September 11, 2006

Bishops Meeting Again

A small number of Episcopal bishops, including the Presiding Bishop and the Presiding Bishop-elect, are meeting for three days in New York City beginning today. The meeting, suggested by the Archbishop of Canterbury through his representative, the Rev. Canon Kenneth Kearon, Secretary General of the Anglican Communion, has been surrounded by mystery and circumspection. NPR had a brief report on the meeting this morning, but ENS has been silent about it since it published a letter from Presiding Bishop Griswold on August 22 clarifying his understanding of the nature of the meeting.

According to Bishop Griswold’s letter, because the Archbishop of Canterbury has no authority to interfere in the affairs of The Episcopal Church, he has urged the church to find a way to resolve the requests Network bishops have made for oversight of their dioceses effectively outside The Episcopal Church. (The consolidated request from the seven dioceses has only just become public and can be found, of all places, on the site of the Connecticut Six, who would benefit directly from the proposed arrangement.) Bishops Lee (Virginia) and Lipscomb (SW Florida) will serve as conveners for the meeting, and Canon Kearon will be present, representing Archbishop Williams. Presiding Bishop Griswold will be joined by Presiding Bishop-elect Jefferts Schori, as well as Bishops Wimberly (Texas), Henderson (Upper South Carolina), O’Neill (Colorado), and Sisk (New York). Of the bishops who have asked for “alternative primatial oversight” or something similar, Bishops Iker, Duncan, Salmon, and Stanton will also be present. (The NPR report spoke of “six bishops,” so one should not consider this list definitive.

What are we to make of this meeting?

To begin with, it is yet another meeting of bishops. (Canon Kearon represents the Archbishop of Canterbury, who is apparently unwilling to visit our shores.) Ever since the votes at the 2003 General Convention, only bishops seem meet to discuss the “crisis” in The Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion. It is high time that priests, deacons, and laypeople assert that bishops are not the church, particularly not The Episcopal Church. Whereas bishops have demonstrated considerable talent in fomenting discord in the Communion in recent years, they have shown little capacity for defusing it. The whole church met in General Convention in June, of course, but, even in that gathering, bishops exercised what many consider inappropriate and, perhaps, destructive, influence when relations with the Anglican Communion were being discussed.

This meeting can be seen as one between militant traditionalists, represented by Iker, Duncan, Salmon, and Stanton, and institutional representatives from The Episcopal Church. The matter at hand is the desire of the traditionalists to separate themselves from The Episcopal Church without having to pay a price for doing so. Bishops Griswold and Jefferts Schori, while usually described as “liberal,” are attending by virtue of their offices, although the Network bishops have made clear that they consider both bishops’ authority unacceptable because of their theology and understanding of the church. The remaining bishops may be meant to be, but can hardly be considered to actually be, representative of the breadth of opinion within the church. Where are the likes of Bishops Bruno, Chane, Mathes, or Robinson? This lack of balance is certainly cause for anxiety among loyal Episcopalians.

That this meeting is taking place at all is distressing—certainly that it is taking place at the behest of Archbishop Williams. Bishop Griswold began his explanation of the origin of the meeting as follows: “Shortly after the General Convention, Kenneth Kearon, the Secretary General of the Anglican Communion, shared with me some conversations he had had with the Archbishop of Canterbury regarding the whole notion of “alternative primatial oversight” and the difficulty in making a response.” What, we must ask, was the nature of Archbishop Williams’ difficulty? He has no authority over The Episcopal Church; the Presiding Bishop’s letter acknowledges that the archbishop knows this. Moreover, it is perfectly clear to anyone who might look at them—which may or may not include the archbishop—that the Constitution and Canons of The Episcopal Church neither allow for the kind of isolation asked for by the Network bishops nor give the Presiding Bishop, the House of Bishops, the Executive Council, or anyone else the right to negotiate or grant such a radical arrangement. The response of Rowan Williams to the appeal of the Network bishops should not have been “I have difficulty deciding what to do” but “get a life!”

Leaving aside for the moment whether there is reason to talk, consider what the two “sides” want. The Episcopal Church wants its bishops and clergy to obey their ordination vows and to act within the established polity of the church. It expects bishops to participate in church governance, not to subvert it by perverting its canons, building their own organizational structures, and negotiating with other churches as though they represented an autonomous church without connection to The Episcopal Church. It expects toleration of divergent views, certainly those consistent with the parameters of the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral and the ongoing development of Anglican traditions in this church and elsewhere. It expects those who, for reasons of conscience, cannot support The Episcopal Church to have the integrity to renounce their authority within the church and to leave empty-handed, their reward being the conviction that they are following Christ to the best of their understanding. This is what other groups dissatisfied with The Episcopal Church have done in times past.

