Has the Episcopal Church rejected any authority other than its own?

General Convention

Just a quick thought…

I’m noticing this evening as I read reactions on conservative blogs that the Communication from the House of Bishops is being characterized as effectively stating that the Episcopal Church rejects all authority other than its own. It is argued that the Episcopal Church is claiming to be “omni-competent” to borrow a term from my friend Fr. Tony Clavier.

I don’t think that’s exactly accurate.

When I was in seminary, The Very Rev. James Annand (he of blessed memory) taught a course to the seniors called “Polity.” It was, essentially, the distillation of his years of experience as a parish priest and a “player” within the halls of power in the Episcopal Church.

In one series of lectures Dean Annand described the sorts of power that clergy (as curates, vicars, rectors or whatever) have and don’t have. I remember that he used an old Roman distinction between the two sorts of common human “power” – auctoritas and imperitas.

If one was granted imperitas by the Roman Senate or emperor one could carry out punishment in the name of the Senate and People of Rome (because they had granted their authority to you). A consul was granted imperitas during his time in office to execute criminals, confiscate property, and basically compel people to do his will. (I think I’m remembering the details correctly… Hopefully you can get the idea if not.)

The opposite form of power was auctoritas, or authority, which basically came about because of one’s gravitas (the respect that a person was given by rest of society.) When Hitler Stalin asked his famous question about the Pope during WWII – “How many divisions does he have?” – he was pointing out that the Pope in Rome had very little imperitas. But he forgot, or didn’t account for the extraordinary auctoritas that the Pope had by reason of the office he held and the life he led. Soviet Russia discovered something along the same line when it initially ignored the witness of John Paul II.

When the House of Bishops stated earlier this week that they are not in a position to act unilaterally (for the rest of the Episcopal Church) in acceding to the Primate’s requests, they were effectively saying that they do not have the imperitas to compel the Episcopal Church to make such a decision. (And I think they have said rightly that they do not have the authority to make decisions for their dioceses. Only the Diocesan Conventions can make such decisions.)

But in so doing, they are not completely rejecting the authority of Anglicans outside the boundaries of the Episcopal Church. They are merely stating that they do not have the imperitas to grant imperitas to the Primate’s Meeting.

Yet the Primate’s Meeting has power – as does the Lambeth Conference and all the other “instruments of unity”. Their power is not of the imperitas form but rather that of auctoritas. I see nothing in the communication from the House of Bishops that would reject this authority. It because of the respect that the Episcopal Church has for the Instruments of Unity that the Bishops, and the Executive Council have both stated that they desire passionately to remain in relationship with the rest of the Communion and have asked for a meeting to talk about what they might be able to do to signal that desire.

Not being able to grant an imperitas that is not theirs to grant is not the same thing as claiming “omni-competence” – and is not even close to saying that the Episcopal Church recognizes no authority other than its own.

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...


  1. William Paul says

    (1) “they were effectively saying that they do not have the imperitas to compel the Episcopal Church to make such a decision. (And I think they have said rightly that they do not have the authority to make decisions for their dioceses. Only the Diocesan Conventions can make such decisions.)” What do you mean?! The Bishops could have collectively said we, as one of the bicameral bodies, are doing this. Period. Just as they made a decision not to have any consecrations awhile back, they could have made the same decisions here.
    While enforcing it may have been problematic, they could have IF THEY HAD THE COLLECTIVE WILL. But they don’t. This is the true story.
    (2) “and is not even close to saying that the Episcopal Church recognizes no authority other than its own.” Well, okay, but it is pretty close to “effectively” saying we have no other authority, when you combine this with ECUSA’s failure to heed the warnings of all the instruments of unity you admit above, and ignore the Primates (better, The-Primates-Who-Do-Understand-Our-Polity) Comminque. What would count as evidence that we do admit an authority other than ourselves? Bleating that we want to be in communion as we walk away?.
    In short, you are allowing the Bishops to wring their hands and say ‘we can’t do this’ but we ‘passionately’ want to stay part of the AC. +Rowan hit the nail on the head about 18 months ago when he said that one party can’t just do whatever it wants, breaking the bonds, and then say ‘we still belong.’
    All the ratiocination here is unconvincing.

