Mom and Dad had an argument again — we all know it but give ’em credit; they’re doing their best to rise above the fray. It took closed-door conversations over several days in the Episcopal Church’s House of Bishops to release what really comes down to putting on a happy face while, underneath, they’ve agreed to disagree. Episcopal Cafe and the Episcopal News Service reported what came out of the conversation about the hierarchical nature of the church, a conversation requested by the bishops of Fort Worth and Quincy who are feeling undermined and want some help from their friends. The “mind of the house” resolution said “good job, kiddos” to the hearty remnants and, by the way, here’s a list of who we think the bishops are.
But what about that argument, and the lingering disagreement? The provisional bishop of Quincy said as much to the ENS: “[I] told the house I am grateful for the support and help the resolution provides, but it’s not what I asked for. I asked for clarification around the hierarchical character of our church.” Oops.
They’re a bunch of really smart people — theologians, historians, parliamentarians, and statesmen — but the bishops disagree because the canonical and historical evidence of the hierarchical nature of The Episcopal Church is murky, the past experience is inconclusive, and they’re all (just like the rest of us) pretty much running on individual agendas which come down to protecting their turf and making sure bad stuff doesn’t happen on their watch.
Add to that the heat of this peculiarly litigious moment in The Episcopal Church, and it’s downright impossible to have a real conversation about what’s really going on … and why we can’t say the things that need to be said. Here are the two things that need to be said to break the stalemate in our church. Just hop back to the 19th century.
ONE: IT’S NOT A NEW IDEA TO ARGUE THAT GENERAL CONVENTION HAS SUPERSEDED DIOCESES. Ever since the General Convention of 1835 — when Bishop McIlvaine’s (Ohio) proposal to make the entire church the “Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society” (DFMS) was officially adopted — the General Convention has seen its role as coordinating, overseeing, and compelling the missionary activity of the church. That same 1835 Convention, in fact, authorized the consecration of new bishops for the unsettled frontier; Jackson Kemper’s missonary district of Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, and Wisconsin being the first. This was in line with the teaching of the catholic wing of the church, which saw nothing wrong (and everything right) with sending a bishop to a place where there were not yet formal churches, a diocese, or for that matter Episcopalians! No, the General Convention didn’t create new dioceses, necessarily, and maybe you can say that they put the cart too far in front of the horse. But we can say that General Convention has acted in ways that seem to supersede dioceses and, in some cases, they dreamed up dioceses that didn’t possible exist and wouldn’t necessarily exist for years to come.
TWO: PEOPLE ARE OKAY WITH GENERAL CONVENTION HAVING A LOT OF POWER WHEN THEY KNOW IT’S A BALANCED BUNCH. In the 19th century, it was the evangelical and catholic camps; today, it’s liberal and conservative. In the 19th century, the church sought and maintained a balance — they divvied up the missionary activity, for instance; catholics did the domestic stuff (hence the reason there’s such a catholic twist to many Midwestern dioceses) and evangelicals focused on overseas activity. Bishop McIlvaine, an evangelical, took the lead in striking this consensus because he seemed to believe in a more robust and balanced Episcopal Church, and that required a diverse and balanced General Convention. I don’t miss the recent days of Duncan and Iker stirring the pot — and I wouldn’t say they were without blemish — but the Episcopal Church is bereft of once-valued Anglican comprehensiveness and truly radical inclusivity. We’ve become a fairly one-sided, monolithic group. People who articulate theology and politics that, at best, would be considered centrist in other bodies are, in the Episcopal Church, our conservative faction. I, for one, am excited about our church’s vision, but the last thing I’d call us is “big tent”.
Which brings us back full circle: If the House of Bishops can’t agree on the fundamental principles empowering the General Convention and the hierarchical nature of the church, then what real strength does a “mind of the house” resolution drafted at General Convention carry anyway? Oye vay.