September 24, 2007

The Church Waits

After conferring with the Archbishop of Canterbury and other Anglican leaders in New Orleans Thursday and Friday, the Episcopal Church’s House of Bishops has had the weekend to work on responses to demands by the primates and entreaties by Rowan Williams. It does not seem too dramatic to say that the future of The Episcopal Church and that of the Anglican Communion might be changed dramatically by today’s deliberations by American bishops, the product of which is expected sometime tomorrow.

Archbishop Williams seems to have framed the choice open to the bishops as one of preserving the unity of the church or of opting for justice for gays and lesbians. He clearly favors unity. He is wrong.

Suggested responses from Episcopal Bishops seem to be all over the map, from Pierre Whalon’s proposal that offers a strong defense of what The Episcopal Church is and has done, to John Howe’s idea, which seems to be to split the church and the Communion now, in order to avoid doing it later. The Living Church reports that a draft response is in preparation.

As the church waits to see what our bishops will say, I want to express two unrelated concerns.

Replacing the Presiding Bishop

My first issue arises from my being a via-media Episcopalian in a rabidly militant-traditionalist diocese. Pittsburgh is one of a handful of dioceses that have asked for “alternative primatial oversight.” It is clear that bishops such as Duncan, Iker, and Ackerman are not going to get what they want in this regard, and they will probably reject (or perhaps have already rejected) anything less that might be urged on them by the other bishops. I assert, however, that no plan at all should be offered to them, and I am not pleased that Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori keeps searching for a new plan each time the last one is dismissively rejected by Bishop Duncan and his allies.

If individual parishes are unhappy with their bishop, they can apply for DEPO, the plan established by the House of Bishops in 2004. DEPO is surely imperfect; its goal is reconciliation, though it is hardly specific enough to inspire confidence that that goal is likely to be realized. Moreover, a parish participating in DEPO is likely to contain members who are not displeased with their bishop but who are likely to be unhappy with the bishop assigned to them under DEPO. What of them? At least, in many locations, a parishioner in a parish applying for DEPO who is not dissatisfied with the bishop quite possibly has the option of attending a nearby parish of similarly satisfied Episcopalians.

But what is “alternative primatial oversight” all about? In Pittsburgh, many parishes—most, probably—are happy with their bishop; he is, in fact, something of a cult leader here. Bishop Duncan is already supplying these parishes just what they want, self-righteousness, served with gratuitous disdain for The Episcopal Church and its Presiding Bishop. Given that the Presiding Bishop exercises virtually no “oversight” over either diocesan bishops or ordinary parish churches, why would such people want “alternative primatial oversight,” which could only place another bishop over this self-satisfied arrangement? Then, there are parishes like my own, where the bishop is usually mentioned with rolling eyes and sighs of exasperation. My fellow parishioners are not pleased with our bishop, but we can at least be consoled by the existence of a sympathetic Presiding Bishop leading The Episcopal Church. If some “oversight” scheme is imposed on us, we cannot simply go to the Episcopal diocese across the street. We are trapped in a way a parishioner of a minority view may not be trapped when a parish asks for DEPO.

It is time to recognize that the purpose of the church is to minister to ordinary Christians, not simply to self-important diocesan bishops. If Bishop Iker cannot abide female priests, why should the church indulge his sensibilities if to do so disenfranchises those under his care? Why should Bishop Duncan’s loathing for The Episcopal Church result in my being alienated from the church I joined and the church I love? When both Iker and Duncan consented to their consecrations, they know what church they were pledging to nurture and support. If they cannot do that, they should resign or, as a last resort, be removed.

Unity or Justice

Just as the church does not exist for bishops, neither do people exist for the church. Instead, the church exists for the people. (Jesus did not found the Church, of course, so ecclesiology largely has to be developed without much direct guidance from the recorded words of our Lord. This viewpoint is surely suggested by passages such as Mark 2:23–28, however.)

It is commonplace to observe that the Church moves slowly—perhaps, even, should move slowly—accepting change over decades or centuries. According to any theory that sees such glacial movement as normative, keeping peace within the church is more important than the lives of individuals or, for that matter, of truth itself. (Galileo immediately comes to mind.) Apparently, the present Archbishop of Canterbury subscribes to such an inhumane theory. I do not, and it is difficult to believe that the God of love would ask us to sacrifice his children for his Church. Justice delayed, so the saying goes, is justice denied, and both the Old and New Testaments seem quite clear about the need to seek justice for the downtrodden of society.

If our bishops have to choose either the unity of the church—a small branch of the Church, actually—or justice, why should they not choose justice? They would, thereby, improve the lives of actual persons who would otherwise be disdained or actively harmed by the church. Moreover, many gay and lesbian Christians are actively working in an ordained capacity and are contributing to the building up of God’s kingdom.

And what if bishops make the other choice, choosing “unity”? In the most benign view, they will be selling out their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters for, at best, a temporary peace in the Communion. For many bishops, this choice will necessarily come at the price of their personal integrity, as it will mean denying their own understanding of the Gospel for the sake of others’ they sincerely believe to be mistaken. In fact, the sad Jeffrey John affair suggests that, if the bishops give in to the “orthodox” primates, they simply will be inviting demands for endless additional concessions. The unity of the Communion cannot be saved through surrender; perhaps it cannot be saved at all. Our only hope for true unity is standing up for what we truly believe and asserting that Anglican comprehension is more likely, ultimately, to lead to truth than is power politics. The bishops should stand up for what they truly believe, trusting that Gamaliel’s advice (see Acts 5:33–39a) still applies: “[I]f this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!”

Pray for our bishops.

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