Saturday, July 07, 2007

Church Hierarchies and church Property: How some laity see the matter.

A discussion Starter from Peter Toon on behalf of some laymen

Not a few laity in and around The Episcopal Church [TEC] have the sense, even the understanding, that congregations which secede from this Church to be part of another Anglican Province (via AMiA, CANA etc), lose their properties (even where they have paid for them in whole) on secession; and the real reason for the loss is because of the principle of hierarchy—that TEC is governed hierarchically, Bishops downwards, and so the property follows this tendency, upwards to diocese and/or national Church.

Let us begin our reflection by recognizing that the clearest examples of what we call hierarchical churches are the Roman Catholic Church and the various Eastern Orthodox Churches. In these Churches, decisions come from the top down, or from higher up to lower down. In total contrast, in a variety of "Bible" and "Baptist" local churches, in which there is complete local autonomy in all matters and property is owned locally, decisions are made at the local level and might be carried forward and upward at a convention of like-minded churches; but such a convention is not empowered to rule and does not tell the local church what to do.

In the world of business and commerce, closely held corporations are hierarchical, but public companies are not. Even though in public companies the Board and CEO run the company on a daily basis, they are ultimately responsible to the stockholders, who can replace them if enough votes can be gathered to do so.

In the Roman Church, major decisions of all kinds always come from above. While the Pope is elected by the College of Cardinals, the Cardinals themselves are not elected. They are appointed by the incumbent Pope, who has his job for life. Bishops in the Roman Church are not elected, they are appointed by the Vatican. Priests are not called by a parish, they are sent by a bishop. Mutatis mutandis, the various Eastern Churches operate in much the same way in terms of the hierarchical principle. In the Roman Church a General Council is called by the Pope and reports to the Pope and from Pope and General Councils ( e.g. Vatican II) come doctrine. Laity and ordinary clergy are not in this loop except as the recipients of what is decided and required. And in terms of property, while there may be local trustees, the general rule is that the property belongs to the diocese and that where there is any dispute the diocese takes control.

Let us now return to TEC. Major decisions within TEC have never been made in the hierarchical way of Rome. Bishops are elected by their dioceses. Priests are called by local congregations, admittedly with the approval--usually in the past, a pro forma approval--by the bishop of the diocese. The basic structure of TEC is not set up as an absolute monarchy as is the Roman Church, but along democratic lines, with certain limited authority given to Diocesan Bishops, Rectors, and Executive Councils. But Delegates to diocesan conventions are selected by local congregations. Diocesan conventions make the rules for the dioceses. Delegates to the General Convention of TEC are selected at the diocesan level. The General Convention itself is set up on the model of the United States government, not on the model of an absolute or even limited monarchy. The House of Bishops (whose members are elected by local dioceses) corresponds to the U.S. Senate; the House of Delegates (whose members are elected at the local level) corresponds to the U.S. House of Representatives. The major officers of TEC are elected by these bodies and the Canons of TEC are voted upon and passed by these bodies. In short, decisions about worship, doctrine and discipline within the TEC are basically made from the ground up, not from the top down. That does not mean (a) that there is not a role for bishops to exercise leadership and discipline over clergy and laity, and (b) that all decisions of the TEC General Convention are fair or orthodox. What it does mean is that decisions are not made hierarchically as are the decisions made in the Roman and Eastern churches, privately-held companies, or in absolutist secular political systems.

So, if in principle the government of TEC imitates the working of the federal government of the USA, what does this mean for local congregations? Well it makes their claim, that they own the local property that they have paid for and cared for, to have real merit. Of course, they own it in the sense that they hold it in trust for the worship of God in the Episcopal and Anglican Way. Thus if the congregation judges that TEC is making it impossible to do fulfill this high privilege and solemn duty, then it has the right to secede from TEC and move to another Anglican Province both with its property and for full pastoral care and leadership. The decision to secede should not be taken lightly and would only be done after careful listening to those who have been appointed – through the majority vote – to lead the diocese of which the parish is a part.

Probably the claim that TEC is hierarchical and that the property of a parish really belongs to the hierarchy is based on the imported idea, foreign to TEC historically, that Bishops and their Executive Councils actually rule TEC and function as the CEO's of dioceses and Liturgical Directors of the same. Contrast this imported idea with what has been the boast of TEC in Anglican meetings around the globe -- that this Church is administered like no other Anglican province, for the principles of republican and democratic government within the USA constitution have been transferred in an appropriate manner to the way that the independent Protestant Episcopal Church of the USA is governed by its members under God, and this has been done without sacrificing the priority of Bishops in the Threefold Ministry and the Shepherding of the flock.

July 4, 2007 Independence Day!


Anonymous said...

Good thoughts. However, I might suggest that the comparison between the structure of TEC, and The U.S. House and Senate - while I'm sure is accurate in one sense, places too much power in TEC, at its logical end. States don't and shouldn't be allowed to successfully withraw from the U.S. regardless of their doctrinal disagreements. The appropriate response is to simply get the votes to change policy. This is the greatness of our American system as it relates to civil government.

But, I agree with your analysis of the differences in stucture between Rome and 815 et al., which is why, for purposes of comparison, I would place TEC at a much lower level of government, perhaps a town council, in relation to the Spiritual heirarchy of the entire Anglican Communion (this makes sense when the membership numbers are considered, and as to historical authority); the dioceses and parishes would then be taking their case, as an analogy, to the "Federal Court" level, which would actually be selections of bishops world wide, and finally Lambeth for a ruling on interpretation of doctrine. I seem to remember something about a report that was completed, of course I could be wrong.

As an aside, this way of explaining structure in fact implicates the existing civil law principles in a slightly different way, and perhaps lets churces and bishops make a different case --depending on the state.

Thanks, as always, just a thought.

Poe St. John II

Jeff H said...

An excellent post, rightly highlighting the fundamental differences between the rigidly hierarchical structure of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches and what is probably best described as the quasi-hierarchical nature of TEC.

Viewing this from the legal perspective, courts in the U.S., including the Supreme Court in its considerations of church structure and property, have tended to view the matter simplistically: under current legal doctrines, churches are either hierarchical or congregational. (The clearest examples are probably Roman Catholics and Baptists.)

Some commentators have argued that the reality on the ground suggests courts should adopt a more nuanced view - for example, that quasi-hierarchical churches such as TEC, the PC(USA), and the UMC, should be viewed as hierarchical for some purposes, but congregational for others. Historically (i.e., before the Dennis Canon and all that), the issue of property would most logically fall in the latter category: individual parishes almost always at least nominally hold title to their own land, make their own decisions as to property matters (though often with diocesan approval). In this way, the central structure of TEC has historically been able to avoid liability for local parish matters (accidents on parish property, abuse claims against church employees, etc.).

Even if courts don't take the more nuanced view, there's a wide range of ways in which the current law can be constitutionally applied to bodies deemed "hierarchical," not all of which automatically result in the property going to the centralized church. Stay tuned...