Looking for the "Basic Unit" of the Church.

Jim Naughton, at Episcopal Cafe finds the following in the third draft of the document, "Reflections of the Lambeth Conference" passed around today. You can find his full commentary HERE.

"21. For Anglicans the diocese is the basic unit of the Church; it is on this front line that we must be most effectively engaged in missions….

27. Our dioceses are bound together as national or regional Churches, often known as Provinces. We affirm the value of our Provincial structures, but (by?) which the life of the local Church is nurtured and sustained."

He he finds these points worrisome, for good reason. He has his, here are mine.

Nothing in these statements suggests that dioceses are the missionary creation of the "national or regional Churches" and exist in the context of some wider synodical context, but that is quite often the case. Nothing is said of the possibility that dioceses in coming together as a national or regional church acknowledge the binding together as a "union." (The Episcopal Church, for example, speaks of admitting a diocese in to union with the General Convention.)

On several levels it is reasonable to think of the diocese as the basic unit of the church, rather than the parish. That should make clergy and people who leave the diocese of which they have been part a bit nervous. What does that do to arguments about taking property with them when they leave? If the diocese is the basic unit, then that's where the property ownership resides.

The notion of the diocese as the basic unit aligns closely with the notion that the bishop is the center, or is at the center, of the gathered community of the Church and is the chief missionary officer of the gathered community.

But on other levels the proposition that the diocese is the basic unit of the church seems to imply that its decisions can stand apart from the decisions of the governance of the community of bishops and dioceses in which the diocese finds its mission and the bishop license. This is less clear.

A good bit of the arguments going on right now concerning property and the jurisdiction and license of particular bishops (including whether or not they have abandoned the communion of this Church), revolve around this point: do dioceses part of a national or regional Church have independent status such that they could stand apart from the canons and constitution of the Church to which they have belonged?

The Archbishop of Canterbury in a now famous letter to Bishop John Howe of Central Florida assured Bishop Howe that "... any diocese compliant with Windsor remains clearly in communion with Canterbury and the mainstream of the Communion, whatever may be the longer-term result for others in TEC. The organ of union with the wider Church is the bishop and the diocese rather than the Provincial structure as such..."

That letter opened a new can of worms, for it suggested that dioceses who were compliant (whatever that means) with Windsor can related to the Anglican Communion in a direct way, circumventing the decisions made by the synods to which they belong. That would support the idea that a group of dioceses in the Episcopal Church could be in communion with Canterbury quite independent of the Episcopal Church as a synodical body or the other dioceses in the Province. It only remains then for the ABC to assure them that he, or someone designated by him, would provide Provincial oversight. That would complete the downfall of the Provincial system.

The definition of the Anglican Communion as a "fellowship of dioceses, Provinces and regional churches" which has been around since the 1930's would then simply drop any reference to Provinces or regional churches and pick up compliance. The Anglican Communion would then be defined as a "fellowship of dioceses conforming to the Windsor Report and the subsequent documents resulting from meetings of Provincial Primates and by that fact in communion with the see of Canterbury." This makes the Anglican Communion a single whole - bishops and dioceses - in relation to Canterbury directly, on the basis of the litmus test of Windsor.

So the Reflection paper is suggesting that, on the whole, the Lambeth Conference participants believe the diocese is the basic unit. They may have said this for obvious reasons having to do with the sense of mission, the role of the bishop in the gathered community, etc.

But in the lead up to this Reflection paper it was not lost to Bishop John Howe that it was time to toot the horn for the diocese as the primary unit of the church, and in turn for the notion that compliant dioceses - the so called Windsor bishops, or now the Communion Partner dioceses (involving as it does bishops elsewhere in the Communion) who claim Windsor compliance - can be part of the Anglican Communion even if the Province to which they belong gets bounced.

Here is Bishop Howe's take on the matter, from his letter

"This afternoon we had another meeting of the Communion Partners Bishops, and one of the concerns we plan to share in the closing days of the Conference is the absolute necessity of having ratification of the Anglican Covenant take place at the DIOCESAN level, and not (just) the Provincial level."

