March 17, 2010

A Question of Ordination Vows

In response to my last post, “Reviving Cursillo, Follow -up,” a discussion developed with the Rev. David Wilson, a former Episcopal priest who left The Episcopal Church following the October 4, 2008, vote of the diocesan convention to “realign” the diocese with the Anglican Province of the Southern Cone. That discussion can be read here.

I am continuing that discussion in this post to circumvent the constraints of length and (especially) formatting that apply to comments on this blog. In other words, I want to make what I have to say easier to read.

The Issue

In a March 15 post, Fr. Wilson wrote:
I was converted, confirmed and ordained in the Episcopal Church and I served it as faithfully as I knew how in the parish, in the diocese and nationally for 27 years. Finally, I concluded, it was no longer the same church I joined in 1981, it did not hold to or teach the same gospel in which I believed. Sadly, it had left me so I had to leave it.
I have heard the mantra of “my church left me” many times from those who have left or who have threatened to leave The Episcopal Church. I probably heard it first from Bishop Robert Duncan. I thought some clarity on this issue was in order. I suggested that leaving the church and taking your parish with you was improper and could be explained only in one of three ways:
  1. Your interpretation of your ordination vows is radically different from their plain and obvious meaning and intent;
  2. You believe that you have a higher commitment that allows you conscientiously to act contrary to your ordination vows; or
  3. You acted without integrity.
I invited Fr. Wilson to pick his justification or suggest a fourth I had not considered. He chose the latter option, citing a passage from the ordination service for a priest (page 526 of the Book of Common Prayer):
The Bishop says to the ordinand

Will you be loyal to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of Christ as this Church has received them? And will you, in accordance with the canons of this Church, obey your bishop and other ministers who may have authority over you and your work?
About this passage, he wrote:
“As this Church has received them” is that small but important phrase and it all hinges on that. I am as faithful today as I was when I was asked to answer that question to the received doctrine, discipline and worship of the Church. It is not I who has revised the doctrine, misapplied or ignored the discipline and disrespected the worship.

My Response

Questions are important, of course, but every courtroom lawyer and every public relations consultant knows that answers are even more important. The ordinand answers the bishop’s question as follows (also from BCP, p. 526):

I am willing and ready to do so; and I solemnly declare that I do believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation; and I do solemnly engage to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church.
This answer is required by Article VIII of the church’s constitution, which reads, in part (emphasis in original):
No person shall be ordained and consecrated Bishop, or ordered Priest or Deacon to minister in this Church, unless at the time, in the presence of the ordaining Bishop or Bishops, the person shall subscribe and make the following declaration:
I do believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation; and I do solemnly engage to conform to the Doctrine, Discipline, and Worship of the Episcopal Church.
That the ordinand’s answer differs somewhat from the question asked by the bishop reflects a liturgical choice to avoid making the service unduly repetitious.

Notice that the so-called oath of conformity is to the “Doctrine, Discipline, and Worship” of the church, that is, the doctrine, discipline, and worship as they are now, not as they were “received” at some unspecified time. The doctrine, discipline (especially), and worship of The Episcopal Church have and will continue to change over the years. The disciplinary canons of Title IV, for example, received a major overhaul at the last General Convention, and all clergy will operate under the new rules, irrespective of the rules that were in place when they were ordained. (What would a judge say to a defendant in criminal court who argued that the law under which he or she was indicted is irrelevant, since it was passed after his or her birth?)

“The church left me” is, I assert, no defense for a priest’s decision to leave The Episcopal Church and to take a parish, its congregation, and its resources with him or her. There is nothing in the constitution and canons of the church to justify such action. Every priest, however, has agreed to be bound by the “discipline” of the church, which, in the latest Title IV revision is defined explicitly in Canon IV.2 (emphasis in original):
Discipline of the Church shall be found in the Constitution, the Canons and the Rubrics and the Ordinal of the Book of Common Prayer.
In particular, the new Canon IV.3 indicates that proceedings can be brought against a priest for “knowingly violating or attempting to violate, directly or through the acts of another person, the Constitution or Canons of the Church or of any Diocese.” Certainly, causing property to no longer be used for the benefit of The Episcopal Church, as specified by the Dennis Canon (Canon I.7.4), would seem to violate that canon.

Justifying the actions of the Rev. David Wilson and other Episcopal clergy in leaving the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh and forming the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh from its assets and congregations cannot be justified by the plea that “my church left me.” Any credible justification—I doubt there is one—must necessarily be more complex and convoluted.


  1. (Reposting to correct the effects of voice recognition software!)

    Lionel, I concur with your assessment. The frequently used dodge about, "as this church has received them," is more than a little wearisome, especially in light of the language of the oath of conformity.

