Communion and Knowledge in the Canons of the Episcopal Church

By Glass, William | Anglican Theological Review, Spring 2014 | Go to article overview

Communion and Knowledge in the Canons of the Episcopal Church


Glass, William, Anglican Theological Review


As the great ecumenical century stretching from 1895 to about 1978 gave way to the new millennium, the Episcopal Church in the United States of America instantiated that century's struggle for unity in various ways. Social and political issues tested its mettle, and at several points, both clergy and laypeople found the diversity that came to exist within the church to be unbearable. Though it was not the first such dispute, the 2003 ordination of Bishop Gene Robinson as coadjutor in the Diocese of New Hampshire forced the issue of tolerable theological disagreement in a particularly acute way. Many dioceses and churches committed to traditional Christian teaching on human sexuality saw the ordination as evidence of the church's intractable waywardness and left the Episcopal Church, laying claim for themselves to the American Anglican heritage.

By the end of the new millenniums first decade, the American landscape featured a variety of churches divided by a common Anglican tradition. Competing claims to legitimacy forced alreadyaggravated tensions over authority to a fever pitch, and the fever has not yet subsided. In fact, some doubt the resources of American Anglicanism at all to meet the crisis it faces. In response to such doubts, this paper will (I) conduct a theological reading of Title III in the Episcopal Church's Constitutions and Canons (C&C) as an attempt to glimpse how the church discerns the mind of the Lord and comes to know what it does not already know. It will then (II) take the ordination of Bishop Robinson and its fallout as a test case for acquiring knowledge in this way. Finally (III) it will evaluate the epistemological resources of the church to deal with divisive issues on the basis of (I) and (II). Such understanding may yield insight into the ways and means of successfully navigating controversy and disagreement in a deeply divided church.

I

Admittedly, the canons are not usually consulted for theological investigation; their ordinary use is altogether more perfunctory. But there are at least a couple of reasons why such an approach might be fruitful. First, as will be demonstrated, the Book of Common Prayer (BCP) explicitly understands the ordination of clergy as the end of the process in which the church discerns the will of God to call a particular person to ministry.1 Thus, although Title III of the canons scarcely mentions God or discernment, insofar as the canons establish the BCP as the liturgical authority of the church, the admittedly procedural language of the canons with respect to ordination simply must be understood as specifying the discernment of a call to ministry, something which presumably God does and then reveals to the church. The bishop demands of the presenters that they present a suitable person, who models life upon the Holy Scriptures, by word and example, and whose affirmation of belief in a call the church can trust even as it echoes it. And Title III outlines the procedure to assist the church in answering that demand.

Secondly, although in any discernment on which the church might embark there are sure to be dis-analogies in various particulars, it is simply the case that in the church's formularies there are no other places from which one might hope to cull anything like a specific account of how the church thinks it can discern the will of God. Thus, in any act of church discernment, it stands as at least plausible that such discernment, whatever its differences, will bear analogy to that envisioned in Title III.

This analysis will therefore begin by reading what the canons stipulate specifically in cases where the truth of the matter is either not known or is liable of being lost. Specifically, the discernment processes related to ordination and the extensive measures taken to guarantee textual stability of the Book of Common Prayer are each precisely aimed either at the church's finding out what it does not know or preserving what it thinks it already knows-finding the will of God in one case and preserving it in the other. …

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