Flexibility and change in the Episcopal Church: The Commemoration of William Reed Huntington

In the debate over a potential covenant for the Anglican Communion, you might see mentioned from time to time the idea that Anglicans already have a covenant of sorts: the so-called Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral of 1886/1888. You can read all about it in your Book of Common Prayer (p. 876) but it has four elements:

  • Old and New Testaments as containing all things necessary for salvation;
  • The creeds as a sufficient statement of the faith;
  • Dominical sacraments (baptism and Eucharist) rightly administered;
  • Historic episcopate locally adapted.

The man behind the Quadrilateral was William Reed Huntington, whom the Episcopal Church commemorates today. Huntington was a parish priest, long-time deputy to General Convention, and advocate for ecumenical reunion in the United States. In fact, it was his desire to see the church united that led to the Quadrilateral. These were the elements Episcopalians had to see in another church to be reunited with them. The Quadrilateral remains a factor today, explaining why the Episcopal Church can be in full communion with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America but not, say, the Presbyterians, who have a much different understanding of the ministry of the episcope. (Huntington was also a priest for many years in Worcester, Massachusetts. Although the Diocese of Western Massachusetts didn’t exist then, it’s more proof that it may be a small diocese but still one that punches above its weight.)

Efforts to use the Quadrilateral as the basis for intra-Anglican unity are a category mistake. The Quadrilateral is about ecumenical relations. And there’s good reason for this. If we say that the Quadrilateral is essentially a proto-Anglican Covenant, then we’re saying that our relations with the Anglican Church of Southern Africa or the Anglican Church of Canada are no different than our relationship with the ELCA or the Moravians. We may sometimes feel that way but the whole idea of the Anglican Communion, as I interpret it, is that those churches that have a historic relationship have some sort of special relationship that is distinct from that shared with other members of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.

Now you may think, as I largely do, that the proposed Anglican Covenant is unnecessary. But don’t say that Anglicans already have a covenant. Huntington had something entirely else in mind when he was devising the Quadrilateral.

Sometimes the Quadrilateral is seen as a bit too firm and an obstacle to reunion, particularly the part about bishops. But what I like about Huntington was his advocacy for  flexibility and change in other parts of the church’s life to facilitate ecumenical reunion. He thought, for instance, the church could be a bit more open to liturgical change. To this end, he spent a lot of time on prayer book revision.

Huntington’s commemoration, then, poses several questions to the church in this time of change: what do we think is worth preserving about our church? What can we more readily compromise on?

More than leading worship

I mentioned that Yale’s favourite son, Mark Miller, would be involved in the worship at the ongoing United Methodist General Conference this week and next. It turns out he’s doing more than that.

You can read about Mark’s point of personal privilege last night or watch the whole thing here: Mark begins at 51:24 and goes for about three minutes. It’s well worth watching.

I know that Robert’s Rules must be followed but it is interesting that the General Conference will give Mark a microphone all he wants, so long as he is singing or leading music, but when he wants to actually talk about something, especially something this important, he’s asked to stop.

I’ve sung under Mark’s direction in the Gospel Choir these last few years and deeply admire, respect, and like him. What I am reminded of in listening to him speak is a) the deep difficulty in holding honest conversations across lines of difference and b) the deep importance of doing so nonetheless. These conversations don’t get easier but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep trying to have them—in a way that is loving and truthful and opens a space for all voices to be heard in a safe place.

Lessons from our Methodist Siblings

I’m no expert on the United Methodist Church but I do know the UMC’s General Conference is happening in Tampa this week and next so I spent some time on its web site this morning learning about what is going on. Given that we share an interim ecumenical agreement with the UMC and we’re both mainline denominations in the United States, I figure Episcopalians have something to learn from what is going on.

As I understand it—and my advance apologies for being a neophyte on much of this—some of the following issues are under discussion:

  • There’s a proposal to make the head of the UMC Council of Bishops a full-time position, much like (it seems to me) the Episcopal Presiding Bishop gives up her previous jurisdiction to take the role. The bishops just approved that idea. It’s unclear what the Conference will do. At least some Episcopalians are, I’ve read recently, urging a return to our old model, in which our Presiding Bishop kept a local jurisdiction in addition to the larger responsibilities. Meanwhile, the Council of Bishops has agreed it will only be meeting once a year. Some Episcopalians have suggested something similar for our own House of Bishops.
  • Bishops have a much different role in UMC governance than in The Episcopal Church (as the name of our church alone should tell us). I love this line from an article about a speech by the outgoing president of the bishops: “Bishops do not get a vote at General Conference, and they cannot address the assembly on legislative matters without special permission. Goodpaster acknowledged the bishops’ common lament that they often have nothing to do at General Conference ‘but sit around like wilting potted plants.'” Can you imagine that being said at a General Convention? Me neither.
  • Meanwhile, there are “huge” proposals for restructuring on the table. We Episcopalians have been doing restructuring by emergency budget for the last several years, cutting programs left and right because there’s no money to fund them. The UMC, it seems, has taken a more systematic approach to the topic and will be voting on those proposals at this General Conference. (You can read about the original proposal from this article from 18-months ago. The recent letter from the UMC bishops is also helpful.)
  • The UMC is looking at how it trains its future clergy, including doing away with the promise of job for all ordained clergy. I get the sense that many Episcopal dioceses around the country are having significant conversations about the future of ordained ministry. This doesn’t seem to have risen to the national level, however.
  • And, of course, issues related to homosexuality in church are on the agenda, attracting some of the most attention outside the church.

Any other issues you see as being significant and relevant to Episcopalians that Methodists will be considering at this conference?

One interesting note is the global nature of the UMC and the way jurisdictions in other parts of the world are equal members of the church. This is a conversation for another time but it’s a contrast to our Anglican practice of raising up autocephalous churches.

Also, the General Conference web site is much better than that of General Convention. They’ve got podcasts and everything! If you tune into the live stream at the right time, you just might get to see Yale’s favourite Methodist musician, Mark Miller, leading worship.

UPDATE: Mark is doing more than leading worship.