November 30, 2007

A Pittsburgh Lament

My friend and fellow parishioner at St. Paul’s, Mt. Lebanon, Jane Little, has written a reflection on the current situation in the Diocese of Pittsburgh. I want to share “What to Do with a Bishop,” but, particularly for those outside of the diocese—and, perhaps, for those who do not know Jane—some words of introduction will be helpful.

Readers likely know that Pittsburgh is known as a “conservative” diocese, although this has not always been so. The Rt. Rev. Robert W. Duncan is the present diocesan bishop, and he has not only moved the diocese to the right—very much with the help of Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry (TESM), I hasten to add—but he has also been working to remove the diocese completely from The Episcopal Church, an impossibility, in the same sense that removing money from banks at gunpoint is an impossibility.

It is less well known that Bishop Duncan came from a family perhaps best described as dysfunctional, and that he was elected bishop somewhat unconventionally. He had been brought into the diocese as Canon to the Ordinary, largely because the then bishop, Alden Hathaway, needed administrative help. Duncan was generally seen as having performed well in this capacity and having been supportive of all parishes, irrespective of their theological or liturgical orientation. It was, therefore, something of a surprise that the search committee that identified candidates for Hathaway’s successor did not include Duncan among its candidates. Moreover, the committee was obstinately silent regarding what was widely seen as a slight. Duncan was nominated from the floor of the convention and, eventually, was elected.

Jane mentions the Diocese of Chile in her piece, as well as its province, the Southern Cone. It has been suggested that the Southern Cone could become a haven for dioceses, such as Pittsburgh, that want to secede from The Episcopal Church. Not long ago, the Diocese of Chile was a companion diocese of Pittsburgh. Jane and her late husband Chuck were on the so-called Chile Committee. (The Committee was led by the Rev. Mark Lawrence, now bishop-elect of South Carolina.) The Chile Committee not only traveled to Chile, but also arranged for clergy from Chile to study at TESM. Whereas many in the diocese would see the Southern Cone’s willingness to “shelter” the Diocese of Pittsburgh as the fruit of Pittsburgh’s faithfulness and generosity, Jane and others see it as a case of biting the hand that feeds you.

And, now, a few words about Jane: Jane is speaking from what, in Pittsburgh, is a minority perspective. She is unsympathetic to the bishop’s theological position and unsympathetic to his methods. Jane has a Baptist background—American Baptist, she is quick to point out—and only began attending Episcopal churches after meeting her husband-to-be. Her friends sometimes refer to her as Jane the Baptist because, whenever it seems that The Episcopal Church might experience an ecclesiological meltdown, Jane reminds us that she has a church to which she could return. Not all of us feel that we have the same sort of safety net.

In contrast to my own preference for methodical, rational analysis, Jane responds to circumstances from the heart, often seeing patterns and connections she is at a loss fully to explain to others, but which seem to capture valuable insights and to offer paths forward that the more “logical” among us might miss. Oddly, while taking a “big-picture” approach in her own analysis, she is also very good at finding subtle technical flaws in the works of others (well, in what I write, anyway).

Jane has had a long-running private correspondence with Bishop Duncan, which displays a generosity of spirit and pastoral concern at which I can only marvel. Her latest thoughts about the diocese seem devoid of her usual optimism, however, and I think that “What to Do with a Bishop” is best seen as a lament, as she is neither asking a question nor answering one. Actually, I’m not sure that the title is well-chosen, but Jane’s intuitive choices often turn out to have a deeper significance than is immediately apparent. Finally, I should point out that her quotation of Matthew 25:40 is from memory and does not quite match any available translation of the Bible.

Jane’s meditation is below. If you have any comments, feel free to send them to me, and I will forward them to Jane.
What to Do with a Bishop

There are no words to tell you this terrible story of how a man, here nurtured, has turned against his church, and taken his own followers with him, as a final salute to his own accomplishments. He came to us, not chosen by the committee that had worked so hard to get it right, but presented by the brother of the head of that committee, from the floor, for those feeling sorry for this man who had come here, worked for a bishop, and wanted the office at whatever cost. No one knew then what a cost it would be to bring in a man of great personal ambition, coming out of a sad childhood, to offer us all up in his own name. He even went to the Southern Cone for support and sanctuary in his misconduct, the Southern Cone to which we had offered, in Chile, so much love and support for its educational requirements and needs.

