Thursday, January 22, 2009


There has been a lot of blog space given to arguments about whether or not a Diocese of The Episcopal Church can secede and affiliate itself with another member Church of the Anglican Communion. Much of the argument from those who see secession as possible is centered on the legal standing of Dioceses as incorporated within their respective states. While it may be true generally, as some have argued, that a religious corporation has the right to associate itself with or disassociate itself from whatever other religious organization it chooses, I think that Episcopal Dioceses do not have that right.

The formation of new Dioceses is governed by Article V, Section 1 of the Constitution of the Episcopal Church. It begins, “A new Diocese may be formed, with the consent of the General Convention and under such conditions as the General Convention shall prescribe by General Canon or Canons.” Dioceses are the creations of at least two bodies. In the case of a Diocese that is created by the division of an existing Diocese, the General Convention and the Convention of the existing Diocese. In the case of a Diocese that is formed by joining together of two Dioceses or parts of two Dioceses, the General Convention and the Conventions of the two Dioceses. In the case of a Diocese formed in an area where there is no existing Diocese, by the General Convention and “a Convocation of the Clergy and Laity of the unorganized area called by the Bishop….” That same section concludes with the mention of one very important requirement for any new Diocese and a description of the relationship between the Diocese and the General Convention: “After consent of the General Convention, when a certified copy of the duly adopted Constitution of the new Diocese, including an unqualified accession to the Constitution and Canons of this Church, shall have been filed with the Secretary of the General Convention and approved by the Executive Council of this Church, such new Diocese shall thereupon be in union with the General Convention.”

All Dioceses of the Episcopal Church are “in union with the General Convention” and must have given “unqualified accession to the Constitution and Canons of this Church….” One can look in the Constitution and Canons for a description of how a Diocese can seek to be no longer in union with the General Convention. All that one will find is a provision in Canon I.11.3.b for the transfer of “a Missionary Diocese beyond the territory of the United States of America” to another Church in the Anglican Communion. Such a transfer is only possible after consultation between the Bishop of the Missionary Diocese and the Presiding Bishop, and with their mutual agreement. The Presiding Bishop is then “authorized, after consultation with the appropriate authorities in the Anglican Communion, to take such action as needed for such Diocese to become a constituent part of another Province or Regional Council in communion with this Church.”

Some have argued that because secession is not prohibited in the Constitution and Canons, it must be allowed. Canon I.11.3.b supports an argument against that position. Realignment, to use the currently popular, is provided for in the Canons for this one circumstance, that of a Missionary Diocese outside that United States that is incapable of functioning as a jurisdiction in union with the Episcopal Church….” If realignment were to be possible for Dioceses within the United States, then the Canons would have provided for such realignment, just as the Canons provided for realignment in I.11.3.b.

What then is the status of the realignment votes of Diocesan Conventions? Under the religious corporations laws of their respective states it may appear that those votes are legal and effective, but under the Constitution and Canons of The Episcopal Church, such votes are not allowed and have no effect. For example, the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh is still a Diocese in union with the General Convention because, having made an unqualified accession to the Constitution and Canons, the Convention of the Diocese has surrendered any rights to secede. The deposed Bishop of that Diocese and others may wish to form a new organization, perhaps called the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh, and seek membership for that Anglican Diocese in some other Church, but this new Diocese has no rightful claim to the assets of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh, nor to the assets of any congregation within the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh, including assets of congregations whose vestries have voted to align their congregations with the new Anglican Diocese.

Unfortunately the resolution of this business will be in the hands of civil courts, simply because those who want to realign want to lay claim to the assets of the Episcopal Dioceses and their congregations, and are largely basing their arguments in favor of realignment on the religious corporations laws of their respective states. While I am no fan of civil litigation, I believe that it will often be necessary in defense of the polity of The Episcopal Church.

The status within the Anglican Communion of the new Anglican Dioceses that have placed themselves under the authority of member Churches of the Communion will be determined by the Archbishop of Canterbury in consultation, I assume, with the Primates of the Communion. It has long been true within the Communion “that no two Bishops of Churches in communion with each other should exercise jurisdiction in the same place; except as may be defined by a concordat adopted jointly by the competent authority of each of the said Churches, after consultation with the appropriate inter-Anglican body.” (Canon I.11.4) Without a concordat between The Episcopal Church and whatever Churches in the Anglican Communion that have taken authority over these new Anglican Dioceses, I think that it is impossible for these new Anglican Dioceses to be part of the Anglican Communion. That seems to be the view of those who maintain the Anglican Communion’s website, and I can only hope and pray that that is an indication that the Archbishop of Canterbury agrees with me.

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