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Basic Anglican Polity

Louis Tarsitano

[COMMENT:  Louis Tarsitano explains the hierarchical side of Anglicanism -- in the spiritual life.  We have the same faith passed down from the beginnings of the Church.  That is a given, and to be protected by the hierarchy, the clergy, the bishops, priests, and deacons. 

But on the material side, we are bottom up, not top down.  See other articles under Property Rights in the Church.  E. Fox]

My husband, The Rev Dr Lous R Tarsitano, wrote this and I think it explains alot about a subject
that too many people do not have a clear grasp of historically or presently.  [Sally Tarsitano]

Basic Anglican Polity

As Anglican in the United States consider the possibility of forming a new province in the Church, it might be useful to pause for a moment to consider some basics of Anglican polity.

Perhaps most important to recognize is the Anglican claim to "catholicity." When we assert that we practice a "reformed catholicism," we are not claiming something innovative or additive. We merely acknowledge that it was historically necessary to reform ourselves as local exhibits of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. For us, "reformed catholicism" means only a return to the catholicism with which we began when the Church was first planted in Britain by God's grace.

We have no special dogmas, notes, or distinctives, other than the character that God has given us in history, through our life in particular places and times, but always within the One Church of his Son Jesus Christ. This character is revealed in the Book of Common Prayer tradition, which was not a 16th century invention, but a 16th century summary of the life of our household within the Church. Similarly, the character of the Roman and Orthodox households are made manifest in the visible forms of their spiritual life in Christ.

Precisely because we are of the One Church, we harbor no animosity towards other households of the Church. Nor do we despise or resent the grace that God has given to those whose "churches" are not churches at all, but only associations or "denominations" of Christians based on human theory rather than on the one divine foundation.

At the same time, we are obligated, by who and what God has made us, not to agree in error, wherever it is to be found, whether among ourselves or among others. We hold to the standard of the Vincentian Canon: that which was believed everywhere, always, and by all in the ancient Church. This standard is not of our own devising, therefore, but only the standard of faith and practice of the undivided Church of Jesus Christ, which the Fathers derived from the Holy Scriptures (taken in their entirety as the Word of God Written) and from the Apostles' teaching and example.

Because this standard is a given, as a part of Christian history, it is incapable of amendment.  If we depart from this standard, we do not become "something new" in the Church: we only cease to be the Church.

It is also crucial to understand that for Anglicans there is no indispensable human institution. There were Anglicans before there was an England, a monarchy, or an Archbishop of Canterbury. Our household did not cease to be when the Roman and Byzantine Empires fell. The Church was present and alive in North America before there was a United States or a Protestant Episcopal Church. It is Christ who constitutes the Church, including the Anglican part of it, and not the human institutions that either the Church or the surrounding society organizes to conduct routine business.

On the other hand, certain divine givens are indispensable. To recognize the claim of another household to be truly part of the Church and truly Christ's, we look for the ancient tests restated in the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral in the last century.

 No group of people, however pious, can claim to be within the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church if they do no uphold the Holy Scriptures as the authoritative basis for doctrine; the ecumenical Creeds as faithful summaries of Scriptural dogma; at least the dominical sacraments of Baptism and the Lord's Supper administered according to Christ's ordinance; and the apostolic ministry of male bishops, priests, and deacons in a lawful succession of authority.

These tests do not constitute Anglican or any other sort of polity, in and of themselves. They are, however, the basic requirements of internal and external "communion" and "fellowship" (both of which terms translate the Greek "koinonia" of the New Testament).

Thus, an Anglican cannot be in communion with someone or some "church" that does not accept the limits of the Quadrilateral, whether that person or "church" is called "Anglican" or not. This lack of communion is not a matter of will or choice, but of strict factual impossibility. Christian reality does not permit the relation known in the Bible as "communion" apart from these divine givens.