  2. William Paul says

    Surely Venables is correct:
    “protestation that they want to remain Anglican is specious when viewed in the light of their actions. In any other context it would be laughed at. The contention that the request of the Primates violates the polity of the Episcopal Church is just as hollow. It would have been very easy to say, ‚ÄúAs bishops we will comply with what the Primates have asked and will seek the approval of other legislative bodies in TEC.‚Äù They didn‚Äôt. It dramatically demonstrates how far out of step TEC has gone. If there were any remaining doubt, the barrage of lawsuits against individual parishioners and new ecclesiastical charges against clergy (and even an aged and saintly retired bishop!) make their disdain for the rest of the Communion clear.”

  3. Fr. Nick,
    Thank you for this analysis.
    Given Fr. Clavier’s often potshots at gay folk I take such statements about authority with a spoonful of salt.
    I point you to Kyros Ministry’s use of kyros as another example, which reminds us that our authority even legitimate is always under eschatological judgment and thus we should be very careful for the care of those who may be harmed by our exercise of such because we will be answerable. It seems to me we’ve lost that Medieval sense of the Final Judgment and answerability, and it’s showing in tendencies toward despos among the Primates and especially in supporting secular persecution of lgbt persons and remaining silent about this so that we can forge a new unity and polity.

  4. Bunker says

    Small point – It was Stalin, not Hitler who inquired after the Pope’s divisions.
    Otherwise, great post!

  5. William Paul says

    This is an excellent point: “our authority even legitimate is always under eschatological judgment and thus we should be very careful for the care of those who may be harmed by our exercise of such because we will be answerable. It seems to me we’ve lost that Medieval sense of the Final Judgment and answerability.” And it is lamentable if there is sponsorship, in any way, of persecution. But many on the other side of the aisle think that final judgement will also involve how we have lived out our sexual lives,too. ECUSA, at present, is following a pagan view of sexual relations. How will God judge that?

  6. But many on the other side of the aisle think that final judgement will also involve how we have lived out our sexual lives,too. ECUSA, at present, is following a pagan view of sexual relations. How will God judge that?
    Of course, we agree – although we don’t agree that TEC is “following a pagan view of sexual relations.” TEC is following the (Judeo-)Christian ethic of true partnership between two people, which is directed towards lifelong faithfulness – the most central Scriptural theme, after all – and mutual respect.
    You are here elevating the idol of heterosexuality tout court as specifically Christian – but of course, it isn’t. It’s an idol. “Marriage Defined As the Union of One Man and One Woman” means absolutely nothing, by itself; a loveless marriage – or, God forbid, one in which there is emotional or physical violence – is not “Christian marriage.”
    IOW, there are a whole host of ethical assumptions built into the idea of marriage which you are ignoring in your desire for rhetorical flash and a quick victory over your opponents. TEC, though, has not ignored them; in fact, it has spelled them out during this exploration of what same-sex blessings actually might involve. (And it’s not true, contra Clavier, that none of this work has been done; I’ll go find some links that show otherwise and will return to post them.)

  7. *Christopher, however, makes some good points above; when the Church at large ignores the harm it does to human beings simply in order to follow “proper procedure” or in the name of a absurdly-named “mutual submission,” it has lost its auctoritas, and should stop and re-assess where it might have gone wrong. The Primates do not desire “mutual submission” here; they demand obedience, simply put.
    I remind people also about Nostra Aetate, the Roman Catholic document that appeared after the World War II that addressed a reality of the world, and rejected out of hand and at once two millennia of Church teaching in the face of the reality of what that teaching had resulted in. The Church hath indeed erred; thank God for Anglicanism which acknowledged this from the start. It’s our saving grace, I think.
    Gravitas is not achieved by fiat; the respect of others must be earned.

