The Authority of General Convention: A Conversation
By R. William Franklin
In these essays we focus on the basis of the authority of the General Convention. It is a topic at the heart of discussions about the church’s future — in, as it were, its domestic affairs and foreign relations. May parishes and dioceses secede from the Episcopal Church? Should its authority be limited by international “instruments”? Bishop Daniel Martins asks the right question: “Is General Convention, for Episcopalians, tantamount to the sort of ‘council’ that has broad authority to define doctrine, to propound church teaching, and to bind the conscience of the faithful?”
I propose to answer this by relating the authority claimed by General Convention to the history of conciliarism. The literature on conciliarism is vast and controversial, and its connection to Anglicanism and to General Convention is complex. Here I report on how three scholars have approached this topic.
In his Foundations of the Conciliar Theory (Cambridge University Press, 1995) Brian Tierney shows that, far from being heretical, “conciliarism” is a perfectly orthodox strand of catholic ecclesiology that is the natural outgrowth of the role that councils played in the ancient church. Acts 15:2-6 describes a “Council at Jerusalem” to which “Paul and Barnabas and some others were appointed to go … to discuss this question [circumcision] with the apostles and the elders.” A layman, the Emperor Constantine, assembled bishops at Nicaea in 325 for the first ecumenical council to produce our creed. The fourth ecumenical council, assembled in 451 by another layman, the Emperor Marcian, issued regulations on doctrine and discipline governing the whole Church. There were equally important ancient general councils at Ephesus and Constantinople.
Tierney demonstrates that conciliarism as a coherent movement was the work of German, French, Spanish, and Italian canon lawyers in the 13th century. In the face of the rising claims of the monarchical authority of the papacy, these canon lawyers launched a counter-argument: that ultimate authority in the Church lies not with one individual monarchical figure but in a corporate body, a council, that is representative of the whole body of Christ. According to the medieval canonists, if a pope lapsed into heresy, he could be deposed by a council. A practical test of conciliarism happened between 1414 and 1417, when the Western Church faced the crisis of three popes ruling at once. During these years another layman, the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund, presided over a general council that met in the imperial city of Constance. By its own authority this council deposed popes and condemned as heretical the teaching of John Wycliffe (already dead) and John Huss (whom it burned at the stake on July 6, 1415). Constance took further practical steps to reform the Church, and it was adamantly opposed to the doctrine of the absolute monarchy of the papacy.
It is not surprising that the papal bull Execrabilis of 1460 condemned conciliarism and forbade any appeals from papal judgment to a future general council. Execrabilis is the origin of the suspicion of heresy that was attached to conciliarism in the Roman Catholic Church until Tierney’s work first appeared, and the era of the Second Vatican Council. However, the communal, corporate, and representative ideals of conciliarism immediately lived on in the revival of Christian humanism and then into the 16th century to influence both Protestant and some Catholic thought, as well as the development of Western secular political theory of corporations and of representative government.
A second scholar, Raymond W. Albright, in his seminal article “Conciliarism in Anglicanism” (Church History 33 , pp. 3-22), narrates the complex process by which the theories of conciliarism shaped and buttressed the granting of authority over the Church of England to the monarch and the English Parliament in the 16th century. At the conclusion of the American War of Independence and America’s breaking political ties with Britain, Albright shows, this English conciliarist model of church government was successfully translated into the new republican context of the United States by the creation of the General Convention of the Protestant Episcopal Church.
Among the Christian humanists at the court of Henry VIII there were conciliarists on both sides of “the Great Matter” of the king’s divorce, among them Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell. As Henry VIII moved the Church of England out from under the absolute monarchy of the papacy in the 1530s, he was attracted to the conciliarists’ ideal of an emperor presiding over a council as an alternate and valid model of catholic church government. As the Emperor Constantine had assembled and played a key role at Nicaea, and as the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund had done the same in the 15th century, so Henry understood his authority and that of the English Parliament over the church to be based on this previous pattern.
