A More Excellent Way

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Orderly Counsel Series

Good Order in Salt Lake City

By Scott Benhase and Dorsey McConnell

The deputies and bishops gathered at the 78th General Convention will consider an array of resolutions, some of which may affect our common life, and our life in the Anglican Communion, for years to come. A relatively small number of individuals, such as those working on the Task Force on the Study of Marriage or on the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music whose reports form the basis for much of what will be undertaken, have had the opportunity to give deep consideration to these issues during the last three years. The same is not true of the vast majority of those who will gather in Salt Lake City.

As is always the case with General Convention, these nine legislative days will likely be an intense environment with a good deal of pressure, not only from the workload but also from many who expect conclusive action. For those who will consider, craft, pray, and vote, a leading question might be: Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, how can we best exercise our charge as a body of deliberation and governance, especially for the long-term benefit of the mission of the Church?

Anglicans say that we seek to do “all things decently and in order.” We want to do things decently, charitably seeking to understand those with whom we disagree and to answer them in the open with persuasive reasons instead of with haughty neglect or raw power. We want to do things in order, as careful stewards of the faith and order we did not invent but rather have received as a precious gift.

The Church has frequently presented a different face to the world. St. Paul chastised the church in Corinth for failing to live in peace and concord as Christ’s body. The Corinthians had hauled one another before Caesar’s courts (1 Cor. 6:1-8) and split into warring factions (1 Cor. 1:10-17). For too much of the past generation, we have been like the Corinthians. Our Lord, however, has shown us a “more excellent way,” and we are called to take it up afresh (1 Cor. 12:31). In what follows, we provide a few suggestions for how we might embody this way at General Convention.

1. Revision of marriage canons: Resolution A036
We are grateful for the dedication, prayer, and hard work evident in the report from the Task Force on the Study of Marriage. There are, however, serious and substantive theological, biblical, ecumenical, and Anglican Communion issues that warn against revising canons I.18.2 and I.18.3, which describe marriage as we have received it from Scripture and tradition. We will not address all of these issues here. Suffice it to say that, if the task force’s report is any indicator, we as a church have not demonstrated that we understand the tradition we have received, and so we have not articulated how revision might in fact be a proper development of that tradition.

According to the task force’s own admission, their work was not done in conversation with our ecumenical and Anglican Communion partners, as Resolution 2012-A050 directed. And it is far from clear that three years has been long enough for the process of careful listening that many have called for, particularly on this question: If the Church should consider committed same-sex relationships blessed by God, should it do so as a part of the practice of Christian marriage that we have not yet recognized, or rather as an analogous yet distinct good that we have not yet named?

This and other important issues are being addressed elsewhere; we point especially to the essays and responses of the Fully Alive project published by The Living Church and The Anglican Theological Review. We focus here on good order. Resolution A036 proposes that all clergy will henceforth conform to “these canons concerning the solemnization of marriage,” rather than to “the laws of this Church governing Holy Matrimony.” The manifest problem that this revision seeks to get around is that the Episcopal Church will continue to have contrary laws governing Holy Matrimony in the Book of Common Prayer, a constitutional document. There are constitutional provisions for revising the prayer book. Perhaps that is the conversation we really need to have, but it is hard to see how a canon that directs clergy to disobey the prayer book might help that discussion.

The more excellent way Paul proposes, the way of love, urges that we find ways to “bear with one another” (Eph. 4:2) while we work out together what God may be doing in the body of Christ. The task force’s report is an important beginning, in that its essays comprise a consistent, thoughtful, and articulate advocacy for one side of the debate. Finding an appropriate mechanism for continuing study, incorporating the full diversity of the Church’s voices in order to produce a broadly credible work of scholarship and a trustworthy roadmap for the future, seems to us a better route than unsound canonical changes fraught with potential unintended consequences.

2. Authorization of same-sex marriage and blessing rites (Resolution A054) and Amendment to Article X (Resolution A066)
In Resolution A054, the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music (SCLM) proposes that “the 78th General Convention authorize for use” the rite for the blessing of a same-sex union in the revised and expanded 2015 version of Liturgical Resources 1: I Will Bless You and You Will Be a Blessing. It further proposes that the Convention authorize from the same document three forms for marriage that may include same-sex couples, “under the direction of the bishop exercising ecclesiastical authority.” Notably absent is language from the 2012 resolution concerning same-sex blessings, namely, that such are to be permitted “subject to the permission of the diocesan bishop.”

Two questions of good order arise from the resolution. First, what is the canonical status of these rites? Second, what is the appropriate role of the diocesan bishop in regard to them?

The SCLM addresses the first question in its subsequent Resolution A066, clearly explaining the problem as the members see it: “The Constitution allows the General Convention to authorize alternative forms of worship only for trial use as a proposed revision of the Book of Common Prayer,” yet a number of liturgical forms in Enriching Our Worship and Liturgical Resources 1 have been purportedly authorized “even though these were not designated for trial use as a proposed revision of the BCP.” To resolve this difficulty, the SCLM proposes to create “a clear, constitutional basis for experimental liturgical reforms” that are not intended as trial runs for prayer-book revision. The SCLM suggests we add to Article X that a majority vote by orders at one meeting of General Convention will suffice to “Provide for use of other forms for the renewal and enrichment of the common worship of this Church for such periods of time and upon such terms and conditions as the General Convention may provide.”

