John Shepley does not see The Episcopal Church’s appeal to the constraints of its own peculiar ‘polity’ as evasive and frivolous, but as symptomatic of a fundamental difference of understanding about the nature of Christ’s Church

There has been much talk recently about the ‘polity’ of The Episcopal Church. Responding to the recommendations of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Panel of Reference in the case of the Diocese of Fort Worth, Bonnie Anderson, President of the House of Deputies of the General Convention, described the judgement as ‘antithetical to our polity and therefore not appropriate.’

This talk of ‘polity’, when serious ethical and theological principles are clearly at stake, might at first seem evasive or even frivolous; but this is not so. The Americans are not wrong to take matters of ‘polity’ seriously. There are fundamental issues at stake; and they are, overwhelmingly American issues, reflecting in the ecclesial sphere disputes which have repeatedly affected the political life of the United States. For brevity and convenience they can be called the Locke and the Hamilton disputes.

The Locke dispute

The Locke dispute (a continuation on American soil of the debate which raged in England in the time of the later Stuarts and around the Revolution of 1688) is essentially about the root and source of authority in State and Church. Its main protagonists in England were Sir Robert Filmer, whose treatise Patriarcha (written on the eve of the English Civil War but not published until 1680) argued the Tory case for a top-down notion of authority – the authority of fathers, kings and lineal descent – and John Locke, whose Two Treatises of Government 1680-1690 (along with Algernon Sidney’s Discourses 1698) argued the classic Whig case for a bottom-up understanding of authority, based upon the will and consent of the governed.

The Church of England was intimately associated, both in England and in America, with the Tory arguments of Filmer (Patriarcha was finally published at the behest of Archbishop Sancroft). Of the 60,-80,000 loyalists who left the United States in the immediate aftermath of 1781, many were members of the Church of England, and many of those clergymen. Over half the Anglican clergy of New Jersey, New York and New England left the country.

The Episcopal Church, then, was founded in an era of Whiggery triumphant. The man who, above all others, can be called its Founding Father, the Pennsylvanian priest William White (later Bishop 1789 and Presiding Bishop 1795), has been aptly described as ‘a liberal, anti-Calvinist, Lockean Whig’.

Whigs ascendant

White was one with his times and with American sentiment ever since. The extent to which the American Revolution is seen (by Americans at least) as the triumph of the Whig ‘polity’ can be observed by any visitor to Philadelphia, where, to the shocked incomprehension of English visitors, guides to the Revolutionary sites habitually refer to George III as a ‘tyrant’: this, moreover, from the citizens of a country which, in its hour of need, allied itself to Louis XV, turning Benjamin Franklin into the courtier, in the pleasant shade of the Hotel de Valentinois.


The post-Revolutionary American Church was a loose amalgam of lay-dominated parishes, with few if any interconnections. What emerged (like the United States itself) was a negotiated federation of those existing entities. It was not even certain that it would be episcopally ordered. White was in favour of ‘presiding ministers’ elected by their peers, to whom would be delegated the sole right to ordain and confirm, and little else.

It was Samuel Seabury, consecrated in Scotland as a pre-emptive strike by High Churchmen who feared the consequences of the Whig view of ecclesiology, who exposed its full implications. ‘The rights of the Christian Church,’ wrote Seabury in 1785, ‘arise not from nature or from compact, but by the institution of Christ; we ought not to alter them but to receive them and maintain them as the holy Apostles left them.’

Others at the time had the same prophetic vision of a church whose ‘polity’ might end in schism. ‘We cannot but be extremely cautious, lest we be the instruments of establishing an ecclesial system which will be called a branch of the Church of England, but afterwards may possibly appear to have departed from it essentially either in doctrine or in discipline’ wrote the bishops of the Church of England to the Philadelphia Convention in 1786.

The Hamilton dispute

The Hamilton dispute concerns the degree of central control appropriate in a federation of pre-existent entities. In the Federalist Papers ‘Publius’ (Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay) argued against ‘Brutus’ (Robert Yates) and A Federal Farmer’.

The issues at stake were the relations between the States and the proposed Federal government. The fears on the one hand were of a dictatorial and over-mighty Congress and on the other of a nation divided and weakened by local idiosyncrasies and rivalries. The hidden concern – to emerge in 1861 – was the right of individual States to secede from the Union.