  8. Paul Martin says

    If you will forgive me for returning to the question posed by the original post . . .
    “Rejecting one proposal” and “following orders” are but two points on a continuous spectrum of possible responses to the Primates’ communique. There is a lot of room on that spectrum for other models of relationship, which might include conversation, negotiation and compromise.

  9. William Paul says

    “TEC is following the (Judeo-)Christian ethic of true partnership between two people, which is directed towards lifelong faithfulness – the most central Scriptural theme, after all – and mutual respect.” Surely you jest. This, a basis for homo-sex? Hardly convincing. Rationalization. Not an sustainable ethic or basis for the same.

  10. Nick – I think that offering a suggestion between power and authority might be helpful. Militaristic or political power enables a leader or leaders, such as Caesar or the Roman Senate, the means by which they may mandate or implement their will upon someone else, often against that person or community’s will. Thus, in the case of the Episcopal Church, the House of Bishops does not possess the canonical or the ecclesial power to dictate the principles of the Primates Communique’ upon the membership of the Episcopal Church. They stated as such in their “Letter to the Church.” It seems clear that some Anglican primates do either have, or believe that they possess such power in their own provinces. They seemingly wish to express that power more broadly across the Anglican Communion. +Kirk has correctly and publicly identified the problems of a 21st Century Anglican Curia. I believe this point is precisely where Prof. Grieb’s critique of the Anglican Covenant process and the Primates’ Communique was quite helpful to the House of Bishops. She articulated the harmful extent to which that Primates’ and their supporters are seeking to gain power relative to the other Instruments of Unity within the Anglican Communion, especially the Anglican Consultative Council.
    Conversely, leadership authority is gained by, or offered to leaders or leadership groups. Jesus of Nazareth spoke as one who possessed authority. His followers accepted his leadership and divine rule. It is clear to see the distinctions between the power of the Roman Empire of the 1st Century CE in comparison to the authority of Jesus the Christ’s reign as established at the same time. We perhaps witness the authority or strength of a leader and her or his authority in a proposal or initiative when we witness people from a diversity of social locations offer their support. Martin Luther King initially possessed little power but he and his civil rights movement developed demonstrative authority still existing today. Democratic human rights laws also thankfully exist through legislative power.
    The Episcopal Bishops, from my perspective exercised wise authority. They have solicited buy-in from the members of the Episcopal Church and the leaders of the Executive Council. They recognize the bicameral nature of our polity – a polity that is more authoritative than powerful in nature. Their proposals offer hope for a shared future while acknowledging the limitations of their own episcopal power while objectifying the true and limited nature of the Anglican primates power in this province and provinces elsewhere around the communion.

  11. Hi all – sorry for the delay in responding to your notes, I’ve been busy all morning doing church things.
    Thanks for the correction that it was Stalin and not Hitler – I’ll make the correction. My father used to always attribute the line to Hitler so I’ll blame Dad.
    William Paul – would you please do me a favor? I am grateful for the hard questions you ask me and others here and appreciate your passion. However, please do not refer to the experience of attraction that some people feel for other persons of the same gender as “homo-sex”. It’s a reductionist term and near as I can tell, it’s being used in an inflammatory way here to insult your fellow Christians. There’s no need to insult people you disagree with, unless you truly have no interest in convincing them to listen to you.

  12. william paul says

    Mr Knisely, tell me what you want me to call same-sex sex. I did not mean for it to be inflammatory. I was avoiding ‘genital activity’, and thought I was doing a nice thing. I doubt it is reductionist unless you mean to trot out the ‘homosexual relationships are more than sex’ line, therefore, so the argument goes, we don’t have to talk about sexual activity. Homo-sex . . . it is an abbreviation of homosexual sex. So just tell me how to speak so the issue can be stated. And it sure wasn’t BTW to insult anyone

  13. Thanks for your assurances William. I do think the term used is reductionist for exactly the reasons you mention. But my real concern was that it would be perceived as demeaning.
    I’m not really the one to answer the question on behalf of the gay or lesbian people reading here – I’m a straight guy.
    I’m happy just knowing you didn’t mean it as an insult. I can point you to many other instances online where it is used exactly that way. Again, thanks for your clarification.

