Keep the Windows Open … by Megan Castellan

This week, Bishop Pierre Whalon published an essay he wrote on on reforming The Episcopal Church over on Anglicans Online, which has garnered some attention throughout our little corner of the interwebz.

The piece was detailing the nature and history of our brand of Anglican polity.  Specifically, he was addressing the concerns of the seven bishops who filed an amicus brief in a Texas court over the summer, and while it can be entertaining to watch bishops bicker, that’s really neither here nor there.


More to the point is an observation he made in passing:

“The General Convention is at the top of our hierarchy. Following the principles outlined above, it splits authority for the whole church’s life between the bishops and an assembly of clergy and laity elected to represent each diocese. Both “houses” must agree for any decision to become authoritative. It should be noticed that the legislative model is Parliament, not the U. S. Congress. Convention’s decisions are unimpeachable; there is no court of appeal other than future meetings of the Convention to reverse decisions.

Specifically, the General Convention rules on what is the doctrine of the Church, its discipline (canon law), and its worship. All the clergy pledge to conform to that doctrine, discipline, and worship, and should they decide to do otherwise, they are liable to be barred from exercising ministry. Other decisions are the choice of bishop presiding the college of bishops and the president of the deputies’ assembly, the budget, and matters affecting all the dioceses, such as entering into full-communion agreements with ecumenical partners. It may make pronouncements on issues of the day, but these are not binding on Episcopalians. Until this last Convention, it could also ratify elections of bishops — for no diocese can choose and consecrate a bishop by itself.

Thus when persons at their ordination(s) pledge to conform to the doctrine, discipline and worship of the Episcopal Church, they put themselves under the authority of the hierarchy of the church. Beginning with the General Convention, its Book of Common Prayer, and its canons.” (Emphasis mine)
The entire essay is informative, and worth a read. But this comment in passing, regarding the authority of Convention struck me.
Prior to this Convention, this ultimate supremacy of Convention was something I hadn’t realized, and I dare say, many within the church still don’t realize.  We’ve swallowed the US-government//Convention parallel for so long that it is tantamount to gospel by now, so much so that several resolutions appeared before the Legislative committee for Canons, asking us to decide whether the Title IV changes were within constitutional bounds, as if we were an ad hoc Supreme Court.
As Bp. Whalon points out, TEC has no mechanism to rule acts of Convention unconstitutional, save another act of Convention.

That may seem incredibly boring, and inconsequential. 

 But an effect of the total supremacy of Convention is a real opportunity to be open to the movement of the Spirit.  If we wanted, if we were willing, we could be a singularly charismatic church.  By charismatic, understand that I don’t see my fellow Episcopalians breaking into ecstatic dancing or handwaving in Salt Lake City.  (Though, should we choose to break into a few bars from The Book of Mormon, I would not be unopposed.)

Rather, I mean that we have the windows of our church, at this very moment, firmly propped open for the winds of the Spirit to blow on through.  The ultimate authority in our church is not a hidebound set of documents our forebears wrote in a fit of angry reforming zeal, or reactionary fervor.  Our ultimate authority can continue to be the guiding light of Christ, speaking to his people through the whispering of the Spirit, in community, and in Scripture, in each new time and place.

At this moment in our history, our charism may indeed turn out to be our ability to keep our windows open.