March 3, 2007

Can We Trust Our Bishops?

Probably not. That is, we likely cannot rely on the House of Bishops of The Episcopal Church to resist the demands of the Anglican primates, to which they have been instructed to respond by September 30. Will they act to protect our autonomy and vision, to “conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church?” (BCP, p. 513) Without a good deal of lobbying by clergy, laypeople, and a few courageous bishops, don’t count on it.

Why am I so pessimistic? Because, in more than 30 years, our bishops have not dealt effectively with the growing, mostly neo-Puritan, insurgency in the church. Because there have been no presentments offered against bishops like Bob Duncan and Jack Iker, for whom vows and canons provide no restraints on their outrageous behavior. Because Presiding Bishops have repeatedly accepted the harsh judgments of the Primates’ Meeting without questioning the primates’ authority, their understanding of the Anglican Communion, or their mean-spirited reading of Scripture.

Mostly, however, I am discouraged by the news that a majority of the bishops with jurisdiction—those who constitute the core of our House of Bishops—have voted their consent to the consecration of the Very Rev. Mark Lawrence as the next bishop of the Diocese of South Carolina. Lawrence has made ambiguous statements about whether he would seek to remove or accede to removing South Carolina from The Episcopal Church, and, long before the primates tried to implement a plan for actually doing so, he advocated that our church’s autonomy be surrendered to them. (See my essay, “No Consents: A Crucial Test for The Episcopal Church.”) Consecrating Lawrence will give him a vote in the House of Bishops, and that vote will certainly favor the primates’ plan for our church over our independence. Most diocesan bishops, apparently, see no threat in that prospect.

We now must pray that standing committees will prevent the House of Bishops from becoming ever more sympathetic, or tolerant, or simply perplexed by the power plays of the traditionalist insurgency. For the consecration of Lawrence to proceed lawfully, consents from a majority of diocesan standing committees must be received by March 9. At last report, mercifully, that vote was running against consecration. Arms of standing committee members will likely be twisted in the coming week, however, and much of that twisting will be done by bishops.

The church’s Executive Council is now meeting in Portland, Oregon. It is on Executive Council that the voices of clergy and laypeople can be heard at the highest levels of The Episcopal Church between meetings of the General Convention. The House of Bishops meets later this month. I pray that Executive Council will go on record as warning the bishops that they do not have the moral authority—technically, I suspect that they do have the legal authority—to make the declarations they have been asked to make. I also pray that Executive Council will express skepticism, at the very least, of the propriety, wisdom, and practicality of the “pastoral” scheme the primates are trying to impose on our church.

Can we trust Executive Council to support our church? We will soon know. If we cannot, the majority of Episcopalians should be considering what is going to be their next church, since the more than 200-year run of The Episcopal Church will be coming to an end. I doubt that, without substantial pressure from Executive Council and from pulpit and pew, our bishops will resist the will of the primates and the insurgents in their midst.

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