B. Local Property Rights Prevailed in Early American Anglicanism
In no instances in Colonial America prior to the establishment of the Episcopal Church in the United States did the Bishop of London hold title to congregational property. Spiritual authority was separate from temporal authority on American shores at its inception.
As originally organized, the Episcopal Church in the United States of America deliberately adopted a policy based upon the consent of the governed. The parish, not the diocese or the national church, was the basic unit of the church. Deriving from these cardinal principles, property rights lay with the local church which held title to its property which it had purchased and thereupon constructed buildings, all with its own monies. Ownership of these lands and buildings was not vested in other ecclesial body, like a diocese or the national church. In fact, the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society, as a corporate entity, did not even exist until 1820 and thus, at the beginning of American Anglicanism could not have held title to local properties.
The first serious challenge to this polity of parish-based property ownership did not occur until the 1860s with the Civil War. The result of that precedent only confirmed the reality that the local parish was the owner of its property and buildings. White's polity still held. As the historians have noted, the Episcopal Church in America was a voluntary association where authority was delegated by the parish to the diocese, and the diocese to the national church. And under this legal arrangement, the parish retained ownership of its property.
Up to the Dennis Canon in 1979, civil legislation was required for the diocese or national church to retain property otherwise. Canon law had been acknowledged to be insufficient for the diocese or national church to hold parish property if there was no specific legislation (state by state) or some instrument of express trust in favor of the diocese or the national church.
The parish, not the diocese or the national church, held title to its own property. That is another central historical distinctive woven into the fabric of American Anglicanism at its beginning.
C. Centralization of Control Using the Corporate Model - Not Beginning until the 1900s - Has Failed the Purposes of the Church
Historically, the Presiding Bishop took the chair as President of the meetings of the House of Bishops. He was a diocesan bishop with no other special powers, authority or privileges as Presiding Bishop. He was the bishop senior to his peers by virtue of the date of his consecration. He was not a manager or chief executive of the national church, but was responsible only for his own diocese. Outside of General Convention and its House of Bishops, the office had no function or activity. The functions and duties of the Presiding were not even enumerated under the initial Constitution and Canons adopted by the Episcopal Church in the United States.
It was not until the first quarter of the Twentieth Century - well past its first hundred years of existence - that one began to see a move toward centralization of managerial functions within the Episcopal Church with the creation of the Presiding Bishop's Office to help manage the growth. The most recent quarter century has witnessed further centralization at the national level which has been designed to assert over control assets and usurp the authority of the dioceses and local parishes. The first efforts toward centralization were a function of prosperity, the second a function of decline. The 1979 Dennis Canon, which seeks to place all Church property in trust for the national hierarchy, is but one example of a declining church turning in on itself and against its basic unit of ecclesiology by attempting to control its ever-dwindling human resources and lack of spiritual dynamism. This corporate model and the failure on many within it to guard the Faith once received has, in many instances, not served godly purposes.
Ecclesiology Is Part of the Task Facing American Anglicanism Today
Recently commenting in an article entitled "The Structures of Unity" on the theological ramifications of the current doctrinal dilemma within the Anglican Communion, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams has noted, "Staying together is pointless unless it is staying together because of the Body of Christ." Dr. Williams observed that the theological task awaiting the Primates and leaders of the Anglican Communion is ecclesiological in nature. "I think it worth working at structures in Anglicanism that don't either commit us to a meaningless structural uniformity or leave us in mutual isolation" (emphasis added). These structures might include rival, overlapping jurisdictions. "I suspect that those who speak of new alignments and new patterns, of the weakening of territorial jurisdictions and the like, are seeing the situation pretty accurately." Rowan Williams, "The Structures of Unity" New Directions No 100 (September 2003) 3-4.
What does the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams' call for a new ecclesiology of Anglicanism mean for the "man in the pew," for the local parish or for the parish priest? What is at stake here in a new order?
The Principle that the Parish Is the Basic Unit of the Church in American Anglicanism
The question raised by Rowan Williams is essentially, "What is the fundamental or basic unit of the Church?" From this matter flow questions of how the Church should organize itself, how it should govern itself, who should control its property, what should its teachings be and how should its teachings be changed?
In the history of the Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States of America, the basic unit of the American Episcopal Church has been the local parish. The federal system of church government - or, more properly speaking, the confederated system - has been the hallmark of Anglicanism in the United States. It is the chief difference between the Church of England and the American Episcopal Church. Recent efforts at centralization of authority, of privileging General Convention over the diocese, or the diocese over the parish find scant basis in classical Anglican doctrine or church history.
The basic governmental principle of the Episcopal Church in America is of delegation of powers: from the parish to the diocese to the national church. The parish or diocese reserves power not specifically delegated to a "higher" body. The model upon which the Episcopal Church's Constitution was based was not the United States Constitution but the Articles of Confederation. In recent years, the theology, polity and history of the Episcopal Church in America has been subject to inaccurate assumptions which distort historical reality.