  14. What else, William Paul? What other basis need there be? Anglicanism doesn’t teach that procreation is the only, or even the main, end of marriage. In the marriage rite, the purpose(s) of marriage are described this way: “The union of husband and wife in heart, body, and mind is intended by God for their mutual joy; for the help and comfort given one another in prosperity and adversity; and, when it is
    God’s will, for the procreation of children and their nurture in the knowledge and love of the Lord.”
    What is it in that list that you think forbids “homosex”? (I can’t imagine why you continue to harp on the sexual aspect, in any case, since it makes up about one-tenth of one percent of anybody’s life. But then I guess that’s the usual “line” you don’t like “trotted out.” I wonder if you think of your own marriage in this way, BTW; is it simply about heterosex, or is there something more perhaps?)
    God’s first thought on seeing the solitary man He has created is that “It is not good for the man to be alone.” Paul says that it is better to marry than burn, and that those who are married should stay married. What would you have a gay couple do, if they should happen to walk through the doors of your church? Should they break the promises they have made to one another in order to become Christians? Doesn’t that seem self-contradictory and in fact the opposite of what Christians are expected to do?
    And, BTW, why isn’t faithfulness in marriage a “sustainable ethic”? As I mentioned, faithfulness is the central theme in Scripture, as far as I can tell. What “ethic” ought to replace it?

  15. William-Paul says

    “I do think the term used is reductionist for exactly the reasons you mention.”
    Let’s think here. Of course, there are many good things about interpersonal relationships, of all kinds, and to single out one aspect of any relationship as if there were no other components might well be called reductive. But the position of the conservatives in ECUSA would be that it is the sexual aspect that we’re talking about of course. Why pretend otherwise? If my wife and I say ‘we’re not going to let the light of the New Testament shine on x, y, or z in our life together–how we spend our money, how we gossip, or anything else–because our relationship is so much more than that‘ we would hardly call that reductive. We would call it skirting the issue. If my 17 year old daughter, whose relationship with her boyfriend seems strong and good (they read books together, go to church together, play tennis together), told me that they were having sex but ‘their relationship was so much more than that’ I would hardly think ‘William, quit being reductive, and look at the bigger picture.’ The issue at hand is whether some acts are out of bounds(If he told me that, I would need the prayers of all of heaven).
    I have come to believe–and I stress come to believe, for this has not been my lifelong position–that homosexual activity is objectively disordered, as RC’s put it, and that subjective intentions–love, good thoughts, promise to be faithful–do not overcome this. It’s too bad, of course–terrible, really–that homosexuals have been singled out for abuse and feel as if they have no place in ‘sraight’ society. There’s a lot of accepting and pastoral work that needs to be done. But I think it is significant that people like Jeffery John have publically announced celibacy as their lifestyle. I think we should listen to that, plus to the many who no longer are sexually active gays, and wonder if maybe God isn’t telling us in ECUSA to try what we once said, love the sinner but don’t encourage the sin. It would take a long time for a church to learn how to do that, but I think we skipped over the decades we were meant to try to do that, and have fallen into a truly pagan or pseudo-Christian sexual ethic.
    As for bls’ comment, he or she simly shows that some think sexual differentiation is not as important as, presumably, commitment, intimacy, mutuality, and the like. I disagree. The BCP (which is not meant to be an exhaustive understanding of the basis and ends of marriage) points to the unitive, procreative, and let’s say, catechetical aim of marriage. I never said procreative was the main or sole end. The BCP keeps all three together of course as the fullness of marriage, and marriage as the place for sexual relations. For gat partners to be faithful in friendship, love, commitment, dialogue, etc., can be a noble thing, but that still doesn’t justify sex.
    If a gay couple who were not Christians wanted to be Christians, I certainly would think they should make that commitment #1 and see what follows. It would hardly be self-contradictory if one acknowledges the Lordship of Christ to see how he might arrange or rearrange our arrangments. Isn’t this what happens all the time? And again, more han a few gay couples I know seem to feel very uneasy about their sexual relations. Sorry if this sounds obnoxious. I don’t mean it to. Really. Maybe it’s the way I type. But I find, increasingly, the arguments for SSB and VGR so less credible than I used to even if–though this will hardly sound believable to you–I find the pastoral sadness of the issue very deep .. . meaning my heart does go out to what must be, most of time for most of the people, a very lonely life. On that basis alone, I am virtually willing to say ‘Okay, never mind. I’ll forget what I truly think.’ But then I have to put to one side the gospel, too. Can’t quite do that.

