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The American Episcopal Church Interpreted for English Churchmen

By Arthur Whipple Jenks
Professor of Ecclesiastical History in the General Theological Seminary

London: SPCK, 1919.
New York: Macmillan, 1919.

Chapter V. The Organisation and Law of the American Church

BEING an independent and autonomous Church, in communion with other portions of the Anglican communion, and in historic continuity with the Catholic Church of the Christian ages, the American Church has organized itself under its own Constitution and Canons.

The legislative assembly for the whole Church, entitled the General Convention, meets triennially or on special call. It consists of two associated bodies, the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies. These two Houses hold sessions and deliberate separately. The House of Bishops includes every Bishop of the American Church having jurisdiction, every Bishop Coadjutor, and every Bishop who has resigned his jurisdiction by reason of advanced age or bodily infirmity. All these are entitled to a seat and vote. The House of Deputies includes both clerical and lay delegates. Each diocese in union with the General Convention is represented in the House of Deputies by a maximum of four Presbyters canonically resident in the diocese, and a maximum of four laymen, communicants of the Church and resident in the diocese. Provision is also made for the representation of Missionary Districts. The House of Bishops sits in private, no audience be-ing'admitted. The House of Deputies, excepting when in executive session, admits the public by arrangement. The House of clerical and lay deputies votes by dioceses and orders. This method provides that the clerical delegates of a diocese vote on a matter to be decided, and a majority of votes constitutes an affirmative or negative unit vote of that order in that diocese. A similar procedure is required in the voting of lay delegates. A Missionary District represented has one fourth vote. For the passage of a measure the concurrence of the votes of the two orders, signifying their will in the above manner, is necessary by not less than a majority of the whole votes of each order. The General Convention is regularly convened in every third year on a fixed day in October.

There is no officer bearing the title of Archbishop. The senior Bishop, reckoned according to priority of consecration, is the Presiding Bishop of the Church in the United States. His functions are administrative and prescribed by the Constitution and Canons.

The specific method by which a diocese chooses its Bishop or Coadjutor is left to the prescription of each particular diocese. When such selection shall have been made, it is required that a majority of the Standing Committees of all dioceses shall give assent to the man thus designated, after which a majority of the Bishops exercising jurisdiction in the United States must give consent. In case the election has taken place within three months of a session of General Convention, the consent of the dioceses as represented in the House of Deputies is required in place of the Standing Committees. By these arrangements the laity have a direct part in the election and confirmation of candidates for the episcopate.

The American Church makes provision for two classes of Bishops to assist the Bishop of the diocese in his work. The diocese may obtain the consent of General Convention or of a majority of the Bishops and diocesan Standing Committees to elect a Bishop Coadjutor, on grounds of extent of diocesan work, of age, or infirmity. The selection and confirmation then proceed in the usual way. Such a Coadjutor succeeds to the headship of the diocese automatically on the death or accepted resignation of the diocesan. He must also have assigned to him by the Bishop the duties which shall be definitely his. Only one Coadjutor is permitted in any diocese at the same time. Coadjutor Bishops have a seat and vote in the House of Bishops.

The Bishop of any diocese may on his own initiative ask for the assistance of a "Suffragan Bishop," on grounds not necessarily identical with the reasons for desiring a Coadjutor. No more than two Suffragans are permitted at any time to any diocese. A Suffragan Bishop is elected in the same method as other Bishops, but he has no right of succession to the headship of the diocese, nor may he become Coadjutor Bishop except by the action of the diocese proceeding through all preliminary steps de novo. On the other hand, the tenure of office of such Suffragans is not terminated by the death or removal of the Bishop of the diocese. A Suffragan may resign his position with the consent of the Bishops of the Church and also pf the Convention of the diocese. A Suffragan has neither seat nor vote in the House of Bishops.

Besides these classes of Bishops, the House of Bishops may appoint, and, after confirmation duly obtained, secure the consecration of Bishops for Missionary Districts established by the House of Bishops, such officers to be Missionary Bishops, having seat and vote in the upper House of the General Convention. Missionary Bishops are eligible, under certain conditions, to become diocesan, Coadjutor, or Suffragan Bishops. Missionary Bishops are subject to transfer by authority of the House of Bishops from one missionary district to another.

Translation of diocesan Bishops from one diocese to another is neither distinctly allowed nor forbidden under the Canons of the American Church. Custom has been so much against such translation as to give the impression that it is prohibited. The appointment of a diocesan or a Coadjutor to some other office, e.g. the presidency of the Board of Missions, is in the direction of establishing precedents for translation such as occurs in other parts of the Anglican Communion.

In the American Church, a diocese is fully organised when it has a Bishop exercising episcopal functions under the canons, and a Standing Committee of the diocese elected by the diocese to perform certain specified duties and to act as an advisory board to the Bishop. The membership and election are left to the individual diocese, and the rights and duties are prescribed in part by the General Canons, in part by regulations of the diocese. New dioceses may be formed by the division of larger dioceses, by combination of territory, or by the transition of a missionary district into an established diocese. Such re-arrangement of territory goes on under the co-operating action of the diocesan and General Conventions. The re-assignment of Bishops in such cases is also provided for by canon.