If the Anglican Covenant is to be ratified at the diocesan level, we can kiss the Anglican Communion goodbye. Such ratification will circumvent any Provincial authority and make every diocese part of a world wide Anglican Church with Canterbury at the core and the Windsor Report its litmus test.

I hope that some bishops will stand up and with eloquence and fervor consign this idea to oblivion.

I can imagine a number of Provincial churches that would not be amused by this proposition, not the least the Church of England, the Church of Nigeria, the Episcopal Church, or for that matter any Province in the Anglican Communion that considers dioceses and their bishops to work within the context of synodical governance.

Not to put a fine point on it, but if the Archbishop is right, if the Communion Partner Bishops are right, and the diocese becomes the basic unit determining communion affiliation and Covenant approval, then the National Churches (Provinces) will become odd man out and irrelevant.

I have for a long time believed "Windsor Compliant" will serve no good end if it is treated in the idolatrous way it is presented, as if it were the only workable solution to the Communion's ills. Having been told the only prescription for our ills was to stop doing things that upset each other, the only thing the good doctors could do is repeat the prescription of moratoria again and again. It has now become an incantation. The problem is, it doesn't work. Perhaps the ills are not subject to the Windsor compliance cure.

And if not cured by Windsor, why should we think they will be solved by the Anglican Covenant, the brain child of Windsor and the means by which Windsor compliance is to be effected? If no one would take the first medicine of moratoria, surely no one will take the medicine of proscriptive covenant.

The answer is to be found elsewhere. We might notice that our Lord's prayer that "they all be one" was not very obviously effective if gaged by the contentions in the Christian community. Assuming that Our Lord's prayer for unity was heard, it must be that we are one in the Lord Jesus and not among ourselves, our dioceses, provinces and for sure our Communion. The unity Jesus prayers for is not a product of our compliance, but a product of his compassion and is in some wonderful sense already guaranteed.

If we can't stand one another, then let us at least try to practice the compassion that seems to have been present in the prayer to begin with.

Some of that seems to be going around at Lambeth, but you couldn't tell it by looking at the same old arguments for Windsor, moratoria and covenant. We look elsewhere - to Jesus whose compassionate prayer set us on the road of such a hope in the first place.


  1. Not every province of the Anglican Communion has the strong central structure TEC has, Jim. You seem to want the communion to reflect the structures of TEC, or to be modeled around them.
    Of course you are not alone in this: the British will view the communion through their sense of structure: we all will.


  2. Two points;
    1. I believe folks have pulled the +ABC's statement in the letter (email) to +Howe out of context. +Howe had written the +ABC regarding the threatened departure of priests and congregations from his diocese in an attempt to "stay" Anglican and within the Anglican Communion. It was a fruitless attempt in heeding the fear mongering of Global South provinces which declared themselves "out of communion" or having "impaired communion" with TEC. I believe that the +ABC was giving +Howe grounds to reassure his flock of Chicken Littles that departing the diocese was not necessary to "stay" in communion, and nothing more. It was not a dismissal of the province.

    2. "fellowship of dioceses, Provinces and regional churches" Perhaps if this were written differently it could not be over emphasized improperly. The three entities are in alphabetical order, which gives dioceses a false importance as primary. The dioceses spoken of are in fact extra-provincial dioceses that are not a part of provincial or national churches. The ones existing today are; The Church of Ceylon (2 dioceses), Iglesia Episcopal de Cuba, Bermuda, The Lusitanian Church (Portugal), The Reformed Episcopal Church of Spain, Falkland Islands and, if you listen to their protests, the The Cayman Islands.

  3. Dear Lord, please tell me that our bishops have caught on to this and will speak against it immediately. Is it even possible to undermine the Provincial structure in this way or is this, de facto, creating a parallel polity irrespective of what any Province may think about it?


  4. Gives me a headache.

  5. Obadiah points to the peculiar structures of TEC. At least here, it would seem that dioceses are the creation of The General Convention, not the other way around, as I believe you, Mark, have stated clearly a number of times before. It might take a whole heck of a lot of lawsuits to keep TEC "whole", and we might get exhausted or go bankrupt in the process, but any attempt by +Rowan to govern dioceses of TEC would be a just too transparent throw-back to 19th century colonialism, wouldn't it?

