Democracy and the Church

As we prepare to celebrate the Fourth of July, Independence Day, it is interesting to reflect on our “American expression” of Anglicanism. Much is made of the fact that some of the same framers of the U.S. Constitution had input into the framing of our polity as the Episcopal Church in this land. Hence, our own “constitutional” form of government, the two Houses of our General Convention (with the House of Bishops often compared to the Senate; the House of Deputies to the House of Representatives), and a “Presiding,” rather than “Arch-” Bishop as chief executive officer.

All this certainly has historical roots and is interesting at least for that reason. However, I would want to argue for much more ancient and theologically significant reasons for our “democratic polity.” And that is that the “mind of Christ is to be discerned within the Body of Christ” and that means the whole people of God — lay persons, bishops, priests and deacons.

Jesus’ own life in community, St. Paul’s rich image of the Church as the Body of Christ (i.e. I Corinthians 12-14 and elsewhere), the clear tradition of the ancient Church that, for example, bishops were “elected” by the people they would serve, not “appointed” by monarchs or “distant and unaccountable prelates” (in that delicious phrase from the House of Bishops’ response to the Primates’ Communique!) — all these are testimonies to the centrality of the entire “laos” (the whole, holy people of God) being involved in decision-making and in the discernment of the Holy Spirit’s leading in the Church.

Does this mean that such things as General Convention never make mistakes? Of course not. But then, we do not have an “infallibility doctrine” to defend! We do not believe in an infallible Pope, an infallible Book, or infallible Councils. That is why Anglicanism has always recognized its provisional nature and sits rather lightly on dogmatic formulae.

We say our prayers, try to listen to God’s Word and to one another, seek as broad a consensus as possible, and then make our decisions, always trying to leave room for dissent, and not seeking to impose them artificially upon others. This is not only characteristic of the “American expression” but of Anglicanism at its very best down through the centuries.         

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