This analysis is correct, but the proposed solution needs revision. Forms currently authorized for use in all dioceses of the church are (1) those found in the Book of Common Prayer, (2) rites for trial use envisioned for prayer-book revision, and (3) other “special forms of worship” authorized by “the Bishops of this Church” (Article X). This latter clause we take to mean that “in addition” to the prayer book’s services, “other forms set forth by the authority of this church,” such as the Book of Occasional Services and Lesser Feasts and Fasts, are authorized in all dioceses without further ado (BCP, p. 13). But for liturgical forms that purport to represent alternatives to existing BCP services, rather than supplements, Article X allows only rites for “trial use.”

With this framework in mind, it is clear that the 78th General Convention is not constitutionally empowered to authorize such rites as those proposed in Resolution A054, which offer alternatives to existing BCP marriage rites rather than supplemental services. This does not mean that we cannot create and expand an authorized space for experimentation with revised liturgical forms short of prayer-book revision. At the 2012 General Convention, the category of “provisional” rites was proposed by Resolution A049, subject to the permission of bishops diocesan. This expanded somewhat the “breathing room” previously established by supplemental rites such as Enriching Our Worship, the status of which was outlined by Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold in his preface. He did not directly address the constitutional irregularity of these forms, noting simply that they were “not intended to supplant the Book of Common Prayer, but rather to provide additional resources.” As such, not having the churchwide authorization of the BCP, “the local use of Enriching Our Worship is subject to authorization by the Bishop, who serves as the Chief Liturgical Minister of the Diocese.” While this principled “breathing room” subject to the authority of diocesan bishops has good theological grounding, it has never been constitutional. Our constitution allows us only to authorize such rites for “trial use” with an eye to prayer book revision; we have proceeded so far by ignoring this.

As with the report of the Task Force on the Study of Marriage, we think the theological and liturgical problems posed by these rites are so challenging that this convention would do well to refer them to the same process of further study. Meanwhile, if and as further resolutions propose provisional liturgies, the permission of the diocesan bishop should be explicitly noted. To regularize breathing room, we would support a revised amendment to Article X to create an authorized and permanent space for provisional alternative rites, subject to the permission of diocesan bishops. This further level of diocesan authorization, beyond what the SCLM proposes, maintains the logic of having a book of common prayer, alternatives to which cannot simply be authorized by one General Convention. At the same time, we will preserve space for all members of our church to live out the more excellent way.

3. Why good order matters, and a way to preserve it
In 2006, the 75th General Convention passed Resolution A078, which correctly noted that the current proliferation of liturgical resources has made it “difficult to interpret” rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer. These insist that the liturgical forms “as set forth in this Book” are the “regular services appointed for public worship in this Church,” while also allowing for other forms “set forth by authority” (BCP, p. 13). A078’s explanation concluded: “It is time to give serious consideration to a structure in which these resources can be understood and evaluated, in order to honor the spirit of prayer book rubrics.” On this basis, it was resolved that the Office of Liturgy and Music “invite bishops and the larger church into dialogue about the relations between local liturgical initiatives and ordered authority.”

The SCLM for its part was charged with developing frameworks for “resolving the theological, pastoral, canonical, and liturgical issues involved in the creation of new rites,” and providing for “facilitated conversations” at provincial synods about “the relation between liturgical initiative and ordered authority.”

This is a conversation that never happened. A078, so it seems, was referred by the SCLM to the House of Bishops’ Theology Committee and then forgotten. That was obviously not the best way to get this conversation going, but it is quite clearly a conversation that we still need to have. Much of what is being proposed feels like an attempt to rush forward without having it.

In 2012, the 77th Convention passed Resolution D047, which directed the Standing Commission on Constitution and Canons to study and consider the constitutionality of Title IV revisions that had been causes for concern in a number of dioceses. The commission’s response in this year’s Blue Book report is rather astonishing. It is the commission’s considered opinion that “the General Convention is the final arbiter of the meaning of the Constitution and Canons. Accordingly, when the General Convention adopts a canon, it is by definition constitutional, and the General Convention is presumed to have ensured that it is so” (p. 22). As such, the commission concludes that there simply is no constitutional question that could possibly be raised, rendering Resolution D047 irrelevant.

If this is where we are then we have come to a sorry state indeed. The constitutional good order of what we do at General Convention must be understood as a considered task to accomplish rather than a presumption to take for granted. We cannot imagine most Episcopalians actually believe that whatever General Convention happens to do is by definition constitutional merely because General Convention has done it.

We do well to consider carefully the constitutional authority of our proposed actions this summer, particularly the chaos that would ensue by pitting the canons against the prayer book (as in A036), by putting bishops in conflict with liturgies over which they are the intended chief officer (as in A054), and by accepting without challenge the conclusion of the Commission on Constitution and Canons that what General Convention approves, reason must obey. Should the 78th General Convention produce a lasting witness to our faith and order, it will be by fulfilling our charge to take orderly counsel with all due care. In 2012, through the approval of provisional rites, we created an open space that has proven enormously helpful in allowing freedom and protecting conscience. Can we build on this now, in a way that embraces all our sisters and brothers? In this more excellent way, we model for one another our Lord’s love for us, and become ambassadors of reconciliation — in our church, in the Anglican Communion, and in the wider body of Christ.

The Rt. Rev. Scott Benhase is Bishop of Georgia. The Rt. Rev. Dorsey McConnell is Bishop of Pittsburgh.

A More Excellent Way

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