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A series of essays toward General Convention 2003 and beyond

General Convention's Actions and the Constitution of the Episcopal Church

General Convention's Actions and the Constitution of the Episcopal Church

By The Rev. Canon Mark Harris>

There have been a number of instances where the Preamble to the Constitution of the Episcopal Church has been sited as the basis on which to deny the constitutionality of actions taken at the 2003 General Convention in Minneapolis.

A notable case is from the Diocese of Pittsburgh's proposed resolution to a specially called Diocesan Convention:

The Church in the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh holds that the 74th General Convention of the Episcopal Church has exceeded its authority and departed from its constitution, in confirming the election as bishop of a non-celibate homosexual man and in permitting same-sex blessings, separating itself from the Anglican Communion and from the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, directly rejecting its solemn responsibility to uphold and propagate the historic Faith and Order, as set forth in the Book of Common Prayer. These acts are thus held to be null and void, and of no effect, in the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh."

I take exception to the notion that General Convention acted in ways contrary to its own constitution. Such charges need to be addressed.

The Preamble of the Constitution states a fact: "The Episcopal Church is a constituent member of the Anglican Communion," and then proceeds to spell out just what that means. And it means that the Episcopal Church is part of a fellowship (of similar entities, I presume) that being the Anglican Communion, and the things that set this fellowship apart - namely being in communion with the See of Canterbury and upholding and propagating the historic Faith and Order as set forth in the Book of Common Prayer. Whether or not we remain in the future a constituent member, or whether or not we are separated because of a perceived failure concerning Faith and Order, is not a matter for the Diocese of Pittsburgh to determine in any case, although it can opine as it wishes.

Which of these things might the complaint be about? Surely not the fact of being a constituent member...that is already established. That is a matter of fact, not authority. And it is not about being in communion with the See of Canterbury, that too is a fact. It is not about "separating itself from the Anglican Communion and from the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church." Such separation in the first instance is not evident as yet, and in the second instance is part of the lamented general division of the Church into the churches. The complaint has to do, then, with the phrase, "upholding and propagating the historic Faith and Order as set forth in the Book of Common Prayer."

Whose Book of Common Prayer? Ours of 1979, the Church of England's of 1662?" More, on whose authority are changes made in the Book of Common Prayer? Well, friends, the answer is the Book of Common Prayer as used by this Church, that of 1979 - as one finds is spelled out later in the Constitution.

So a reasonable question is, if the historic Faith and Order is set forth in the Book of Common Prayer, and the authority for determining the content of that Book is the same as the authority for the actions determining other matters at General Convention, namely the authority to decide matters that come before it, in what way has the General Convention exceeded its authority here?

It evolves to General Convention to decide on the matters before it whether or not we are inhibited from making a particular decision because of Prayer Book constraints. As a General Convention, the two Houses consenting, we decided that the election of Bishop elect Robinson was in order and that the content of resolution C051 would be passed, and that neither were inhibited by the constraints of the Prayer Book and our understanding of Faith and Order as it specified.

The charge is that we have "departed from our constitution." This is, in my opinion, a bogus, mistaken and misleading charge. We have, to the contrary, done precisely what our Constitution and its Canons require - made decisions on the questions that have been set before us. I have argued elsewhere that I think we did a good job of this . But be that as it may, the charge being leveled is not about our doing things constitutionally or in line with the canons, but about our making what the authors believe are bad decisions. Fair enough. They think the decisions we made are bad decisions.

The argument at that General Convention acted unconstitutionally is made precisely because it will sell well to other member Churches of the Anglican Communion who may not be aware of the nature of our Constitution and Canons and might give the idea that this church as been captured by some ungodly forces who have turned this church away from the Gospel. This argument is propaganda.

And, just for the record: The Preamble to the Constitution of the Episcopal Church became part of the Constitution only in 1967, with the exception of its last sentence which begins "This Constitution, adopted in General Convention in Philadelphia in October 1789, as amended in subsequent General Conventions, sets forth the basic Articles for the government of this Church, and of its overseas missionary jurisdictions." That sentence was there earlier. I would argue that the core of the preamble is not in the first sentences concerning how we identify ourselves as part of the Anglican Communion, but rather the last that sets out the purpose of what follows. In this the preamble is much like the preamble of the Constitution of the United States of America, which Constitution became effective that same year (1789).

In either case, the Preamble is not an operant part of the Constitution, it is the lead up, the wind up for the pitch. It is the wrong place to hang a charge of unconstitutional action.

We need to be clear to our friends in the Anglican Communion: Our decisions at General Convention, for better or ill, have been made as well as we are able, and constitutionally. If they disagree with us, at least let it be on a matter of substance and not this charge of acting unconstitutionally.

You are welcome to submit your essays for consideration for this series. Send them to Identify yourself by name, snail address, parish, and other connections to the Episcopal Church. Please encourage others to do the same.


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