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.