And what do Bishops Iker, Duncan, Salmon, Stanton, et al., want? Institutionally, these people want a church best described as neo-Puritan—narrow theologically, moralistic, ruled by bishops, and dedicated to the principle of sola scriptura. At a more practical level, the Network seeks (1) effectively to be free of The Episcopal Church, (2) to be, in its own right, a member of the Anglican Communion, and (3) to retain the property of parishes and dioceses of which its members are currently in effective control.

Short of simply throwing away the Constitution and Canons of The Episcopal Church, which is as immoral as it is illegal, where are the issues that could reasonably be subject to negotiation? Although loyal Episcopal bishops cannot, on their own authority, promise very much to the insurgents, they certainly can agree to try to convince the House of Bishops to act so as to enforce certain kinds of agreements. The bishops effected a moratorium on the consecration of new bishops prior to the 75th General Convention, for example, and appear to be committed to enforcing some continuing moratorium by virtue of resolution B033. The Network bishops could, therefore, be offered an agreement—one that would have to be sold to the House of Bishops—that they would not be presented by their colleagues for past misdeeds if they uphold church order in the future. The bishops cannot bind clergy and laypeople to such an agreement, however, and it is unclear that bishops could agree conscientiously not to move forward presentments not originating from bishops. Such an offer, and no other, should be made to Bishops Iker, Duncan, Salmon, and Stanton.

But where, you say, is the Christian charity in a position of such uncharacteristic resoluteness?

It is time, I think, to suspend the endless arguments about theology; they are largely beside the point. Although I find the theology articulated by the Network hateful, disingenuous, ignorant, and self-serving, that is not the point. Believing that the genius of Anglicanism subsists in its willing embrace of theological diversity, however, I would exclude it from Anglicanism only because of its categorical rejection of differing opinions and the authority of those who hold them. This posture recalls nothing so much as the ancient controversy known as Donatism, which no less orthodox a figure as Augustine of Hippo repeatedly and successfully denounced as heretical. Even this is not a reason to eschew discussion of accommodation, however, as one might, in principle, imagine the Network agreeing to be more tolerant without sacrificing its other theological positions.

The Episcopal Church should take a hard line against the insurgents not because they are “conservative,” “orthodox,” “Evangelical,” or whatever—not, in fact, because of their expressed theology at all. These bishops and all who follow them, particularly those in holy orders, must be treated harshly because of the way they behave—because they are willing to lie, cheat, and, ultimately, steal, to achieve their goal of an independent “pure” American church—a church whose assets will, largely, be furnished by “liberating” them from The Episcopal Church. This is appalling and unacceptable behavior. All who engage in it demonstrate that they are unfit for Christian ministry, and The Episcopal Church has every reason to purge itself of people who behave in such a manner before they do more damage to it.

I will offer a more detailed argument for this position at a later time, though many Episcopalians are perfectly capable to documenting the ways in which the Network has subverted the church, lied about its intentions, and recklessly misrepresented and violated our Constitution and Canons, to say nothing of the Ten Commandments. In fact, their appeal to the Archbishop of Canterbury is reminiscent of the story of the boy who murders his parents, then pleads for mercy because he is an orphan. The Episcopal Church is being asked to resolve a crisis created by the Network (and its predecessors) in a way that gives the Network virtually everything it is seeking until such time as it can negotiate being given everything it is seeking. Balderdash! Extortion is extortion, and putting a veneer of religion over it does not make it a holy enterprise.

What do I actually expect from this meeting? Not much. For now, I will be happy if the non-Network bishops simply refrain from giving away the store. For many Episcopalians who want to get back to being the church but who are unwilling to trade our rich Episcopalian heritage for ecclesiastical peace, I pray that Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori will prove to be a defender of The Episcopal Church when she becomes Presiding Bishop in November. She sacrificed a degree of prestige in urging passage of B033 at General Convention. She perhaps has an opportunity now to get some of it back. If not now, let us hope, then soon.

Meanwhile, all of the rest of us can do is to pray for the church.

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