Saturday, May 12, 2012

Marriage and Diocesan Autonomy

In a recent post Fr. Eric Funston pointed out a distinction between marriage, a relationship governed by the state, and matrimony, the Christian sacrament. In describing marriage he said that it was a relationship which the parties could not dissolve by themselves, but only with the consent of the state.

As I read his post I recalled my use of the metaphor of marriage to describe the relationship between an Episcopal diocese and the Episcopal Church. When a group of Episcopalians get themselves organized enough to want to form an Episcopal diocese, they ask that this new diocese be admitted into union with the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, the highest authority within this hierarchical church. The organizing convention of the new diocese has to agree to abide by the Episcopal Church's rules, its Constitution and Canons. 

It was the use of the word union in describing the new Diocese's relationship with the Episcopal Church that led me to use the marriage metaphor to talk about that relationship. Granted, the metaphor isn't perfect, but I think it helps us as we consider those dioceses whose conventions have voted to leave the Episcopal Church. While there is no canonical provision for such a separation for dioceses within the US, there is provision for dioceses that were organized outside the country. It provided that such a diocese could request to become part of another church within the Anglican Communion. Those requests would have to be agreed to by the General Convention. Taking that canonical provision as a starting point, I concluded that the only way that a diocese could divorce itself from the Episcopal Church was with the consent of the General Convention. Both the diocese's organizing convention and the General Convention agreed to the union, so only the two bodies together could dissolve it. While a marriage can be dissolved without the consent of both parties, that only happens when a civil court agrees with the party seeking the divorce. As there is no court in the Anglican Communion to settle these divorce questions, the mutual consent of both parties would be required for an Episcopal diocese to leave the Episcopal Church.

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