Albright shows with great care and precision how acts of the 1540s fused the legal authority of church and state and introduced into canon law the essential elements of English common-law procedure. Though the two convocations of the clergy in England survived (and in some sense still do so today), the convocations ultimately were placed under the absolute authority of monarch and parliament, as church law was also subsumed into the national law of the English state. Conciliarist theories of the Church as a communal corporation and the medieval jurists’ ideal of the legal incorporation of Church affairs into the laws of a city-state or nation supported this evolution. Through this process the English Parliament came to be understood also as a church “council.” The bishops made up part of the Upper House of Parliament. Lay members of the Church of England sat in the Lower House and shared in the authority exercised by the state over ecclesiastical affairs.
Albright argues that the modern legal structures of the Episcopal Church are ultimately rooted in and still shaped by this 16th-century incorporation of church into state. Why is this so? Before the American Revolution in the colonies of New York, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia, Anglican parishes were a part of the English state church. There were no American bishops. The Bishop of London exercised some control, but ultimately the British monarch and Parliament possessed sovereign authority. With the American victory in the War of Independence, this Anglican establishment in the United States came to an end. Stripped in the 1780s of its legal position, its endowments, its institutions of learning, and many of its clergy, perhaps no church until the Russian Revolution would suffer such devastation as a result of the political change of war and disestablishment as did the Church of England in America.
Raymond Albright, and many other American church historians, perhaps most concisely David L. Holmes in A Brief History of the Episcopal Church (Trinity Press International, 1993), show what happened next. After a series of three “conventions” in the 1780s, there were promulgated by 1789 a constitution, canons, and an American Book of Common Prayer for the newly independent Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America. This achievement was guided above all by William White of Philadelphia, the Chaplain of the American Continental Congress, and later first Bishop of Pennsylvania and Presiding Bishop. In The Case of the Episcopal Churches in the United States Considered (David Claypoole, 1782), White sketched out his idea of the church as a corporation governed by representative conventions. He gave an American expression to the conciliarist concept of ultimate authority over the Church vested in a convention (council) made up of the elected representatives of the congregatio fidelium — elected (not appointed) bishops, priests, and laity. (In 1782 there were no bishops in America, and White deals with that fact. He later incorporates bishops consecrated into the historic line of succession into a separate house of General Convention. He was one of three who sailed to England and Scotland for consecration into the historic episcopal succession, which he considered a necessary link outside of the United States to ensure the validity of General Convention’s authority.)
The broad-minded Bishop White argues that the authority of God’s Word in Scripture is applied by General Convention to changing circumstances by interpreting the Bible through the double lenses of tradition and reason. How are Scripture, tradition, and reason brought together? White understood that this happens when God’s people gather in a council. And like Richard Hooker in the 16th century, who in his Lawes wrote that councils are assembled “by Gods owne blessed Spirit” (1:109:18), Bishop White understood the Holy Spirit to be present in such meetings.
Ultimately the conciliar movement was about sovereign authority. Bishop White gave General Convention such sovereign authority over what were then called state conventions, and only later dioceses. Each congregation was required to accede to its authority.
It created new dioceses, interpreted the ancient canons, promulgated the prayer book, and set up courts for the trial of a bishop. The achievement of this unitary form of church government had much to do with the stability of Anglicanism in the United States when it almost disappeared after the American Revolution. It was a remarkable synthesis of the catholic structure of the church with democratic processes. I believe that conciliarism allowed this synthesis of catholicism with democratic American republicanism to take place.
And yet today we ask whether the very fact that this is a synthesis, made possible by the merging of what was in its beginnings an international movement with the emergence of a new nation, places some limits upon the final authority of General Convention. The conciliarist ecclesiology that made the synthesis possible is in its origins European, international, and medieval. The apostolic ministry and liturgy of the church over which the General Convention presides link us back to the Apostolic Church and to the English church. The bishops who sit in one of the houses of General Convention are part of an international college of Anglican bishops. The question for us now is how we may in the 21st century legitimately expand the international dimensions of this remarkable 18th-century synthesis so that the Episcopal Church may continue to play its role in worldwide Christianity.
The Rt. Rev. R. William Franklin is the Bishop of Western New York.