By Robin G. Jordan
The constitution and canons of the Anglican Church in North America contain a number of provisions that were clearly designed to give a special interest group a clear advantage in the denomination.
The Fundamental Declarations. The fundamental declarations set out the doctrinal criteria for participation in the Anglican Church in North America. Congregations and clergy wishing to participate in the Anglican Church in North America must accept the doctrinal positions laid out in the fundamental declarations.
Among these doctrinal positions is that the office of bishop is essential to the very essence of the life of the Church. The 1662 Book of Common Prayer is one of a number of doctrinal standards of the denomination and is one of a number of books that form its worship standard. It is not a major formulary for the Anglican Church in North America as it is for historic Anglicanism. The Thirty-Nine Articles reflects the theological disputes of the past and the Anglican Church has moved on since then. It embodies only some convictions of modern-day Anglicans.
These doctrinal positions eliminate from participation in the Anglican Church in North America Anglicans who hold that the office of bishop, while it may benefit the life of the Church, is not necessary for the Church’s existence. As the late Peter Toon pointed out in his critique of the Common Cause Theological Statement from which the fundamental declarations are taken, Anglicans who hold the bene esse position form a very large segment of the global Anglican Church. They also exclude Anglicans who recognize the Thirty-Nine Articles and 1662 Prayer Book as the longstanding, authoritative doctrinal and worship standard for Anglicans.
Anglicans in these two groups may participate in the Anglican Church in North America but they must leave their convictions at the door.
The Provincial Council. Under the provisions of the constitution and canons of the Anglican Church in North America the Provincial Council is supposed to be the governing body of the denomination. The council consists of a bishop, a clergy representative, and two lay representatives from each diocese of the Anglican Church in North America. The manner of their appointment is determined by the diocese and does not exclude the ordinary of the diocese appointing its delegation to the Provincial Council.
The term of office for council members is five years and no council member may serve more than two terms of office. Since the Anglican Church in North America has no mandatory retirement age for its bishops and the ordinary of a diocese may be the only bishop in the diocese, the term limits for council members does not make sense. While the canons do not specifically make provision for their permanent membership in the Provincial Council, it is difficult to see how the council would operate if the bishops were not permanent members.
The Provincial Council may co-opt six additional members and the members of the Executive Committee are ex officio council members with voting privileges.
Even if the clergy representative and lay representatives of a diocese elected by its diocesan synod or its equivalent of a diocesan synod, the ordinary of the diocese can be expected to exercise considerable influence over the choice of these representatives.
The composition of the Provincial Council, the terms of office of its members, the unstated permanent membership of the diocesan bishop in the council, and the influence diocesan bishops can be expected to exercise over the choice of a diocese’s delegation to the council make it a body which is likely to reflect the views of the group of bishops occupying the place of power in the College of Bishops, to maintain the status quo, and not to introduce any significant or sweeping changes.
While the canons do not prescribe this procedure, proposals for changes to the constitution and canons originate in the Governance Task Force—a team of purported specialists who are responsible for drafting new legislation of this kind. Whatever it drafts is scrutinized by the College of Bishops and changes made before the legislation is presented to the Provincial Council for approval. This process gives the group of bishops occupying the place of power in the College of Bishop considerable input into and control over what legislation is presented to the council.
As I have pointed out in a number of previous articles, the College of Bishops has encroached upon the role of the Provincial Council in a number of key areas. They include faith and order, worship, and ordination standards. They have taken over a large part of the council’s role in these areas.
The Anglican Church in North America has a larger, more representative Provincial Assembly. The assembly has a negligible role in the governance of the denomination. Except for ratification of changes to the constitution and canons, it is nothing more than a glorified pep rally. To date its business meetings have been very brief. It has rubber-stamped whatever was presented to it, giving the appearance of wider acceptance to the decisions of the Provincial Council.
The College of Bishops. The constitution and canons of the Anglican Church in North America make provision for two methods of selecting bishops for its dioceses. The first method is election by the diocese and confirmation of the election by the episcopal college. The second method is nomination by the diocese and appointment by the episcopal college. The canons mandate the second method for new dioceses and recommend it to dioceses that elect their bishops. The guidelines for the recognition of new dioceses make no mention of the first method.
The second method, the method favored by the canons and imposed on new dioceses, makes it far easier for the group of bishops occupying the place of power in the College of Bishops to determine who becomes a member of the episcopal college. Dioceses must in nominating candidates consider their acceptability to this group of bishops before the best interests of the diocese. This method of selecting bishops enables the group of bishops occupying the place of power in the College of Bishops to stack the episcopal college in a way that favors their own special interests. It ultimately robs the diocese of its autonomy since it is not free to choose a new bishop who will serve its best interests. It also enables a particular school of thought to entrench itself in the College of Bishops and to exclude from the episcopal college those who disagree with its views.
Any movement to introduce significant reforms in the Anglican Church in North America, to replace its existing constitution and canons with more equitable governing documents, can expect to encounter opposition from those wed to the status quo, from those benefiting from the advantage that it gives to their special interests. As can be seen from this overview, it would have to negotiate a number of hurdles designed to prevent the loss of that advantage.
Since a reform movement is not likely to make much headway in the face of such obstacles, it needs to make an end run rather than try to break through the defensive line that these obstacles set up. What is the game changer is that the College of Bishops has repeatedly overstepped the bounds set by the Anglican Church in North America’s governing documents. By refusing to follow the rules of the game, it has freed a reform movement to ignore the rules too. It is not conscious-bound to accede to the dictates of those in positions of authority in the Anglican Church in North America. They have no authority beyond that which a reform movement is willing to give to them. Unless they themselves are a part of the reform movement, their authority is non-existent.
There is nothing new or innovative about the view that I propounding. Clergy and congregations took a similar view of those in authority in the Episcopal Church with whom they were involved in theological disputes, prompting the formation of organizations like the Anglican Communion Network and the Anglican Mission in America. The sixteenth century Reformers also took a similar view in relation to the Roman Catholic Church. Any movement for the reformation of the Church eventually will reach this conclusion. In the case of the bishops of the Anglican Church in North America, they have abnegated their role as church leaders by seeking to create an Anglican Church not ruled by the Holy Scriptures and the Anglican formularies as well as by failing to abide by the provisions of their own denomination’s governing documents. They have shown themselves to be unworthy of deference.
Those wishing to institute significant reforms in the Anglican Church in North America need to seize the initiative and take matters into their own hands, banding together and implementing needed reforms in their own part of the denomination. This would involve the formation of second orthodox Anglican province, one that is fully committed to the fulfillment of the Great Commission and to the authority of the Bible and the Anglican formularies with its own rites and services, catechism, bishops, and synodical form of government. Realistically it is, at the present time, the only way forward.