  16. William – just one comment and one question for you.
    1. I hear what you are saying. I disagree with your starting point that GLBT people are objectively disordered. Given that, it seems obvious that you and I will reason our way to different end-points.
    But more importantly:
    2. Would you have any issues in going to church with me? (Given that you and I disagree as noted in point 1?) That seems to me to be the real foundational issue confronting the Episcopal Church today. We’ve gotten this far because of the Elizabethan Compromise. I’m unwilling to now walk away from that principle, but I hear that others are.

  17. William Paul says

    1. I would think a scientist might brood over the issue of psychosexual formation and ask if it can go awry before making the givenness of homosexual orientation an okay thing. (If BTW there is ‘reductionism’ going around it certainly seems to be to be on those determinist who reduce homosexuality to a genetic, biological determinism and ignore what clinical studies seem to show as clear familial and social factors.)Although I respect that people can say it is so ‘fixed’ and that it presents difficult pastoral issues–this is the position I think ECUSA rightly took in the 80’s but never has reallly lived out–I wonder how one would come to think that same sex attraction and acting on the same is assuredly a ‘good order.’ But, you are absolutely right, we will disagree on this.
    2. I have no problem “going to church” with almost anyone. The issue, of course, is what kind of common cause we are involved in together. I think, for instance, that one cannot maintain allegiance to the BCP, our canons, and the Scriptures, and support the direction our sexual ethics are moving. I, along with someone like, say, Philip Turner, who has written on this at length, think the burden is heavily on the revisionists like you. Can I go to church with you? Of course. But it seems to me the election of VGR is the point of no return because in that event–like the ordination of partnered gays–we are (1) saying that we hold this lifestyle, this policy, up as godly, and unambigously good and (2) performing an action, a sacramental action if you will, which is much different than holding an opinion.
    As far as the Elizabethean compromise, while I can appreciate that others look at that as a kind of bedrock principle or the ‘genius’ of Anglicanism (despite Newman’s warning that you can’t walk around, or shouldn’t, claiming your own ‘genius’) I think it is not the appropriate reference point today. At all. Why? Because it was brokering, if you will, between two recognizably Christian understandings of God and the gospel, and the practices involved in each, and not, as I think is the case today, trying to include or comprehend (in the sense of gather in) a sub-Christian, neo-pagan sexual ethic (not to mention the theologies that sometimes go along with this).
    3. I think it is self-serving and almost shameless in an astonishing way for those in our church who have promoted SSB and VGR, without first getting the theology, the liturgy, and the canonical changes agreed to by our church, to now say that they want to stay together or hold on to the genius of Anglicanism or the Elizabethean principle. And the same is true of those who ignored the Primates warnings and now bleat about the unity of the Church and call the ACN schismatic. Ridiculous. Where was the concern for unity, integrity, and the Church, then–or, of course, in all the ordinations and SSB’s under the radar before then? And now all this stuff is directed at the conservatives about following the canons and living by the rules that are on the books and abiding by the doctrine and discipline of the church by whome those that flouted them in the first place.
    Last,praise God for +Rowan. Why? Because he is someone who, having made maybe the best case for SSS (if I can call it SSS) has rethought his position in some ways, and has listened afresh to the Church Holy and has not won his point or illegitimately. Although those on the other side like to call him a pawn of Akinola–what a (not so subtly racist or ethnocentric) joke, of course–+Rowan is the real voice of prophetic, godly reason here IMHO.

