...The Fundamental Structure of The Episcopal Church Is That of a Voluntary Association of Equal Dioceses
Given the constitutional reservation of authority within the diocese to the Bishop and Standing Committee, it is not surprising that the fundamental structure of our Church is that of a voluntary association of equal dioceses.
It is significant that the same term, “voluntary association,” has been used by both the founding father of The Episcopal Church to describe the organization he was so instrumental in forming and by the civil law to describe religious societies and other unincorporated voluntary organizations in general. Our Church’s primary architect was, of course, William White, and his blueprint was The Case of the Episcopal Churches in the United States Considered, published in 1782 as the Revolutionary War was nearing an end. As a result of American independence, many of the former Church of England parishes had become independent churches while others were still organized as state churches under the control of state legislatures. White’s concept, later accepted by others in the former colonies, was that the Anglican churches would first be organized into state churches and then the state churches would organize themselves nationally as a voluntary association of state churches (now called “dioceses”). Pursuant to this plan, White was one of the first two Americans consecrated by the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1787 to serve in the Episcopal Churches. When The Episcopal Church eventually was duly organized in 1789, Bishop White and Bishop Samuel Seabury, consecrated by the Scottish Episcopal Church, sat as the first House of Bishops at the first General Convention.
Just as the thirteen states were the “independent and sovereign” constituents of the American confederation that existed when the church now known as The Episcopal Church was being formed, the state churches were the bodies that combined to constitute what was initially called the Protestant Episcopal Church. It was the dioceses, then co-extensive with the newly-independent states, that created our Church’s Constitution and General Convention. The constitutional mechanisms of governance they created preserved their status as equal members of a voluntary association of dioceses. As noted by the official commentary on our Constitution and canons, “Before their adherence to the Constitution united the Churches in the several states into a national body, each was completely independent.” It then describes that national body they created as “a federation of equal and independent Churches in the several states.”
As this brief summary of our founding history shows, the fundamental structure of The Episcopal Church from the outset has been that of a voluntary association of dioceses meeting together in a General Convention as equals. This structure is clearly reflected in our Constitution. There is no provision in the Constitution that defines a diocese. The dioceses are the undefined constituent elements out of which The Episcopal Church is formed. In contrast, General Convention is created and defined in Article I, which still provides in language virtually unchanged from the original that “The Church in each diocese which has been admitted to union with the General Convention…shall be entitled to representation….” As this current language makes clear, “Churches” in dioceses are not created by General Convention. They are “admitted” (upon their application and its acceptance) to union with the General Convention. Dioceses are both historically and ontologically prior to the Constitution and the General Convention. And upon admission, it is the diocese, not any other body or group, that is “entitled to representation” at General Convention.
This fundamental concept of dioceses as equal constituent members of The Episcopal Church is manifest in the mechanisms of governance created by the Constitution, including the provisions for representation and voting at General Convention, the means by which the Book of Common Prayer and Constitution are amended, and the procedures by which new dioceses are admitted to membership in The Episcopal Church after they are constituted.
Representation and Voting
All dioceses have equal representation. The largest dioceses, with over 80,000 communicants, have the same number of deputies as the smallest, with fewer than 2,000. This representation, in conjunction with the voting mechanism constitutionally required in the House of Deputies, gives the dioceses collective control over the General Convention.
The House of Deputies does not decide important matters by majority vote, but by a vote “by orders.” This is a vote in which the diocesan deputations vote by diocese separately by their clergy and lay deputies. Each diocese gets one vote in each order. This procedure of voting by diocese has been the hallmark of our Conventions from the outset and reflects the fact that the dioceses meet in such Conventions as equal members. The first Convention in 1785 that began the organizing process and produced the first draft Constitution made explicit in its very first resolution that the states were its constituent members: the resolution was that “each State have one vote.” The next year the Convention of 1786 passed a resolution asking “the several States” to “ratify” the constitution at the next convention. When eventually adopted, the first Constitution called for “suffrages by states” in the General Convention. In the Convention in 1789, at which the organization of The Episcopal Church was completed, the issue before the Convention was “proposed union with the Churches in the States of New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Connecticut.”
All of this, of course, is simply a reflection of the provision already noted in Article I.4 that it is the diocese, not the individual communicant, that is represented in General Convention. Explaining General Convention’s voting procedures, the Church’s official commentary notes the provision in the first Constitution (“suffrages by states”) and concludes “still today a vote by orders is also a vote by dioceses.”
