(This is the first in a series "On Polity," in which I will try to post in something like a logical order my thoughts on the Polity of the Church, a topic which a good friend says will induce sleep in all but the most hearty. Still, what is at stake in addressing the matter of Polity is nothing less than the rationale for the vocation of a particular way of being Christian in organized community. So perhaps it will be worth the effort to wade through what seems arcane and the playground for policy wonks. We will see.
I understand that of those who read these notes, many will disagree. That is as it should be. Discussions of Polity are often disagreeable. These notes are likely to be serious sounding, and perhaps a bit ponderous, but from time to time I will try to lighten the load. This will sometimes be viewed as heretical, since humor is, let us say, just a bit off the mark. It will not be the first or last time I have been accused of heresy. Life is good indeed.)
OP (On Polity)
SOME BEGINNING OBSERVATIONS
"Polity" is in these comments is understood to refer to the way in which a church orders its life as a community - how it prays, how it lives out its sacramental life, how it understands the duties of those set apart for particular vocations and ministries, and how it governs itself. The Episcopal Church understands the Book of Common Prayer and the Constitution and Canons to determine the polity of the Church, as those in turn are formed by deep understanding of the Word of God for which the Holy Bible is the outward and visible sign. Nobody really knows what to do with the hymns of the church, or most of the poetry in them. But I have it on good authority that all poetry is prayer.
2. Mission, Vocation and Polity
The Book of Common Prayer Catechism says this about the Mission of the Church.
"Q. What is the mission of the Church?
A. The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ."
This has been frequently used as the basis for a conversation about the purpose / vocation of the specific "church, " i.e. The Episcopal Church. This of course was not the intent of the Catechism. The first question in the section on "The Church" says this: " The Church is the community of the New Covenant." That is, the "Church" addressed in the answers in this section is the whole community of people who are Christian / Christ followers/ bound by the New Covenant. The mission of the church is then not about any specific church - The Episcopal Church, the United Methodist Church, the Roman Catholic Church, etc. It is about "the mystical body of all faithful people."
Secondly, the mission statement supposes that the Church (the body of faithful people) is an agent, whose purpose / vocation is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ." In recent times there has been a refinement of that statement. It is God who from God's full being creates, sustains and restores the ordering of all that is to the end that is God's alone to know. When we say that the mission of the Church is to "restore" we are using a shorthand for saying that the church is called (has a vocation) to be an instrument for God's restorative will. It is not, however, for the Church to fully know the content of that will, but only as the Church lives into being the ongoing body of Christ in the world that the full import of creation / sustenance / and restoration is finally understood.
It is therefore of considerable help to those of us who despair for the Church and its life to know that our blindness is a product of no special sin or defect. We are imperfect because we see imperfectly, bound as we are to a calling that reaches beyond our ken.
The Church as the body of Christ, and any particular church by name (denomination) can not claim to know the whole truth of God's redeeming and restorative work in Jesus Christ, nor can we in the churches make any claim to unique and special revelation of the whole of God's mission. The missio Dei, like the restorative justice and mercy we believe it signals, is not the property of any church, no matter its claim to catholicity, apostolic mission, or unity.
There can be no valid claim therefore that the polity of any given church reflects either the "mission of the Church" understood as God's mission reflected in the vocation of the Church as the body of Christ, or the whole of the apostolic, catholic, united faith.
My sense is we need to look not to the "mission of the Church" or "God's mission" for our guidance in determining polity, but rather to more humble origins for organizational life, relying on the missionary insistence of those who seek the fulfillment of God's mission that they will call us again and again to the vocation to be instruments of God's justice and mercy. The source for polity is then to be found in the work-a-day world of organizational accountability and the structures that provide for that accountability. The question is - to what is the church (any church) accountable?
For this reason I believe the first polity question is this: "What is the vision / vocation that provides purpose for The Episcopal Church, such that we can demand accountability to that purpose and good order in the achievement of that end? This is not about following Jesus Christ. That is already settled by our being part of the body of Christ, the Church. As far as I know, "The Episcopal Church" has never been the answer to the question, "What is the True Church." This is about what sort of purpose or vision makes the formation and continuance of an organized Christian community called "The Episcopal Church" both valuable to our being caught up in God's mission and justifiable in the light of the many named - denominated - churches.
There is a hint to what might be such a vision and purpose in the historical record of The Episcopal Church. One of the first acts of the first General Convention was to issue a Book of Common Prayer, an act which nailed down one "side" of the polity of the Church, the other side being the structuring of The Episcopal Church with a Constitution and Canons. In the preface to the newly published BCP, The Episcopal Church had this to say:
...when in the course of Divine Providence, these American States became independent with respect to civil government, their ecclesiastical independence was necessarily included; and the different religious denominations of Christians in these States were left at full and equal liberty to model and organize their respective Churches, and forms of worship, and discipline, in such manner as they might judge most convenient for their future prosperity; consistently with the constitution
and laws of their country. (Bold my emphasis.)
And now, this important work being brought to a conclusion, it is hoped the whole will be received and examined by every true member of our Church, and every sincere Christian, with a meek, candid, and charitable frame of mind; without prejudice or prepossessions; seriously considering what Christianity is, and what the truths of the Gospel are; and earnestly beseeching Almighty God to accompany with his blessing every endeavour for promulgating them to mankind in the clearest, plainest, most affecting and majestic manner, for the sake of Jesus Christ, our blessed
Lord and Saviour.
I suggest that the writers of this Preface knew well that the polity of The Episcopal Church would be that of a "religious denomination of Christians," and that they saw the polity of this new church as something which the were free to "model and organize" "in such manner as they might judge most convenient for their future prosperity." That being settled - that polity (organization, worship and discipline) was to be put forth as "most convenient for their future prosperity." ( We can go into the "constitution and laws of their country" later.) Trust me, for polity wonks there is always later.
Further, the writers also knew on what basis they were to judge their work: "Seriously considering what Christianity is, and what the truths of the Gospel are" these things (The Book of Common Prayer and the Constitution and Canons of the Church as implicated by it) are to be promulgated for the sake of Jesus Christ, our blessed Lord and Saviour." That is, the vocation of this particular Church (The Episcopal Church) was bound up with both the future prosperity of its own faith community and as an offering in "clearest, plainest, most affecting and majestic manner" of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
So the polity of The Episcopal Church is grounded in a vision of being a community of prayer and adoration - clear, straightforward, affecting and majestic - for the sake of Jesus Christ, to the advancement of the whole Church's vocation to be instruments of God's mission - one of creation, sustenance and restoration.
Well, you knew all that anyway. Or you think I am wrong. But either way, you already know that. Right? Of course you do. That's why this is boring.
But here's the catch. If we are a Church whose vocation it is to be a community of prayer and adoration for the sake of Jesus Christ, how do we form a polity that serves that end? And what about the Missio Dei? What about restorative justice, works of mercy, and all that?
Well, here is the hard part. God is in charge of God's mission. We are a little people, but we are at our best a people of prayer and adoration. And the bet is that that prayer and adoration leads to action, not for ourselves but for all the world.
Well, there's a beginning.
Here are some guidelines of engagement: I am glad to receive any criticisms of the specifics of this note, and of those that follow. I am not interested in, nor will I accept, comments that lead off topic to dumping on The Episcopal Church or its leadership (we can later look at how a polity might challenge some of the ways we do our work). And I hope that those making comments will use their own names. I will accept no anonymous comments, even good ones.
I'm also open to publishing other essays on polity, particularly if they are parallel to my own (although that is not a requirement). Send them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org