This wickedness is against the Lord, who said, “If you do it to one of the least of these, my brethren, you do it unto me.” Knowing this, they went ahead, they go ahead, and in all deliberateness, rip apart the church, for God, they say. How dare they blaspheme in this way! They have convinced themselves that they are right, when they are dead wrong, and anyone can see how wrong it is to rip apart a church, to throw out a segment of the church, and claim to stand in God’s place! There will be punishment for this, but of course, we know not when or how.

We pray for guidance from one day to the next, until we get through this awful time of brother destroying brother. This man cannot now even save face, although he was told again and again to save face while it was still possible. He insists on going through to the bitter end, which may indeed be more bitter than he had ever anticipated. God save us all, that all may turn to right, in Jesus name, now and forever.

Jane Little
Thanksgiving Weekend 2007

November 13, 2007

The Faith Once Delivered

At the recent annual convention of the Diocese of Pittsburgh held in Johnstown, Pa.—reports of the convention can be found here and here—Bishop Robert Duncan read his letter in answer to the warning he had received recently from the Presiding Bishop. The letter, in essence, was as follows:
Dear Katharine,

Drop dead.

His actual words were:
1st November, A.D. 2007
The Feast of All Saints

The Most Revd Katharine Jefferts Schori
Episcopal Church Center
New York, New York

Dear Katharine,

Here I stand. I can do no other. I will neither compromise the Faith once delivered to the saints, nor will I abandon the sheep who elected me to protect them.

Pax et bonum in Christ Jesus our Lord,

+Bob Pittsburgh
Mark Harris, on his blog, called this letter “classic Duncan.” I have to agree.

Almost everything about this letter is irritating, but, for me, one of the most objectionable aspects of it is the use of the phrase “the Faith once delivered to the saints.” This phrase, usually without the needless capitalization of “faith,” is constantly used by the so-called “orthodox” to suggest, succinctly, that their version of Christianity is the one true faith, the Christian faith as Jesus himself meant it to be understood.

The phrase, of course, comes from the third verse of the first (and only) chapter of the Letter of Jude:
Beloved, when I gave all diligence to write unto you of the common salvation, it was needful for me to write unto you, and exhort you that ye should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints. (Authorized Version)
Jude is short and passionate, and its basic meaning is clear. Christians are to defend the Gospel against those promoting false teachings, “ungodly men, turning the grace of our God into lasciviousness, and denying the only Lord God, and our Lord Jesus Christ” (verse 4b). Much of the rest of the letter is about what these “ungodly men” will do and how they will be punished for it. Nevertheless, the nature of the false teachings the author of the letter is railing about is not clear, and the letter appears to be something of a generic encyclical warning the saints to be vigilant against those who would mislead them.

Scholarly consensus places the composition of Jude toward the end of the first or in the first quarter of the second century CE. Conservatives favor an earlier date, sometime in the last half of the first century. Whenever this letter was written, the epistle can be described a being early church literature, and therein lies a problem.

Bishop Duncan’s implication—the usual implication when “the faith once delivered” is invoked—is that the writer believes what Christians have always believed. Since the writer of Jude does not explicate “the faith,” however, we can only speculate about what he understood by the term. What is clear, however, is that much of the theology that became orthodox Christianity, that is, the consensus that emerged from the Council of Nicaea in the fourth century, was developed only after the Letter of Jude was written. Moreover, to the degree that conservatives insist on an earlier date for the writing of Jude, we know even less of what “the faith” refers to, even if it might be closer to the actual teachings of Jesus or the Apostles.

Of course, Duncan and his followers really don’t care what Jude’s writer meant; they are just latching onto a good sound bite. To them, “the faith [or Faith] once delivered to the saints” simply means what they believe and what they think everybody else should believe. That it includes, among other things, a good deal of medieval accretions and modern anti-Enlightment nonsense is rather beside the point.

The next time you hear someone piously pontificate about “the faith once delivered to the saints,” remember that the proper response is to ask, “Yes, and what was that?” You might even cite Jude 1:19, which says about the false teachers, “It is these worldly people, devoid of the Spirit, who are causing divisions” (NRSV).