that, Bishop Griswold looked at the canons of the church and said he had no higher powers to “do something.”

Fast forward to the past few months and the debate over the departure of the diocese of South Carolina from the church. Many of those same conservatives are upholding the decision by South Carolina to withdraw from the Episcopal Church. The argument is that the basic building block of the church is the diocese and a diocese has no intrinsic need to be a part of anything larger. This is why the diocese of South Carolina has declared itself to be, essentially, a free-floating ecclesial entity. (This raises questions I thought about in this post.) The liberal Episcopalians who oppose the departure say that, in fact, the church is hierarchical in nature and a diocese isn’t a diocese without reference to some larger entity, in this case The Episcopal Church, a province of the Anglican Communion.

(I am using the words “liberal” and “conservative” here with reckless abandon and as shorthand for larger and more complex positions.)

Debates over the governance structure of a church can appear to be among the most naval-gazing topics of all, fodder for lunch-time debates at seminary, General Convention sub-committees, and not much else. But as this example shows, the polity of The Episcopal Church—and, in particular, its hierarchical nature—is currently under intense scrutiny. Not only is there the South Carolina example, there is the case of the several active and retired bishops who are under investigation because they filed a brief saying that the church was not hierarchical. The House of Bishops weighed in on the nature of the church at General Convention in the summer.

Rather than being so much naval-gazing, I think the questions raised by these debates actually have something to do with the good news the church has to proclaim. So, if you’ll bear with me, I’m going to think about hierarchy in the church, and then think about why or if it matters how hierarchical the church is.

The basic question comes down to something like this: how far up does the hierarchy of the church go? Everyone accepts the need for a bishop in a diocese. But do those bishops and those dioceses have to be part of some larger organization, like the Episcopal Church? And do those larger organizations have to be part of something larger, like the Anglican Communion? What does it mean to “be part” of something larger? What opportunities and constraints come with this?

The first thing to say is that there is a lot of hypocriscy on this issue. We’ve already seen some of this at work in the South Carolina instance. But that’s far from the only example. For instance, it is widely acknowledged that many priests and some bishops practice a kind of “open communion” in which people who are not baptized are invited to receive communion. This is in direct violation of the canons of the Episcopal Church. The teaching that baptism precedes communion was upheld by General Convention this summer. Yet it seems unlikely that anyone’s practice has changed as a result. The hierarchy of the church says one thing; clerics ignore it. Discipline for canonical violations is fine, seems to be the message, just so long as it is not for us.

Here’s another example: some of the same people who say South Carolina has to be part of something larger assert with equal vehemence that hierarchy stops at the water’s edge. That is to say, there is no hierarchy above the provincial level in the Anglican Communion. Anglicans from elsewhere in the world better not start interfering with the church. Conservatives, of course, have been happy to appeal to varying levels of hierarchy beyond The Episcopal Church in search of support for their views.

The prevailing situation, then, on the hierarchical nature of the church seems to be a hermeneutic of self-justification. This results in a condemnation of the other side and an exoneration of oneself. In a situation like this, how is one to proceed?

We might start by noting that hierarchy dates to the early church. Very quickly in the development of the church (when there were a lot more bishops, each overseeing a smaller area than they do now), a handful of cities—Rome, Antioch, Alexandria, Constantiople, and Jerusalem—came to exercise a kind of authority over Christians in other places. These were the metropolitan sees, which is why you sometimes hear a senior bishop referred to as a metropolitan. He (or she) has authority over other bishops in his (or her) area. Hierarchy has been a part of the ordering of the church catholic from an early date.

(Importantly, of course, the presiding bishop of The Episcopal Church is not a metropolitan. He or she—as Bishop Griswold demonstrated—has no canonical authority over other bishops. But the idea of a local church belonging to something greater than itself is pretty old.)

Appeals to tradition, however, are hardly sufficient, especially when I am sure people more learned than me could quickly add complexity to my short sketch of the early church. Conversely, we might note that the claim advanced by many South Carolina supporters that a diocese is the basic building-block of the church has an intrinsic merit. Anglicans have traditionally affirmed four items as the ground for ecumenical reunion: a belief in Holy Scriptures, the creeds as a sufficient statement of faith, the dominical sacraments, and the “historic episcopate locally adapted.” This is known as the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral. Clearly, those four elements of what it means to be a church are present in a single diocese. Why the need for hierarchical structures at all?

I answered that question in a previous post: a single diocese cannot perpetuate its episcopate. You need three bishops to make one bishop. That’s why groups of dioceses get together as provinces to set rules for how those three bishops will get together to do just that.

So it’s clear that hierarchy is a) part of the history of the church, b) necessary for the church as Episcopalians and Anglicans understand it, and c) a subject on which self-serving interpretations can quickly come to dominate. In a situation like this, it’s very easy to get drawn into naval-gazing.

But let’s not! There’s good news here but this post has gone on long enough. Stay tuned for the next post.

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2 thoughts on “The hierarchical nature of the church and the good news of Jesus Christ

  1. Daniel Weir

    If metropolitical authority in ECUSA is exercised at all, it is exercised by the General Convention. The hierarchy is not a hierarchy of persons primarily but of conventions, with the General Convention holding final authority. “Locally adapted” in the Quadrilateral means adapted by the church – CofE, TEC, etc. and not by any diocese by itself. The argument that has been made by the PB is that because dioceses become Episcopal dioceses by the votes of both a diocesan convention and the GC, dissolving that union requires votes of both bodies.
    The decision in ECUSA to create missionary bishops, and the acceptance of that idea in the CofE, is worth considering in any discussion of hierarchy and mission.

  2. Pingback: “Epistemological Humility” and Gregory of Nazianzus | Mission Minded

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