In the historical American Episcopal ecclesiology which is parish-based, the authority of church order flows from the parish to the bishop. The head of the Church is not the bi shop, but Jesus Christ. The parish places itself under the spiritual authority and direction of the bishop, and not the other way around. The parish - through its officers, the vestry, owns property and manages the affairs of the local parish. The parish sends delegates to diocesan conventions. These conventions set budgets, pass canons or laws, and elect bishops. Civil law governs the business affairs of the parish. Bishops have spiritual, sacramental and teaching authority; yet they are bound by canons, custom and civil law in the exercise of their authority.
Bishops, churches and clergy have been at odds over property, and in the law courts, from the very beginning of the Christian Church. Eusebius in his Ecclesiastical History records a lawsuit brought in the Roman civil courts by the clergy of Antioch against their Bishop over control of parish property. The local clergy won. Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, VII:30, "The Epistle of the Bishops against Paul.
As The Rt. Rev. Dr. FitzSimons Allison noted as to doctrine in his book, The Cruelty of Heresy, the "new" ideas of many progressive churchmen are but the old heresies repackaged. The fight over the nature of the church is no different.
Following upon Bishop Allison's observation, that which has been different in recent years has been the use of revisionary church history in the law courts to attempt to seize the property of parishes unwilling or unable to accept the revisions of doct rine and discipline in the Episcopal Church. This effort at historical revisionism flies directly in the face of the founding history the Episcopal Church in the United States.
The fact of the matter is that William White, first Bishop of Pennsylvania and first Presiding Bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church, was the initial primary advocate for the parish-based ecclesiology as adopted by ECUSA. White applied Locke's reasoning to the church, proclaiming that authority in the church originated from the people. On the other hand, Samuel Seabury believed that the diocese was divinely ordered and its ministers divinely empowered. White believed that the basic unit of the church was the parish; Seabury argued unsuccessfully that it was the diocese. William White, The Case of the Episcopal Churches in the United States Considered, Richard Solomon, ed. (Philadelphia: Church Historical Society, 1954).
Bishop White was the driving force behind the formation of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America. He believed as a matter of church government and ecclesiology that the parish was central to the Episcopal Church. White's view of church polity that the Anglican church in America is parish-based - and not Seabury's polity favored by the liberal establishment today - prevailed in the writing of the Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church in 1789.
Bishop White made his mark. The consensus of modern historical fact and scholarship stands firmly behind the parish as the primary unit of the Church in American Episcopal history.
John Booty, historiographer of the Episcopal Church writing in the Church Teaching Series in 1979 states the classical Episcopal understanding of Church government is that temporal authority flows not from the parish. "The result of all the maneuvering in 1789 was a church government based upon local control by voluntary associations of persons in parishes. Dioceses and national convention possessed power in relation to and for the sake of parishes. The larger organizations functioned as agencies preserving and strengthening the unity of the church. White agreed that 'the great art of governing consists in not governing too much'." John Booty, The Church in History, The Church's Teaching Series (New York: The Seabury Press, 1979) 71.
In 1956, Clara Loveland, author of The Critical Years, the leading historical treatment of the formation of the Episcopal Church, concluded, "The basic unit in the government of the Church is not the diocese as in England, but the parish." Clara O. Loveland, The Critical Years: The Reconstitution of the Anglican Church in the United States of America: 1780-1789 (Greenwich, CT: The Seabury Press, 1956) 284.
Roger Beckwith, an English scholar of Anglicanism, in his introduction to Anglicanism writes, "In practice at least, the parish is the basic unit of Anglican Church life, to which the diocese is accessory (not vice versa)." Roger T. Beckwith, The Church of England: What it is and what it stands for. (Oxford: Latimer House, 1992) Sec. 6.
Dr. Louis Tarsitano, writing in An Outline of an Anglican Life, in 1994 states, "The basic unit of the Church is the 'congregation', a 'group of people gathered' in Christ's Name (Matthew 18:20)." Louis Tarsitano, An Outline of an Anglican Life: Lessons in the Faith and Practice of the Anglican Church (Charlottesville, VA: Carillon Books, 1994 3rd ed.) 87.
Article XIX Understands that the Parish Is the Basic Unit
A difficulty with the revisionist belief is that it contravenes Article XIX of the Articles of Religion in attempting to assert the diocesan-based polity. Article XIX specifically holds that: "The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in the which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ's ordinance in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same."
The Articles of Religion do not deny the existence to the church beyond the local congregation. They do, however, state that the visible Church of Christ is the local congregation engaged in specific activities. The church has an existence, of course, when it is not actively engaged in worship. Yet, the revisionist view of "a fellowship of Churches in an area in communion with their bishop" is a mere ideal and not visibly the church because it never meets as an entirety to hear God's word and receive his sacraments.
Article XIX refers not to the idealized church but to the visible Church - the tangible, visible congregation. It is not the bishop who is physically present in every congregation, but Christ Himself. The Book of Common Prayer declares Christ, not the bishop, as the head of the Church through His gracious and efficacious ministry in and through the physical congregation, the basic unit of the American Anglican ecclesiology.
