Episcopal and Baptist Governance
As a priest engaged in intentional interim ministry, I maintain a home in rural east Georgia near Augusta. A few days before receiving the invitation to write this article, I was at home unpacking a box of pictures and came across my Baptist local license and ordination certificate, documents that became relics when I joined the Episcopal Church.
As a high school junior, I announced to Trinity Baptist Church in Oakdale, Louisiana that God had called me into ministry. After having heard me preach a few times, they voted in business conference to issue me a “local license,” commending me to other churches as one called to preach. I then began a ministry of supply preaching.
When a college junior, the Longstraw Baptist Church near Ruston, Louisiana called me as their pastor. The congregation heard me preach and called a business meeting in which they voted to call me and to petition my home church to ordain me. In May of that year, College Place Baptist Church, Monroe, Louisiana voted in a congregational meeting to ordain me. The night before, seven Baptist ministers, who had been convened as an ordination council by my pastor, The Rev. T. Earl Ogg, questioned me about my theology, my vision of ministry, and my understanding of the Baptist faith. They voted to recommend to the congregation that I be ordained. The ordination certificate, signed by those seven Baptist clergy, reads:
We, the undersigned, hereby certify that upon the recommendation and request of the Longstraw Baptist Church at Choudrant, Louisiana, which had full and sufficient opportunity for judging of his gifts, and after satisfactory examination by us in regard to his Christian experience, call to the ministry, and views of Bible Doctrine, David Wm Perkins was solemnly and publicly set apart and ordained to the work of The Gospel Ministry by authority and order of the College Place Baptist Church at Monroe, Louisiana, on the 9th. Day of May 1965.
But that was a long time ago.
In 1995, after years of service as a Baptist minister and seminary teacher, I became an Episcopal layperson with no intentions regarding priesthood. The next year, my bishop, the late Right Rev. Robert Hargrove, enlisted my assistance as lay reader in charge of a mission parish. Shortly thereafter I entered the discernment process and, after a period of discernment and preparation, I was ordained as an Episcopal deacon at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Monroe, Louisiana, my home parish. Seven months later, I was ordained a priest in the mission parish I served as deacon in charge, The Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Vidalia, Louisiana. My ordination certificate was signed by Bishop Hargrove and reflects our hierarchical polity and our commitment to the episcopate as the ordaining authority.
These two experiences highlight the distinct differences between Baptist and Episcopal governance. First, the Baptist congregation that called me and the one that ordained me were functioning independently of any overseeing structure. The decision to ordain was made by the congregation in a business session. No denominational official was consulted, no discernment process took place outside the ordination council, and only the local congregation’s authority was required.
By comparison, Bishop Hargrove appointed a discernment committee in my home parish. I became a postulant only after their work with me and a vote of the Standing Committee of the Diocese of Western Louisiana. A period of discernment followed that included a thorough background check and a battery of psychological tests, along with a psychological interview. Only after those processes unfolded and after being mentored by three senior clergy of the diocese did the Standing Committee, upon the recommendation of Bishop Hargrove, advance me to candidacy. I was ordained in May of 1998 at Good Shepherd, Vidalia. The ordination required that a bishop officiate and only the bishop’s signature was required on my ordination certificate.
In the Baptist understanding, the local congregation is the basic unit of the church. The church functions independently of any overseeing structures and actually does not “belong” to the larger denomination. The church voluntarily associates with other local Baptist churches, with the state Baptist convention, and with the national Baptist body and can associate with any or all of them in any order. There is no hierarchy and the church holds title to its property. The church gives money voluntarily to Baptist causes and sends messengers to local associational, state, and national gatherings. Those bodies exercise no authority over the local congregation, which calls its own clergy, determines its own theological orientation, and sets up its own unique internal governance.
In the Episcopal understanding, the basic unit of the church is the diocese and the bishop serves as chief pastor of each church. The parish holds the property in trust for the diocese and is bound by the rubrics of The Book of Common Prayer and the canons of the diocese and the Episcopal Church. The bishop has appointive power to determine the clergy leadership of a mission. The bishop also must interview and approve the calling of the clergy of a parish. The bishop has the authority, in consultation with the Standing Committee of a diocese, to ordain and to discipline clergy whose behavior violates their ordination vows, the canons, or basic Christian moral and ethical principles.
My experience of Episcopal governance at the parish and diocesan levels has been far less anxious and chaotic than was my experience as a Baptist. The episcopate reinforces the unity of the church. The rubrics and the canons provide guidance for the worship and mission of the parish. Episcopal pastoral oversight of clergy and parishes provides guidance and security lacking in congregational polity. Episcopal governance was one of the key factors that drew me into this church; it has provided me with structure – and support – that continues to sustain my ministry.
David Perkins is an Episcopal priest engaged in intentional interim ministry. Each weekday he writes a devotional based on one of the Daily Office Lectionary readings in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. They are posted at: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/episcopaloffice/ . At the time this article was written, he was interim rector at The Episcopal Church of the Holy Comforter in Montgomery, Alabama.
- William H. Brackney, “Congregationalism.” Baptist Historical and Heritage Society and the William H. Whitsitt Baptist Heritage Society.”
- Robert F. Capon, The Astonished Heart (Eerdmans, 1996), especially his treatment of left-handed vs. right-handed power on pp. 62-72.
- Robert Pritchard, A History of the Episcopal Church (Morehouse, 1999), especially pp. 74-98 on the history of the organization of The Episcopal Church.
- Miraslov Volf, After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity (Eerdmans, 1997). Volf seeks to create a theological foundation for congregational governance.