Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

Courts, Covenants, and Canon Law: A Review of Legal and Canonical Issues Facing the General Convention

Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

Courts, Covenants, and Canon Law: A Review of Legal and Canonical Issues Facing the General Convention

Article excerpt


The bishops and deputies who will assemble in Anaheim, California, in July of 2009 for the 76th General Convention of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America (otherwise known as The Episcopal Church) will face a confusing array of questions concerning the constitutional and canonical character of the denominations and will be asked to judge about proposals for significant changes. Questions of identity and canon law are never entirely absent from meetings of the convention. Arguably, however, the upcoming convention will convene at a point when the Episcopal Church is facing more difficult questions about structure than at any point since the 1780s, when former colonial Anglicans responded to the American Revolution by adopting a set of structures that are still in large measure in operation today. The flight of individual congregations from the church that accelerated with the consecration of Bishop V. Gene Robinson in 2003, the decisions of four dioceses to withdraw from the Episcopal Church in 2007 and 2008, the drafting of a proposed Anglican Covenant agreement (of which a third draft is scheduled to be considered by the Anglican Consultative Council in May of 2009), and the continuing attempts of the Standing Commission on Constitution and Canons to revise the title IV canons on discipline all combine to present the Episcopal Church with a myriad of critical issues to consider. Some of those issues will be addressed in legislative ways at the 2009 General Convention. Others will be subject to discussion and debate but with any concrete actions reserved for later sessions of the convention.

One way to address this complex body of canonical and constitutional issues is to consider them in four categories: 1 ) questions relating to the behavior of individual members of the Episcopal Church; 2) questions relating to the rights and responsibilities of congregations; 3) questions relating to the rights and responsibilities of dioceses; and 4) questions relating to the Episcopal Church's relationship to the Anglican Communion. The sections can be read independently of one another, but there is a logic to reading them in the ascending hierarchical order in which they are arranged.


The life of the Episcopal Church is governed by a relatively brief constitution and by approximately seventy-five canons. The canons are currently divided into five sections or titles. These titles deal with organization and administration (Title 1 ) , worship (Title II), ministry (Title III), church discipline (Title IV), and a catchall final section that deals with matters not covered elsewhere (Title V) .

The Constitution of the Episcopal Church has remained essentially the same since its adoption in 1789. For long stretches of time, the overall structure of the canons has also remained relatively fixed, with any attention directed at any particular time at one or two canons covering matters of current interest. In the past two decades, however, the General Convention has been in the midst of a major overhaul of the canons, attempting to look at the underlying logic of the provisions, rather than attempting simply to respond to specific issues. Something similar happened in the final decade of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth, when the canons were recast in significant ways.

The General Convention of 1997 adopted resolution A086 requesting "the Council for the Development of Ministry ... to undertake a full review of title III Canons in order to propose a complete revision to the 73rd General Convention in consultation with the Standing Commission on constitution and Canons."1 The Council for Ministry Development, which became a standing committee by 2000, reported back with a theological statement on ministry in 2000 and with a revised set of canons in 2003 and 2006.2 The 2003 and 2006 conventions received and adopted the proposals with only minor changes. …

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