On Polity 3: On clarifying the objectives of this series

Someone commenting on my first essay on Polity remarked,   

"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."

I've give this considerable thought, realizing that perhaps there is nothing much to say that has not already been said by the great luminary on these matters, Richard Hooker, and contemporary stellar essayists, such as The Rev. Dr. Dwight Zscheile. Perhaps the comment is right, that I am saying "Polity means this "for me, Mark Harris." If so, these exercises in interpretation are of limited value to anyone but me, and I might just as well take up some other task and make myself useful.

I rather hope this is not the case.  Of course what I am writing is opinion about a way to approach the question of Episcopal Church Polity, and about the content of such Polity.  Of course it is interpretation.  I believe the polity of The Episcopal Church is deeply dependent on the interpretive understandings of a rather complex story.

The remarks that "Polity is the means by which order is maintained" and "Polity is governing structure. It takes a certain form," and "It is amended by specific processes, stipulated in orderly ways," all suggest that Polity, in any give context, say, the "polity" of The Episcopal Church, refers to specific and verifiable "facts on the ground" about the way in which structure and order is provided a Church.  So the Constitution and Canons, the Book of Common Prayer, the observable traditions in the common life of the Church, and other "factual" material constitute polity. The point seems to be that matters factual regarding polity are to be gleaned by the careful examination of the ways in which churches are organized.  Anything else is "a sort of wish about things." I disagree.

Let me then say again what I am attempting to do in these notes.  

(i) I am beginning with the understanding that polity, as it applies to any specific church,  is a product of human ingenuity and has no divine authority attached.  Therefore it can be changed precisely by human interaction. I want to explore what changes might make us a more missional church.
(ii) At the same time the polity of any church is also a means by which theological viewpoints are expressed. Often these are not propositions that are part of the polity itself, but rather underpinnings of the polity, often unknown to those whose lives are impacted by the rules and regulations of the church.  I want to explore the theological basis of the polity of the church.  
(iii) There is some level of untidiness in the Constitution and Canons of The Episcopal Church, and considerable untidiness in the ways in which the offices of various ministries in the church are understood, and a broad range of theological interpretation of many of the governing structures of the church. In the light of this untidiness I want to interpret various matters of polity in a way that I believe makes most sense and serves a missionary structure  - a missional polity.

Dwight Zscheile in his essay "A More True "Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society,"  (The Missional Church and Denominations" Craig Van Gelder, Eerdmans Publishing 2008, p. 133)  quotes Richard Hooker, from the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, III.x.7, 

"There is no reason in the world wherefore we should esteem it as necessary always to do, as always to believe, the same things; seeing every man knoweth that the matter of faith is constant, the matter contrariwise of action daily changeable, especially the matter of action belonging unto church polity."

Richard Hooker apparently believed that polity involved both the actions of the Church in its organization and order AND the interpretation of those actions.  Thus commentary on the life of the organized church was understood as providing a kind of meta-order to the order (or disorder) of the particulars of the polity of a church body. 

These notes on polity then are not made up out of thin air. They might be hot air, but that is another matter. I hope that these remarks are contributions to the interpretation of  the complex connections of law, worship, biblical reflection, and actual practice that constitute the polity of The Episcopal Church.

This is in some important way a theological task. I take Zscheile's warning to heart. He says, "Attending more explicitly to the theological foundations of Episcopal polity will strengthen the church's participation in God's mission and serve perhaps in some small way to correct the historic Anglican tendency to make organizational decisions based first on politics and the, if at all on theology." (p.147, The Missional Church and Denominations) 

Assuming that this clears the air a bit, I want next to turn to that part of Episcopal polity that pertains to the matter of the Episcopate.

Meanwhile, those who believe I am simply off the mark on the whole project will just have to bear with the fact that, as the commentator suggested, "this is your blog."  If I am on the mark, at least in part, and readers have corrective or additive materials to bring to the blog, I invite you to contact me at poetmark1940@gmail.com with material that you think might become part of this series "On Polity."  Thanks.