By recent action of the General Convention, the grouping of dioceses into provinces is allowed and in force. At present all dioceses and missionary districts in the United States and its possessions are grouped into eight provinces. Each province is organised with a provincial synod as its representative body, for which a President is elected from the Bishops within the provincial group. The functions of provincial synods are denned by canon and are intended in general to relieve the General Convention of certain routine business, and to regulate affairs between the sessions of the latter. No distinctive title, such as Archbishop or Metropolitan, has as yet been given to such provincial presidents.

For the purposes of missionary extension the entire personal membership of the Church is constituted The Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society. The corporate duties of this Society are, however, performed by a Board of Missions composed of sixteen Bishops, sixteen Priests, and sixteen laymen. The Board is organized with a President, elected by General Convention, an executive committee, and other administrative officers. This Board of Missions supervises the work and machinery of expansion in the territory outside the organized dioceses. The Board is thus responsible for carrying out the programme of Church extension, but is itself responsible to the General Convention. The centre of the administrative activities of the Missionary Society is in the Church Missions House located in New York City.

Of considerable interest are the provisions for regulating the revision of the Book of Common Prayer or other service-books. The Book of Common Prayer having been duly authorized is declared to be in use in all the dioceses and missionary districts. After that, the regulations governing alterations are designed to secure great deliberateness of action. No alteration or addition is to be made unless such change shall be first proposed at one triennial meeting of the General Convention, and by a resolution of that session sent within six months to the Convention of every diocese, which is to take the proposals under consideration. Opportunity is thus given for discussion and the instruction of the deputation from each diocese how to express the mind of its constituency. Such proposals may be adopted at the next triennial session of the General Convention by a majority vote of the Bishops, and a concurrent majority vote of the clerical and lay deputies voting by orders. This regulation fixing the minimum of time necessary for final adoption is in practice likely to work towards the prolonging of the interval before final adoption, as the work of revision and report may be assigned to committees whose reports may be recommitted for further consideration.

Quite elaborate and detailed regulations are provided in regard to candidates for the Ministry, their approval, preparation intellectual and spiritual, the steps to ordination, and the duties of clergy in their several fields of work. Canons also provide for the trial of clergy of any of the three Orders, for sentence, suspension, and deposition. The last-mentioned form of discipline reduces the subject of deposition to the status of a lay communicant of the Church, without the right to exercise the functions of the Ministry. It has graver results than suspension, removal from a particular cure of souls, or inhibition, but it is not an equivalent to excommunication. The deposed Minister may be restored, but not by the sole action of the Bishop of the diocese where the deposition was pronounced; he must seek the advice of his standing Committee and be armed with the approval of four out of five Bishops of neighbouring dioceses to whom he shall have submitted his proposed action.

The canons of the American Church on marriage still allow the exception that the "innocent party" may marry again and permit such a marriage to be solemnized but also provide, "that it shall be within the discretion of any Minister to decline to solemnize any marriage".

The dioceses and missionary districts are made up, by canon, of parishes and congregations, with the provision that every congregation shall belong to the diocese or missionary district in which its place of worship is situated. The distinctions and provisions in regard to such local organizations arise in part out of the situation in a new and extensive, as well as very irregularly settled territory. Parish boundaries are difficult to fix in practice and there is no deeply-rooted tradition that communicants shall count the church nearest to them as their parish church. In general the regulations regarding imrusion, both of bishops and priests, follow the usual canons as to jurisdiction. The priest who has the cure of souls as chief Minister in a parish usually bears the title of Rector. A priest in charge of a congregation not possessing the status of a parish is ordinarily called the Priest-in-charge, in a few cases Vicar. The term Vicar is also found in use where a parish, such as Trinity Parish, New York City, has a number of places of worship, the priest in charge of such chapels bearing the title of Vicar. The term Curate is almost invariably applied to an assistant minister, rather than to priests having a distinct and independent cure of souls. Parishes are organized with a vestry consisting of wardens and vestrymen. The vestry, except when diocesan or civil law makes other provision, "shall be the agents and legal representatives of the parish in all matters concerning its corporate property and the relations of the parish to the clergy". Under the latter clause, and further regulated in detail by diocesan rules, comes the function of the vestry in calling a priest to the position of rector. No minister of the rank of deacon is held capable of becoming rector.

A recent provision for a recognized need is found in the establishment of a Church Pension Fund and the endowment of the fund, by individual contributions, to the amount of several millions of dollars (about £1,200,000). This fund is to be administered in conjunction with amounts annually contributed by parishes which accept the arrangement that a clergyman reaching the age of sixty-eight may be retired on a pension, the amount of which is regulated on a sliding scale, according to his years of service and the average stipend received. The system has been put in operation so lately that it is difficult as yet to determine how far it will work with equity and success.

Only such matters dealt with in the constitution and canons of the American Church are here alluded to as have to do with local and national circumstances, or represent the method adopted in dealing with old problems under new conditions. The background of all the canonical regulations is, of course, the general law and canon and customs of the Church historically in accord with its doctrine and worship.

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