  18. Linda says

    I am troubled not only by the use of homo-sex (I think I would find hetero-sex to describe the physical love between myself and spousal unit disturbing. However, if you would use that term for us, then at least you would be consistent) but more so, and no one else will care about this, but I do to your constant references to “pagan”. If you are referring to the other religions of ancient Greece and Rome, you are mistaken. If you are referring to what your view of non-Christian religions is, perhaps non-Christian would be a better word?
    And there is a heckuva lot of disordered hetero-sex. Once the people of God start judging on that, they should start fearing the wrath of God indeed…

  19. William Paul says

    Tell me what phrase you want me to use, Linda, to designate that to which the Christian tradition has, by and large, until now in ECUSA, objected. In the last post I used SSS. Is that okay?
    Non-Christian could refer to Judaism, Islam . . .and that’s not what I think is being promoted in ECUSA. Pagan seems right to me. And I would add that pagan can be said, as CS Lewis often used it, as a true designation, and by no means necessarily pejorative. I do think pagan religion is sub-Christian, a value-judgement as they say, but, yes, that’s what I think.
    And who could disagree with the truth of your comment that “there is a heckuva lot of disordered hetero-sex”? You’re absolutely right. Absolutely. It’s just that the issue on this blog and the issue before us is the elevation and endorsement of sexual practices that I think are out-of-bounds for Christianity and not just in teaching but by the elevation and endorsement of priests and bishops who practice the same.
    PS: (with affection not malice) “spousal unit” is a preferred term?

  20. William Paul, please define “homosexual activity.”
    Is that perhaps an affectionate pat on the cheek between longtime partners? A kiss? A sly wink, or a deep gaze passing between two people who love each other?
    Is it “homosexual activity” when two people go out on a date together? Dinner and movie after a long hard workweek – is that “homosexual activity”? How about if I send my partner an anniversary card?
    Is it “homosexual activity” when I ask my partner to take my mother to the hospital because she’s sick and I’m out of town? Is it “homosexual activity” when friends of mine go to parent-teacher night at school? They’ve adopted 4 special-needs kids out of foster care and given them a home and a family for the first time in the lives.
    Is that “homosexual activity”? If so, please explain why it’s “disordered.”

  21. Linda! How wonderful to learn you’re reading along here. Please give my best to your spousal unit. (He’s one of the leading Classics Scholars working today.) My apologies if I’ve misconstrued the Roman power distinctions. I’d be very interested to hear if I’ve done them correctly.
    All: Since this list of comments seems to have become a discussion about the nature of what it means to be human vis a vis sexuality and attraction, y’all might be interested in this thread – if you haven’t already started reading it. (*Christopher is already participating…)

  22. Linda says

    “Spousal unit” is part of the meta-language that married couples so often develop; it does refer to the man I married. I use it so often I forget that it is strange
    And, as Fr. Nick has blown my cover, one of the things I have learned by osmosis from spousal unit is that many behaviors are attributed to the “pagans” in the ancient world(in quotes because a term they would never have used themselves) that just ain’t necessarily so.
    Fr. Nick:
    Well, someone has to keep watch from Walley, although I am sure we are legion. I will ask about the Roman power structure, but right now I am off to Wheeling, WVA (Sunday travel:yeech!) and S.U. is ensconced in a Chopin etude on the studio grand.
    His blog (the only classical thing is music)
    Completely off topic, please give a “shout out” to Karen and Kenney. Kenney’s middle school classmates told me spontaneously that they miss her, and from that age group, that’s quite the compliment!

  23. William Paul says

    I will use neo-pagan from now on when I refer to those particular lapses, as I see them, in ECUSA which seem to me to have more in common with Athens and, sometimes, Babylon. (Speaking of Bablylon, Province I, you know, listened to a speaker this past year, a seminary professor–Marvin someone, I think– who promoted the idea of multiple coupling so that marriage or families might include ‘more than one conjugal partner.’ This isn’t ECUSA’s direction yet and I guess mulitple conjugal partners is technically closer to Mormonism, but his glorification of bodiliness, emphasis on this-worldly pleasure, and general ‘enlighted’ attitude seemed to me to be more pagan. . .I mean, neo-pagan.)

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