At the same time, it is sinful for an Anglican, or for anyone else who claims to be a Christian, to be voluntarily "out of communion" with any Church or person who conforms to these divine givens. Conformity makes Christ the basis of communion, and to reject communion is to reject Jesus Christ.

It is Christian polity that fleshes out the visible, earthly details of the communion of the faithful in Jesus Christ, with the Father, and by the Holy Ghost. Anglican polity is only a subset of the general Christian polity, and it must conform to the terms of the general polity.

"Polity," then, is an "order" of life. The word is derived from the Greek "polis," for "city," and it implies not merely governance, but the entire ethos that unites individual persons in families, larger societies, and a common identity as a people or nation. It is, as St. Augustine and others have observed, the ordered life of the City of God that Christian polity expresses, and not the life of the surrounding cities of men.

Life within the City of God is not "homogeneous," but "homoousious": of one substance with the life of Jesus Christ, the Son of God made man. Persons and nations within Christ have their identity perfected by grace, and not obliterated.

Christ's Great Commission to the Apostles is in two parts, and neither part may be ignored (Matt. 28:19-20). First, the Apostles, and their successors in ministry and authority, are to make disciples of all nations. Second, they are to teach them to observe all things whatsoever Christ has commanded, with the accompanying promise that if they do so, Christ will remain present within the Church even until the end of the world.

Christian polity requires obedience to both elements of this commission, with the goal of remaining in communion with Jesus Christ. Any divergence from this commission and its terms causes a breach in that communion to a greater or lesser extent, and at the extremes of willful heresy and apostasy, such divergence breaks communion with Christ entirely.

Anglican polity, then, addresses both matters of doctrine and discipline. "Doctrine" refers to the unchangeable substance of the Faith, including all of the moral and ecclesiastical order given to the Church by Jesus Christ, whose Body the Church is, and whose substance the Church shares by grace and adoption. "Discipline" is a subordinate term, referring to the maintenance of doctrine, the expression of doctrine in worship and teaching, and the edification of the lives of the people of the Church within the one life of Christ Jesus.

Discipline may be amended, as long as the substance of doctrine is unchanged. Changes in discipline, however, require both testing by the Scriptures and historic Christian practice and the consent of those whom such changes will affect. If a change in discipline will affect the entire Church, only a general council and reception by the Church in general can make such a change lawful or authoritative. If a change in discipline will have the effect of changing, diminishing, obscuring, or relativizing doctrine, it may not be made at all. There is no body on earth competent to make such changes.

There is, furthermore, a "common law" of the Christian Church. The decrees of the true General Councils, the Creeds, and the general forms of Christian worship are part of this common law. So also are the collections of the ancient canon law that are the inheritance of all the Church. National Churches and Communions of national churches may amend or add to this common law, when matters of doctrine are not involved (not merely in their own opinion, but according to the general understanding of the Church), at which time the active local legislation takes precedence in the local administration of the law.

The Anglican Reformation of the 16th century, for example, rests on the ancient common law of the Catholic Church. Under this law, no universal ordinary authority, as claimed by the Bishops of Rome, was established. In consequence, the Church of England, as a national Church and a component of the Catholic Church, was competent to reform herself, as long as she adhered to the ancient constitutions and canons of the Church, and preserved the substance of Christian doctrine in its entirety.

The Church of England, however, was not competent to revise such things as the apostolic ministry or the doctrine and administration of the dominical sacraments, as many dissenters and nonconformists insisted that she do.

Furthermore, the Church of England did not, and has not, broken communion with such other national churches and communions of churches as have maintained their communion with Jesus Christ. To the extent that the Church of England is out of communion with the Churches of Rome and Constantinople, that is the decision of Rome and Constantinople. Priests of those communions, for example, are recognized as validly ordained, and may serve in the Church of England under the usual conditions for licensing clergy ordained in other churches.