Give me a day or two to get that in order.


  1. My problem with the other Jim's comment was that I read it as attempting to define a particular view of the church as a constant, divinely given model. I am as my rector can tell you, (with an annoyed tone,) focused on issues of polity. The Covenant is at the end of the day, a misguided attempt to force an international polity on the church.

    Polity, law, structure, call it what we will, is a form from which function always follows. To your view, a mission church must have a mission form.

    I am reminded of a little history of the church written in the 1920's explaining the regionality of the Episcopal Church, strong on both coasts, week in the Midwest. The author whose work I lost in a flooded home, said that while the bishops of TEC were sitting on the East Coast waiting for appropriate settlements, Methodists with a horse, a mule, a sack of cheaply printed Bibles and another of hymnbooks, took the Midwest away. Form, the congregational missionary model of Wesley and his followers produced a function (being on the frontier) that was devastatingly successful.

    We need to ask what forms will in fact make us succeed at missions, not at "growing pledges." Yes that may come and would be nice, but it is the wrong goal. Or so I think.


    Comprehensive Unity

  2. I'm glad to see you invoking Zscheile's essay. I've been using it since early in 2010 as a reminder, in part, to pay attention to policies and procedures in the world beyond the church because those may find their way into our polity--if not by intention then by accident. Zscheile helps me remember that we can be intentional about the way we order ourselves and that we must keep our ecclesial vocation in mind when we do so. Being one way simply because some other entity is that way is usually how the church gets into trouble.

    I guess my slogan has become, "Let the church be the church!" The problem, of course, is that we have to figure out who we as church are; and that's the whole missional thing.

  3. I am surprised to say, I am enjoying this series, Mark, and, also to my surprise, I understand. It surprises me because just the word "polity" makes my eyes glaze over. Yet here, I see it has a missional function, beyond "this is the way we do things". And since my bishop is Ian Douglas, missional is what it's all about, not to be confused solely with missionaries in the old way of "mission to the heathens".

  4. Mark,
    Not sure why Jim objects to your use of "provisional" but I infer that your point could be made simply by stating that great humility is demanded whenever we make claims about human institutions. This is what Tillich and others called "the Protestant principle" - the teaching that our awareness of our own estrangement from God (what Calvin called our "astigmatism of sin") ought to lead us constantly to critique and reform the social forms we create in response to the Gospel.

    You've already made the claim that church polity is not divinely ordained. In this Hooker supports you; in responding to Puritan claims that presbyterian polity is divinely ordained, Hooker did not argue for the episcopacy on the basis of Scriptural warrant, but rather argued the very point you make - that multiple forms might be godly and that we construct a polity in response to our historical situation. Polities are "accidents" in the Aristotelian sense per Hooker. One caution, however: he also emphasizes that we receive our polity through Tradition and thus encounter a very high bar should we be inclined to amend that which we have received. For Hooker, the Puritan error is epistemic, an error to which he responds with his epistemic account involving Scripture, Tradition, and Reason. Hooker refutes the Puritans by claiming that Tradition and Reason provide the warrant for the episcopacy as he understood it in the Elizabethan Church.

    Based on the foregoing, your claim that our polity is provisional seems right to me. However, insofar as you think it might suit your polemic purposes to follow Hooker, it seems to me you need to show how whatever you will be proposing flows from our deep respect for Tradition and Reason (assuming that Scripture does not explicitly guide us with respect to your subject). But you can't make that argument by simple reference to the history of TEC alone; an argument from Tradition, following Hooker, will show how what is proposed reflects substantial continuity with the Church catholic, while an argument from Reason will show how our innovations departed from that Tradition of necessity but were consistent with the overall trajectory of Scripture and the received Tradition.

    I look forward to your series.

    Craig Uffman
    Rector, St. Thomas' Episcopal Church, Rochester, NY

  5. Craig Uffman: Thank you for your comments. It's slow work, but I will keep your cautionary comments in mind as I continue.


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.