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Church Hierarchies & Church Property

Peter Toon

[COMMENT:  Toon is a good writer, and I think accurate on this issue.  I would suggest, however, that the leadership really does have more leadership control (in a good way) than he suggests, but that they have systematically undermined the trust of the people by their deviation from obvious Biblical principle.  That is when the people (rightly) get upset and resist. 

What is missing in both the hierarchical and the more autonomous forms of church government is that real unity can be had only under truth, and that substantial truth can be had only with a freemarket of ideas, i.e., when the principles of the American constitution are applied, which today they rarely are, either in civil government or in the Church.  (See Rodney Stark's wonderful book, The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success, for a stunning defense of the rationality of Biblical religion.) 

In other words, we must honor the principle that truth is the first and deepest obligation, even before that of worshipping God.  That is true because without the prior obligation to truth, we can never have any credible claim to be worshipping the true God.  God recognizes that and invites us, "Come, let us reason together..."  Not the silly kind of reasoning associated with Western culture nowadays, but a real effort to get at the truth of the matter.  Science, in other words. 

Such a search for truth is more than merely academic or intellectual, though it includes those qualities.  It is intuitive, relational, mental, spiritual -- all of the means of perceiving truth available to us.  God was trying to teach us how to get at the truth more accurately with the "rise of science" during the late Middle Ages.  Obviously He was not worried about His own ability to present and defend His case.  He was sharpening the 2-edged Sword of the Spirit, and giving us the capacity for a deeper kind of social and political unity that we had ever had before.  But we Christians ran scared (what if an honest contest of ideas proves our beliefs wrong???), and gave science away to the secular folks -- who have used it to beat on the Church. 

There are truths to both the hierarchical side and the democratic side.  The two are combined in the US Constitution to create a valid pluralism.   We Christians must examine our Church political structure and see how we can appropriately embody those principles in our hierarchy. 

We are scuttling our case when we defend our churches on the grounds that a given local church existed before the Episcopal Church was formed.  If the Episcopal Church was hierarchical when it was formed, then joining it assumes assent to that principle.  But if it was not hierarchical from the beginning, as was surely the case, then we MUST make our case on that. 

In other words, we must learn how to apply the separation of powers to Church government, and that indeed our Episcopal founding fathers did just that.  See other articles under Property Rights in the Church.     E. Fox]

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.

[COMMENT: This paragraph above is the key to the situation.  But I would add that the Anglican tradition is hierarchical in terms of spiritual life, belief, creeds, etc., that we conform to Apostolic Succession, the Bible, and the historic Creeds.  But Peter Toon's point holds in the realm of property, which honors the American tradition of dispersion of power, rendering a functioning autocracy impossible. You can vote with your feet.  So the legitimate Episcopal Church (if one can find one anymore!) is top down with respect to belief and doctrine, but bottom up with respect to material goods.    E. Fox] 

July 4, 2007   Independence Day!

See other articles under Property Rights in the Church.

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Date Posted -  --/--/2005   -   Date Last Edited - 07/07/2012