The Nature of the Episcopate
The different interpretations given to these to the Articles of Religion - whether the bishop is of the plene esse (William White) or esse of the Church (Samuel Seabury) and whether the Church is the visible congregation of faithful men (William White) or the mystical body of Christ (Seabury) - animates the early history of the American Episcopal Church. An additional theory is that of bene esse. These three theories of the episcopate underlay the discussions, and it is necessary to diverge from the historical record to explain the theological terminology being used.
A. The Esse Theory Summarized
The esse theory, as stated previously, can be reduced to the phrase "no bishop, no church" and vice versa. Thereunder, some would argue that the parish is a creature of the diocese. Without a bishop, there can be no parish.
The consequences of such thinking are that the parish has no authority or life independent of the bishop. Doctrinal change, organizational change, moral change and control of property flow from "the top down." Traditionally, this doctrine has been known as the esse theory of the episcopacy. Bishops are thereby viewed as essential for the very being of the church: "no bishop, no Church" and vice versa sum up this theory. Understandably, a number of bishops and dioceses across the Anglican Communion and in the United States prefer this erroneous argument.
If a bishop and a parish disagree, in this particular view of church order, the bishop can seize assets, hire and fire clergy, and replace recalcitrant lay leaders because he is empowered by the canon law to do so. A contemporary example of this authoritarian philosophy in action was demonstrated on September 6, 2003 in Vancouver, Canada when the Bishop of New Westminster, Michael Ingham, sent a locksmith to St Michael's Parish, a congregation at odds with that bishop over his advocacy of the gay agenda, and attempted to change the locks on the building. The Parish Vestry intervened and drove off the intruder. Rebuffed in his physical attempt to gain control of the property, the following day Bishop Ingham resorted to the canon law, removing the wardens from office and replacing them with a group amenable to his wishes. Jack Keating, "Anglicans Clamp Down on North Shore Parish" The National Post (9 September 1998) http://canada.com/national/story.asp?id=C9AF2F20-564E-42E3-86BA-475F1C6FF0E6.
A particularly full-blown Nineteenth Century American explanation of this theory states,
"In the State, under our form and theory of government, power ascends form the people whereas, in the Church, it descends from above to the bishops and, in some respects, through the bishops, into the subordinate ministry. The bishops are the governing order. Neither priest nor layman possesses any inherent power of legislation. Their counsel and advice is taken by the Bishops, as was the case in the Primitive Church; and in 'this church' the Bishops have granted to them, as represented in National Synod, the constitutional right of initiating and vetoing measures. In other words, the Bishops have consented and in legal form agreed not to exercise certain of their inherent functions, except so far as advised and approved by the House of Deputies in General Convention. The powers of the a Bishop in his Diocese are not merely and only those flowing from his individual functions, but those flowing from the authority and functions of the College of Bishops, of the Bishops of the Province, through whom his individual functions are derived there can be no such thing as an 'independent' church or diocese. The National Church is not a Church of delegated powers at all, but one possessing in and through the Bishop, or college of Apostles, inherent authority of government and discipline, the constitution of the National Church being simply an instrument under the terms and conditions of which organization was effected and jurisdiction recognized, and not conferring or attempting to confer any law-making or governing power. ? The fact is known to all that, nevertheless, the General Convention legislates in ecclesiastical matters without reserve or hindrance, except so far as restrained by the limitations of the Constitution, and in subordination to Divine and Catholic law." S. Corning Judd, "By what laws the American Church is governed, and herein chiefly, how far, it at all English Ecclesiastical Law is of force as such in this Church" Church Review 37 (1882) 194-7.
B. The Bene Esse Theory Summarized
Bene esse argues that bishops are desirable for the well being of the Church. They are not essential to the church, but merely historical and desirable. Germany's Lutheran bi shops or Methodist bishops in the United States serve as an example. Bishops are chosen to be overseers, following the example in Holy Scripture. They have no especially distinctive ecclesiastical functions save for confirmation or ordination. Though they are responsible for the continuation of the priesthood through their powers of ordination, they do not embody or continue in themselves the Church. Walter Ayrault, "Proper Place of Episcopacy in the Church" Church Eclectic 10 (1883) 961-8.
C. The Plene Esse Theory Summarized
The plene esse theory of the episcopate, as distinct from the bene esse, states bishops are necessary for the "full being" or "fullness" of the Church. Though this theory was not thoroughly articulated until the Twentieth Century and would be an anachronism if applied to the White-Seabury debate, it does encapsulate White's theory of the episcopacy as seen through the prism of the Thirty-nine Articles. Bishops are one necessary mark of the true church.
But even though bishops may abound, heresy can still be present. The mere presence of even validly consecrated bishops does not mean a true church by definition. Though no church can be perfect, or in fullness of being without a bishop, some churches at some times, wholly without bishops, have more nearly been true to the faith than some churches with bishops. Bishops are necessary for the fullness of perfection, but no more. Kenneth Carey, ed., The Historic Episcopate (London: Dacre, 1954) 105-27.