December 15, 2022

Being Peculiar

We have all encountered peculiar churches. In fact, we have been seeing a lot of them lately and we need to see more.

The two churches that were featured in the state funeral of Queen Elizabeth II, Westminster Abbey in London and St. George’s Chapel at Windsor, are literally peculiar - royal peculiars. They have been carved out of the jurisdiction of their local diocesan bishops and placed under the direct authority of the sovereign, who oversees them in her or his capacity as the supreme governor of the Church of England.

How delightfully British. Or is it?

You may be surprised to learn that we have at least one peculiar here in the United States, albeit not a royal one. On the first floor of the Episcopal Church Center in New York City, our Presiding Bishop’s headquarters, you will find the Chapel of Christ the Lord. In its sacristy hangs two certificates from 1963 that serve to carve that little chapel out of the Diocese of New York and transfer it to the direct authority of the Presiding Bishop.

In the first certificate, New York Bishop Horace Donegan consents to the establishment of a chapel to serve the institutions created by the General Convention. In the second certificate, Presiding Bishop Arthur Lichtenberger “[takes] the above-mentioned Place of Worship under [his] spiritual direction as Presiding Bishop, and that of [his] Successors in Office…”

There is no canonical mechanism to transfer a small chapel to the authority of the Presiding Bishop, and no canonical mechanism for the Presiding Bishop to receive it. (In fact, since the canons require the Presiding Bishop to resign all previous jurisdictions, the Chapel of Christ the Lord is one of the very few places where the Presiding Bishop actually exercises episcopal oversight.) In a situation that the canons had not envisioned, the Bishop of New York and the Presiding Bishop just did what made sense, and they asked their successors to trust their judgement.

The church today can learn from their example: Sometimes, just need to do what makes sense.

Do you remember the “Mission Enterprise Zones” that received so much attention a few years back? Resolution 2012-A073 gave “greater freedom” to creative ministries among historically underrepresented populations “regarding the designation of ‘congregation’ status, traditional formation for and use of ordained leadership, and the use of authorized texts for principle [sic] worship gatherings…” This was an attempt to give creative congregations permission to do what made sense in their context, to give them the freedom to develop peculiar responses to particular circumstances.

The Episcopal Church needs to do more of this. We are in a season of profound transition and our future as an institution relies on the creativity that we bring to the present moment. Creative congregations need room to maneuver.

I do not think we should disregard the canons willy-nilly, nor do I think Bishop Donegan or Presiding Bishop Lichtenberger would have said we should. But, I do think we should give ourselves the grace to do what makes sense when we encounter a situation that the canons never envisioned, or when the canons have not evolved quickly enough to support the innovation that the present moment requires.

Sometimes, we just need to be willing to do what makes sense. Sometimes, we need to be peculiar.