Parish is the basic unit of the church in American Anglicanism

I had to split it into five parts or the Cafe’s lights went out. Received via e-mail:

Serious Challenges Face American Anglicanism: On What Principles Will a New Order Be Shaped?

By Rev. Dr. Tim Smith and Rev. George Conger

Summary Points

The Parish is the basic unit of the church in American Anglicanism. Local property rights prevailed throughout early American Anglicanism. Centralization of control using the corporate model which began to be used in the early 1900s – has failed the purposes of the Church. Any new order should return to the foundational roots of American Anglicanism.


In the life of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America (ECUSA), the basic unit has historically been the local parish. With the pari sh being – and not the diocese or the national church – the basic unit of the church in the United States, property rights of the lands and buildings of a parish from the inception of ECUSA were held by the local church which had purchased those lands and constructed those buildings.

At its outset and for more than a century and into the Twentieth Century, property rights in American Anglicanism were not vested in higher ecclesial bodies, such as a diocese or the national church. The first serious challenge to this foundational polity did not come until the Civil War and that precedent served to confirm that the local parish was still the basic unit of the American Episcopal church and that the local parish was the owner of its property and buildings.

Organizationally, it was not until the first quarter of the Twentieth Century that a move toward centralization of managerial functions within the Episcopal Church with the creation of the Presiding Bishop’s Office to help manage the growth. The most recent quarter century has witnessed further centralization at the national level which has been designed to assert over control assets and usurp the authority of the dioceses and local parishes. The first efforts toward centralization were a function of prosperity, the second a function of decline and a lack of spiritual dynamism. This corporate model and the failure on many within it to guard the Faith once received has, in many instances, not served godly purposes.

These underlying principles are important now that Anglicans are once again divided and face gravely serious doctrinal challenges. As a result, questions concerning polity and ecclesiology have arisen to the forefront throughout the United States.

Following (1) the affirmation of the election of Canon Gene Robinson to be bishop of the Diocese of New Hampshire, (2) the formal provision for local option for same-sex “unions” and (3) the refusal to affirm the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, all by the ECUSA 2003 General Convention, many leaders and provinces of the international Anglican Communion have condemned the Episcopal Church for these and numerous other actions. Orthodox Anglicans – both still in ECUSA and outside of it – have declared that they cannot accept these actions of the 20003 General Convention which constitute heresy and schism, abrogate 2,000 years of accepted Christian teaching, reject the plain words of Holy Scripture and usurp “officially” adopted church doctrine at the behest of a vocal and politically powerful minority.

A new order is being sought. But how and on what principles will a new order be shaped? Isn’t there a need to return to the historic roots of American Anglicanism?

Summary of Underlying Precepts of Anglicanism in the United States of America

A. The Parish Is the Basic Unit of the Church in American Anglicanism

Since its founding and in the history of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America, its basic unit has been the local parish. The federal system of church government -or, more properly speaking, the confederated system – is the hallmark of Anglicanism in the United States. This is a chief difference between the Anglicanism of the Church of England and the Anglicanism of the Episcopal Church in the United States.

William White, the first Bishop of Pennsylvania and the very first Presiding Bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church, was the primary advocate for the parish-based ecclesiology which was actually adopted by ECUSA. Thereunder, governing authority rested with the parish and thereupon was delegated by the parish to any other body, such as the diocese or the national church.

Between 1782 and 1789, the Episcopal churches met in state conventions. They also met in national conventions on three occasions before the two national Conventions of 1789. During this period, a series of compromises were reached that, by 1789, allowed the two national conventions to be united.

The conclusion was reached whereby Bishop White’s system of government, with a few minor and unrelated changes, was enacted by and for the Episcopal Church in the United States while Bishop Samuel Seabury’s orders were accepted by the whole American Episcopal Church and the revisions to the Book of Common Prayer were kept to a minimum. As a result, noted historian Loveland has cogently observed that “The basic unit in the government of the Church is not the diocese as in England, but the parish.” Clara O. Loveland, The Critical Years: The Reconstitution of the Anglican Church in the United States of America: 1780-1789 (Greenwich, CT: The Seabury Press, 1956) 284.

John Booty, historiographer of the Episcopal Church writing in the Church Teaching Series in 1979 has clearly stated the classical American understanding of Anglican church government is that temporal authority flows from the parish. “The result of all the maneuvering in 1789 was a church government based upon local control by voluntary associations of persons in parishes. Dioceses and national convention possessed power in relation to and for the sake of parishes. The larger organizations functioned as agencies preserving and strengthening the unity of the church. White agreed that ‘the great art of governing consists in not governing too much’.” John Booty, The Church in History, The Church’s Teaching Series (New York: The Seabury Press, 1979) 71.

Roger Beckwith, an English scholar of Anglicanism, in his introduction to Anglicanism writes, “In practice at least, the parish is the basic unit of Anglican Church life, to which the diocese is accessory (not vice versa).” Roger T. Beckwith, The Church of England: What it is and what it stands for. (Oxford: Latimer House, 1992) Sec. 6.

Dr. Louis Tarsitano, writing in An Outline of an Anglican Life, in 1994 states, “The basic unit of the Church is the ‘congregation’, a ‘group of people gathered’ in Christ’s Name (Matthew 18:20).” Louis Tarsitano, An Outline of an Anglican Life: Lessons in the Faith and Practice of the Anglican Church (Charlottesville, VA: Carillon Books, 1994 3rd ed.) 87.

In the history of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America from its founding, the basic unit of the Episcopal Church in America has been and is the local parish.