On Polity 2: Polity as Provisional (revised)

In my first post on this subject I concluded: "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." 

I also noted my opinion that "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." 

A keen observer has pointed out that I must stress that these are my opinions about polity. Any given polity has different meaning for those who are bound by the governance provided, and viewed from within may not appear at all  provisional.

Still, I maintain that all polity is provisional - that is its primary limitation as to justice and mercy is that it falls short of the full embodiment of God's restorative justice and limitless mercy. This may be nothing more than the observation that polity is of human making, not God's ordaining. 

The polities of the various churches, including our own, are themselves subject to appeal - appeal to judgment regarding the extent to which they reflects what we know of the Christian faith and the Good News.  The appeal to the Word of God is, however, an appeal beyond the polity itself.  

I believe that polity is provisional within - meaning that the community of faithful people bound by that polity may change it - and it is provisional without - meaning that the community itself stands in judgment before the all consuming wrath and mercy of God. 

There is no hiding place down here. Right polity does not save us from error and belonging to a particular church does not keep us from judgment and mercy before the people of God, the body of Christ as a mystical communion of all faithful people. In the 39 Articles, Article 19, "As the Church of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch, have erred; so also the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of Ceremonies, but also in matters of Faith." and Article 21, concerning the councils of the Church, " when they be gathered together, (forasmuch as they be an assembly of men, whereof all be not governed with the Spirit and Word of God,) they may err, and sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining unto God."

Having said this, polity is an entry point into the necessary discussion among the various churches, the denominations (named churches) about God's mission and our several vocations as churches.  Ecumenical conversations begin with clarity about what our vocations as particular churches brings to the common desire to be active participants in God's mission.

To put it another way: I believe that churches - The Episcopal Church or any other denominated church - are not what Jesus had in mind. Church is our best answer as to how to be organized to respond to what Jesus did have in mind - the reconciliation of all things in God.

Provisionalily is a limitation on triumphalism. It is much needed in these days, when pure church movements abound. 

As I hope we will see, the issues of changing polity will become increasingly important as these postings continue. On whose authority such changes are made is itself a major polity issue, and the particular (although not unique) vocation of The Episcopal Church to be a church with bishops who guide but a wider body of believers who decide is in a sense a "trial run" of a possible way to organize as a church.


  1. "All polity is provisional."

    Factually speaking, this makes no sense. Polity is the means by which order is maintained. If it is inherently provisional, it is disordered.

    Also, is this intended as a kind of 'thesis' -- not factual, but a sort of wish about things? Polity means this *for me, Mark Harris.*

    Why not simply say polity is a bad idea rather than to try to make the word mean something it obviously does not mean. Polity is governing structure. It takes a certain form. It is amended by specific processes, stipulated in orderly ways.

    Canon lawyers can contrast 'black letter law' in Roman/Latin polity with comity understandings from English jurisprudence, and how these respectively influence church identity and goverance for anglicans and for RCs.

    But to declare that TEC polity is inherently provisional is to just make things up on a blog. It is to hold an opinion or to make an assertion. It is not a reasoned argument dealing with facts and contrasts.

    This has nothing to do with righteousness, except one hopes in the best sense of that word.


  2. Jim... I have read and reread your comment, and looked again at what I wrote. As with many things, I think you are partially right and partially not.

    I need to make a better distinction between my belief that all polity is of human origin and subject to change, either from within (your amendment process) or from without (judgment of a wider "court" - God or civil society).

    I don't think I "just made things up on a blog" here. I do believe you are right, I need to be clear that this is my opinion concerning polity.

    So, back to the text. I will try to rework some of this and see how that goes.

    Your remarks were helpful and you are a indeed righteous in the best sense of that word. Thanks.

    BTW, if you are writing on such matters elsewhere, let me know where. If you would be interested in doing a "guest" "fire back" let me know.

    Let's see how it goes.

  3. Thank you for clarifying that you are trying to reconceptualise terms which actually have clear meanings in their common usage.

    I think that is a bad idea and confuses matters, but this is your blog.


  4. I must leave a comment if only because my word verification is a real word: mental.

    Good night.

  5. PS: I meant the 'mental' to point to me...just to be clear.


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.