  6. Point of information: How would the Eastern Churches react to a bishop trying to move his diocese to from one Church to another? I know that the introduction of the Gregorian calendar led to schisms by "Old Calendrists;" and I wonder how they dealt with the property issue. Anybody know?

  7. To say that the diocese is the basic unit is to mistake the Anglican Communion for a worldwide Anglican Church, which doesn't exist. The diocese is indeed the basic unit of each autonomous church (though we can be fairly congregational at times in TEC). To then go on to extend that to the whole Anglican Communion is like saying that, since the cell is the basic unit of the human body, it is then also the basic unit of humanity. (I hope that analogy works.)

  8. Well, it certainly points up the intentions of those {cough Rowan cough} who speak of an Anglican Church (rather than the Anglican Communion), doesn't it?

  9. The "Basic Unit" of the church is that which is considered by orthodox anglicans to be holding to "The faith once delivered to the Saints."

    So in Virginia it is the parish (e.g. Truro Church), in California (and other places) it is the diocese (San Joaquin) and in Africa it is the province (Nigeria, Uganda).

  10. Fr. Mark,
    Thanks to your reference to Our Lord's "that they may all be one" prayer, I went and had another look at John 17, which confirmed my sense of how important this prayer is for understanding what the issues are. Jesus prayers that we might be one as he and the Father are one (John 17:21). Clearly, the Holy Trinity is not held together by rules, institutional structures, "instruments of communion," "covenants," etc. Jesus and the Father are bound together in a relationship of love. No other type of unity is worthy of our efforts, as far as I'm concerned. Thanks for bringing this to light!


  11. Kevin M. is right, of course. In the 1530s, Clement VII and Paul III would have said the Catholic Church was composed of bishops (and their dioceses) in communion with the See of Peter, those dioceses being arranged in provinces, peculiar jurisdictions, and so on. Anglicanism, as we have noted before, is, if anything, the claim that Christendom is organized, rather, into national churches, under the leadership of the lay authorities.

  12. I am in a relatively small, struggling diocese in TEC - not liberal, not conservative, but poor and rural. This sort of polity would be the death of us. We need the national church for all sorts of reasons.

  13. Kevin M. (Hi, Kevin!) and 4 may 1535+ have it absolutely right! As I've been reading this latest nonsense coming out of Canterbury, I've been scratching my head at the apparent lack of historical understanding of what is distinctive about Anglican ecclesiology. Clearly, a "Communion" built around a Mother Church that was reformed and organized around royal supremacy over the national church can't pretend that the diocese has any kind of independent or foundational existence. Imagine Henry, Edward, and Elizabeth allowing individual bishops to decide whether or not they and their English diocese would stay in communion with the Bishop of Rome!!! It's clear to me that ++Rowan is the kind of "Catholic" Anglican who equates catholicity with conformity to the norms of Roman Catholic ecclesiology rather than the realities of historic Anglican ecclesiology. Given his lack of committment to the historical realities of his own national church, is it little wonder he has so little grasp of the realities of TEC?


  14. So in [x] it is the parish, in [y] it is the diocese and in [z] it is the province.

    If you look at the above sentence in a nonideological light, it's becomes apparent that the above is a recipe for a chaotic, make-it-up-as-you-go-along sect...

    ...and then you put the names back (occupied Truro, San Joaquin, border-invading Nigeria&Uganda), and Voila'! That's EXACTLY what you're talking about!

    Have fun w/ the FOCAs, BarbieAnn. Episcopalians (and other faithful Anglicans) are going to stick w/ the tried and True (ala "the Way, the Truth and the Life": a certain Nazarean carpenter I hope you'll consider following, one of these days...)

  15. For Anglicans the diocese is the basic unit of the Church;

    Why not take the basic unit down to the parish level, then, and we'd be a congregational church? There's a recipe for another kind of chaos.

    Apparently, some parishes in TEC seem to believe that we are already there.


OK... Comments, gripes, etc welcomed, but with some cautions and one rule:
Cautions: Calling people fools, idiots, etc, will be reason to bounce your comment. Keeping in mind that in the struggles it is difficult enough to try to respect opponents, we should at least try.