The American Constitution has endured and seems now to be the bulwark of a mighty nation. But it did not appear so then. Contemporaries saw its defects clearly. ‘Our Constitution is in actual operation,’ wrote the elderly Benjamin Franklin to a friend. ‘Everything appears to promise that it will last, but in this world nothing is certain except death and taxes.’ George Washington was less sanguine: to a fellow delegate to the Convention he remarked, T do not expect the Constitution to last for more than twenty years.’

Episcopalian Constitutions

Though it is not true (as is sometimes claimed) that the Constitutions of the Episcopal Church and of the United States were written by the same people, it is true nevertheless, that they were written at the same time and in the same place by men who were friends and colleagues. Difficulties which have affected the one could naturally be expected to afflict the other. And so it has proved.

The ‘polity’ of The Episcopal Church, far from being a fixed entity to which appeal can be made against claims made by others is (as Bishop James Stanton of Dallas has recently reminded Americans [see p. 15]) in a state of change and flux. Questions which have bulked large in the history of the United States remain unsettled in the ‘polity’ of The Episcopal Church.

How ultimate is the authority of General Convention? What legitimate independence in doctrine and discipline remains to the dioceses? None it seems in the matter of the ordination of women to the priesthood, but more in the matter of the blessing of same sex unions.

What authority is legitimately vested in the House of Bishops, and what in the bishops of each individual diocese – where diocesan constitutions offer different and apparently contradictory answers? Can dioceses legitimately secede from the National Church? Can parishes legitimately secede from the dioceses of which they are constituent parts?

Centralist power

As in the life of the nation at large, these issues of’ polity’ seem to be settling in favour of greater power for a centralist Convention and a powerful bureaucracy – thus vindicating the original fears of the Anti-Federalists. But, by an entertaining and very American paradox, many of the issues of secession and separation are being tested by real estate cases in the Courts, where, of course, the law properly differs from State to State and where a secular authority based on Lockean principles has to decide how to operate vis-a-vis what is quaintly but doubtfully called an ‘hierarchical institution’.

Nowhere is this paradox more apparent than in the Commonwealth of Virginia, where the Church of England was once the established Church, where many churches date from a time before the establishment of The Episcopal Church and where currently thirteen parishes (accounting for some 10% of the diocese’s average Sunday attendance) have voted to leave.

Seabury’s example

But in all this flux and confusion it is the clear-sightedness of Samuel Sea-bury which demands our attention. For ‘polity’ does matter. A church which

what legitimate independence in doctrine and discipline remains to the dioceses?

bases its authority on the democratically determined mind of its members cannot be the Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ. It will always be a church which is wedded to the prejudices and opinions of the age.

Seabury, when he reminded Americans that the Church is not ‘by nature or from compact, but by the institution of Christ’ and that ‘we ought not to alter them but to receive them and maintain them as the holy Apostles left them,’ was merely repeating the admonition of Clement of Rome to the (first century) Philadelphians:

‘Now the Gospel was given to the Apostles for us by the Lord Jesus Christ; and Jesus Christ was sent from God. That is to say that Christ received his commission from God and the Apostles theirs from Christ. The order of these two events was in accordance with the will of God. So thereafter when the Apostles had been given their instructions.. .they set out in the full assurance of the Holy Spirit to proclaim the coming of God’s kingdom. And as they went through the territories and the townships preaching, they appointed their first converts – after testing them by the Spirit – to be bishops and deacons for the believers of the future.’

Not a democracy

Christianity, then, is top-down and not bottom-up; and so should be the ‘polity’ of the Christian Church. It is neither surprising nor remarkable that the Episcopal Church is suffering the inevitable consequences of its essentially rationalist self-understanding. Nor is it surprising that in practice it contradicts its own ‘polity’.

So the ordination of women to the priesthood was first permissive (allowing a degree of subsidiarity in its application). Later it became mandatory, asserting the power of central institutions and in particular of the General Convention, over the mind of individual dioceses. So, notwithstanding the need to obtain consents from bishops and standing committees, it was argued that New Hampshire had a right to the bishop it had chosen

– though, as we have seen, the required consents are not a foregone conclusion when a bishop of another opinion is elected elsewhere.

TEC has been accused by traditionalists of choosing to ‘walk apart’ from the rest of the Communion. The tragedy is that, to all intents and purposes, it took that decision in 1786.