The essential role of dioceses as the constituent members of The Episcopal Church is further reflected in the procedures for dealing with the most important decisions made by the General Convention, which are amendments to the Book of Common Prayer and Constitution. Both require the same basic procedure. For example, Article XII, the provision governing constitutional amendments, requires that an amendment be “proposed” at one General Convention, that the proposal then be “sent to the Secretary of the Convention of every Diocese, to be made known to the Diocesan Convention at its next meeting,” and then that the amendment be “adopted” at a second General Convention by “affirmative vote in each order by a majority of Dioceses entitled to representation….” It could not be clearer that it is the dioceses that are entitled to representation.
Diocesan constitutional changes, in contrast, receive no prior review or approval from General Convention or other central bodies. As already noted, our first Constitution was ratified by the preexisting state (diocesan) churches. There was no review or approval at that time of the constitutions of the state churches. Under the current provisions, a new diocese joining The Episcopal Church ratifies our Constitution when it joins, typically by an accession clause in its own constitution. Apart from an initial review when a new diocese applies for membership in The Episcopal Church, there is no provision for prior review or approval of diocesan constitutional changes, canons or other actions. A diocese within The Episcopal Church, as opposed to one applying to join, has unconstrained authority in terms of its own constitution and canons. This is not merely an inference from silence, but an authority that is expressly granted. See, e.g., Article II (diocese selects bishop “agreeably to rules prescribed by the Convention of that Diocese.”)
Admission of New Dioceses
Leaving aside the simple historical fact that the General Convention had nothing whatsoever to do with the creation of the founding dioceses — it was the dioceses that created the General Convention and not vice versa – the General Convention does play a role in the admission of new dioceses. There is considerable misunderstanding about this process, so the procedure must be examined carefully. It should be noted at the outset that the relevant constitutional provision, Article V, is captioned “Admission of New Dioceses” not “Creation of New Dioceses.” This reflects the language, already noted, in Article I that dioceses are “admitted” to union with General Convention. Those who continue to claim that dioceses are “created” by General Convention ignore the legal precision of Article V.
The first sentence of that Article specifies General Convention’s role in this process. It is to give “consent.” This wording indicates at the outset that the role of General Convention is secondary, not primary. It consents to actions initiated elsewhere. The subsequent sentences in Article V specify the process by which dioceses are admitted to The Episcopal Church. The proceedings “originate” with a convention of “the unorganized area,” not with General Convention. It is the unorganized area that “duly adopts” its own constitution. Article V then describes the legal entity created by the duly adopted constitution not, as before, as an “unorganized area,” but as a “diocese.” Then the “new diocese” submits its constitution to the General Convention for consent; and upon receipt of this consent, it enters into “union with the General Convention.”
In this articulation of the steps involved in the creation of a new diocese, Article V reflects the civil law. When an unorganized area adopts its own constitution, it is by definition no longer “unorganized.” It is a legal entity. In the terminology of Article V, this entity is called a “new diocese.” This step, furthermore, occurs before the constitutional involvement of General Convention. What happens when the “new diocese” obtains the consent of General Convention to its application is that it is “admitted” into union with the other dioceses in General Convention. The transformation from “unorganized area” to “new diocese” occurs when the diocesan constitution is duly adopted. When General Convention gives its consent, another change occurs, but it is not the creation of a “new diocese.” It is the acceptance of an unaffiliated “new diocese” as a member diocese of General Convention.
The logic of this process can be grasped by a hypothetical case. Suppose an unorganized area holds its convention and duly adopts a constitution. Suppose further that before applying to The Episcopal Church for admission to General Convention it votes at its convention to apply not to The Episcopal Church but to another province of the Anglican Communion. By definition, the General Convention has yet to give consent and admit the new diocese. Nevertheless, the diocese is fully constituted by adopting its own constitution and so legally capable of acting on its own behalf. This can be seen by reading carefully the provisions of Article V and recognizing that this article reflects the operation of the civil law on the creation of religious societies and voluntary associations.
To summarize the conclusions of this section, the following are fundamental features of the governance and structure of The Episcopal Church:
● The state churches were independent legal entities prior to their organization of The Episcopal Church.
● New dioceses organized now are duly constituted entities with distinct legal personalities prior to admission to The Episcopal Church.
● Dioceses retain their distinct legal personalities as defined by their constitutions when they join The Episcopal Church.
● The constituent members of General Convention are its dioceses; it is the dioceses that are “represented” and vote as equals.
● The most important matters decided at General Convention, amendments to the Constitution and Book of Common Prayer are referred to the diocesan conventions for consideration prior to action by General Convention and the final vote is taken at General Convention by diocese.