The Authority of General Convention: A Conversation
  • Monday, November 14, 2011

Catholic Voices
The Authority of General Convention: A Conversation
Introduction by Daniel H. Martins, convener
Authority is currently something of a hot topic in Anglican circles. Discussion of the proposed Anglican Covenant has raised questions of whether it would lessen the authority of the 38 member provinces to order their own internal life and add authority to one or more Communion-wide entities. In our ecumenical conversations, particularly with Rome and Orthodoxy, questions about the locus of authority remain perennial sticking points. And within the Episcopal Church, there have been spirited exchanges (some taking place inside secular courtrooms) about the nature of the authority exercised by dioceses over parishes and the authority exercised by the church at large over dioceses.
For Episcopalians, General Convention occupies a central place in any consideration of church authority. We do not always realize how unique the details of our polity are in comparison even with other Anglican churches, to say nothing of other Christian traditions. And we often bring widely varying assumptions to our interactions with one another about General Convention, and so end up talking past each other — a very frustrating experience.
For instance, what is the relationship between the preamble of our constitution and the articles of the constitution themselves? Is the preamble a governing rubric? Or is it merely a statement of an ideal, an aspiration? This is a critical question, because only the preamble expressly defines the Episcopal Church as a “constituent member” of the worldwide Anglican Communion. And what, then, is the relationship between the constitution and the canons of our church (canons being the equivalent of “statutes” in secular parlance)?
Americans will instinctively see a parallel in the relationship between the U.S. Constitution and federal law. But remember: there is no third branch of government in the Episcopal Church, no free-standing independent judiciary. The same body that enacts legislation — General Convention — is the body that interprets that legislation. Yes, there are courts that are occasionally called upon to apply canons, but only in the context of a disciplinary matter. Who is to say, then, whether a particular canon is constitutional or unconstitutional? There is no mechanism for testing such a question apart from bringing a cleric up on charges.
Is General Convention subject to any authority beyond itself? In what way, if any, is it constrained by accountability to the constitution, or to the preamble of the constitution, or to the Book of Common Prayer’s text and rubrics, or to its preface (which makes some important statements about our relationship to the Church of England)? 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?

To address these questions, The Living Church invited two leading teachers in our church to engage in a collegial conversation on the authority of General Convention. Each will begin with a short essay, and then subsequently respond to the views of the other.
The Rt. Rev. Daniel H. Martins is Bishop of Springfield.
The essays:
Conciliarism and Convention’s Authority
By R. William Franklin 
Authority Under Larger Authority
By Ephraim Radner

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