To understand American Anglican polity, three historical facts are necessary. The first is the historic meaning of the phrase "national church." This phrase does not mean "the bureaucratic headquarters" or the "national convention [or synod]" of a Church, but a Christian Church in a particular nation. This is the ancient meaning of "national church," as evidenced by the writings of the Fathers, the documents of the Church of England, and the continued practice of the Orthodox Churches.

The second historical fact that is necessary to understand American Anglican polity is that national churches are communions of people, parishes, and dioceses, which come together to form one or more "provinces" of the Church, local and regional communions within the larger Church. At Philadelphia in 1789, those who reorganized the American Church after the War for Independence quite consciously understood themselves to be forming a provincial communion of local ecclesiastical jurisdictions, to be governed by a combination of local and national synods, called "conventions" to make them sound more American. This communion drew its reality from the assent and adherence of the local parishes and dioceses, rather than the local churches drawing their reality from some "national jurisdiction."

[Comment:  On this issue see also Peter Toon's articleProperty Canons,  & 4 Levels of Unity.  E. Fox] 

The third fact is this: the provincial communion known as the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States confirmed its communion with the Church of England by adopting the doctrine, discipline, and worship that the Church of England had received from the undivided Church, excepting only those matters of discipline that pertained to life in a monarchy rather than a republic. The Book of Common Prayer adopted in 1789 was the visible warrant of this continued communion with the Church of England, placing the Book of Common Prayer essentially above the constitution and canons of the Episcopal Church in authority.

In many ways, the Book of Common Prayer is the polity of the American Church; and the various doctrinal errors and immoralities of the modern ECUSA cannot be separated from the adoption in 1979 of a replacement book. That the 1979 book was a replacement, and not simply another edition of previous books, was made clear by ECUSA's presiding bishop elect, then chairman of the Standing Liturgical Commission, at the General Convention held in Philadelphia last summer. He stated that ECUSA alone, of all the national churches in the Anglican Communion, had replaced its historic Prayer Book with a new composition.

For American Anglicans, this business of replacing the Prayer Book is a serious business, far more important than personal tastes or preferences. This action by ECUSA was a break with the communion of the past, which necessarily means a break in the communion of the present. It is no less serious than the abrogation of the federal Constitution would be for Americans in their civil life. The geography may remain the same, but the identity of the people is in jeopardy.

It is necessary, then, for faithful Anglicans in America to reorganize themselves, as Anglicans have many times in the past. Such a reorganization, moreover, cannot be "open-ended" but must follow the pattern of the English Reformation in restoring the faith and order of the Church in this nation according to the pattern of Jesus Christ and his undivided Church.  

Such a reorganization should take the form of a new provincial communion within the one Church of Jesus Christ. On the grounds of a national Church's right and duty to remain faithful, the organizers should welcome into communion all faithful Anglican jurisdictions within the United States. The tests of their faithfulness should be objective and spiritual: adherence to the doctrine, discipline, and worship that were received by the American Church from the Church of England, as represented by the 1662 Prayer Book of the Church of England and the 1789-1928 American Prayer Books. If other forms of worship conformable with these standards are allowed by common consent and by lawful authority, they may be used as well, consistent with the unchangeable doctrine of the Christian Church 

In the meantime, as the goal of the formation of a provincial communion is pursued, traditional Anglicans must recognize that reformation is not a seamless process in a nation as large as the United States. When the first provincial communion was formed in the United States, thirteen years had passed since the Declaration of Independence. During those years, the Churches in the various States struggled, not only for their own survival, but to find Scriptural ways of working with one another.

The same must be true today. As our fellow Anglicans struggle to survive as Anglicans in the various regions and jurisdictions within our nation, we must not abandon them to their own devices. If they are truly Anglicans, or even if they only have managed to locate themselves within the boundaries of the Quadrilateral, then we are truly in communion with them, even if the details of a better order for our common life have yet to be arranged. To be voluntarily out of communion, when Christ has provided the necessary basis for communion, is sin.

See other articles under Property Rights in the Church.

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Date Posted -  --/--/20008   -   Date Last Edited - 07/07/2012