The Church has a certain amount of constitutional law, by which I mean norms and rules that govern and control its institutional structure. What is the nature of this constitutional law? I would submit that the Church ends up being more English than American. Priesthood quorums illustrate why this is so.
Today the flow chart of church government seems pretty clear. We have wards presided over by bishops. The wards are part of stakes, which are presided over by stake presidents. Then we have either regional presidents or (in North America) direct presiding by the Twelve, mediated by area authority seventies. There is, however, something a little artificial about this structure.
If you read the Doctrine and Covenants it basically isn’t there. The most relevant section here is 107. There you will see discussions of the first presidency, the twelve, the “traveling high council” (there is some ambiguity as to whether this refers to the twelve or not), stake presidents, high councils, and priesthood quorums. No wards. Indeed, the priesthood quorums seem to be the relevant unit of organization. Twelve in a deacons quorums, twenty four in a teachers quorum, forty eight in a priests quorum, and ninety six in an elders quorum. The stake itself seems to be defined in part as a priesthood quorum — of the high priests in this case — presided over by the stake president. My understanding is that during the lifetime of Joseph Smith this was the basic ecclesiastical organization of the Church. There were wards in Nauvoo, but these were not so much congregational units as administrative divisions concerned with temporal affairs (basically the collection of tithing and the organization of labor on the temple.) There are no ward chapels in Nauvoo, but there is a Seventies’ Hall.
Under Brigham Young, the ward gradually emerged as the congregational unit, but as late as 1877 there was considerable debate as to whether or not the Bishop was the presiding priesthood authority in the ward, with some taking the position that quorum presidents were not subject to his guidance or control. (I am not quite sure what this meant in real practical terms.)
Even today, the structure of quorums remains. Elders quorum presidents are called by the stake and not the bishop and those who hold callings in the Elders quorum — like me (instructor) — are called and set apart by the quorum presidency rather than the Bishop. (In several instances, this has resulted in my having double callings.) Furthermore, the jurisdiction of bishops’ courts does not extend to Melchizadeck priesthood holders because they are — in some sense — still responsible through the quorum structure rather than the ward structure.
Hence, we have this odd system where there is an “archaic” government structure that is enshrined in constitutional documents, but which doesn’t really function in actual fact. The “archaic” institutions remain and the documents giving them life and being are revered as canonical, but the day to day functioning is governed by other, “unwritten” norms and rules. (These rules are, of course, written down but in sources that enjoy nothing like the authority of the cannonized texts.) This sounds very English to me. In contrast, American constitutionalism is much more document centric, with the actual structures of power envisioned in the document functioning more are less as they are written. To illustrate what I am talking about, an “American” constitution would have the actual functioning institutions — wards, enlarged authority for bishops, etc. — enshrined in canonized documents.
I don’t know if there is any real lesson or insight into law, interpretation, or church government here, but I am struck by the fact that our current structure tends to rest on a loose rather than a tight reading of the revelations. At the same time we nevertheless maintain administratively illogical structures solely because they are contained in the canonized texts. For example, it makes more sense given the current administrative structure for bishops to call Elders quorum presidents just as it makes more sense to have a high priests quorum in each ward. Yet both of these innovations would be inconsistent with section 107. We thus have this ambigious relationship between our constitutional texts and our actual contsitution. Dicey would be proud, although I suspect that Madison would be bit horrified.