    The logical consequence of taking Father Wilson's interpretation as correct --- that there could be no change in doctrine, discipline or worship (and it is abundantly clear that the latter two change on a regular basis!) --- would mean that clergy were only bound to follow the canons in effect at the time of their ordination -- which is absurd.

  2. I guess I'm not sure what the real question is. It seems to me David and our friends of the Anglican Diocese have precisely shown how important those ordination vows were to them by determining to separate from the Episcopal Church when they no longer could affirm its "doctrine, discipline, and worship." I am much more concerned about those who remain, especially in high leadership, who took the same oath, who continue in authority, and yet whose commitment to good canonical order and the discipline of Common Prayer seems to fall to the wayside in the service of expediency or some "greater good" or simply of an eccentric personal preference.

  3. Do note that the revised Title IV is not effective until July 1, 2011; however, the same definition appears in the current canons at IV.15.

    The "aiding and abetting" language you quote from the revised IV.3 does not appear in the current canons, but arguably such conduct is embraced in the description of offenses in the current IV.1.1.

  4. Bruce,

    The “real question” is not about having a change of heart regarding one’s ability to serve The Episcopal Church. If a priest feels that he or she cannot conscientiously continue to serve as an Episcopal priest, that person should resign his or her position as called for in the canons. Moreover, a person so situated should walk away empty-handed.

    I am amazed at your willingness to see the virtue in those who left the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh through improper parliamentary maneuvers, taking with them many parishioners and millions of dollars of Episcopal Church assets. At the same time, the only fault you can find is with those leaders of The Episcopal Church who have tried to prevent or ameliorate such actions. Have you perhaps chosen to be on the wrong side?

    If you want to charge the Presiding Bishop with some offense, please do so. I’m sure you can acquire the requisite signatures. I will even offer to help you write it. I do not, of course, believe you can make a credible case in support of your reckless accusations.

  5. Lionel

    I appreciate the importance of you tackling this issue and I realize you, Fr. Haller and others have a huge investment in being "right" and proving the realigners to be "wrong." Have at it. I will leave further comment to you and those that post. I am just glad that we've conducted ourselves without the previous vitriol: perhaps that's a step in the right direction.

    God bless you Lionel

  6. Fr. Wilson, I'm not sure I see it as a matter of right or wrong, and I have absolutely no need to be "right" on this score. Moreover, to a large extent I agree with your assessment that "the church left" you -- no one can with any claim to accuracy state that there have not been changes in the church over the last twenty, forty, or eighty years. But this long history of change in the church is precisely why reading too much into "as this church has received them" is, well, too much. The church, as a living entity, changes -- and some will not be able or willing to accept those changes.

    I join with Richard Hooker in believing that no one ought to be put in the position of violating his or her conscience, and I have no reason to bear you ill will in following through on your decision in that light. In short, I do not think you made a "wrong" decision.

  7. David,

    Thanks for staying with the conversation. For years, I have tried to understand what critics of The Episcopal Church have been saying, and I have often felt that they were talking in a code I could not decrypt. I appreciate your trying to communicate in terms that everyone understands even if, in the end, we do not agree. As with many issues in the Church, understanding one another is perhaps more important than agreeing with one another.

  8. Hi, Lionel!...

    Excuse me, but now I won't comment this technical issue... Of course everyone is free to leave a Church when he or she doesn's stay confortable with it... They only have to resign in the terms of the Church in concordance with the civil law of their country!... I will do an off topic!... But it is a good off topic!...
    It is simply to Congratulate TEC to fact that Glasspool election proccess is now complete by PB ++Schori office, and so, she will be Ordained and Consecrated as Bishop Suffragan of the Los Angeles Episcopal Diocese!... Yes it is time to stop hipocrisy!...
    Today I am very unhappy... 3 Roman Catholic Priests in Brasil, a counthry with my own language was found guilty for children sexual abuses and deposed from the Diocese... And Bishop was found guilty to know the facts and to haven't done anithing!... And remains on Diocese!!!...

    Good Evening!... And be happy!... God bless you!...

  9. Pensamento positivo,

    Yes, it’s off-topic, but the news about the Rev. Canon Mary Glasspool is indeed good news. I will take the liberty of reproducing below a comment—with one factual error corrected—that I left on Preludium yesterday.

    “Consecrating Mary Glasspool is probably the biggest favor we can do for the Anglican Communion. As you [Mark Harris] suggest, there is no going back for The Episcopal Church, but the church, in its official actions, has acted with great ambiguity. Our PBs did not disavow primates’ communiqués; we did not officially attend the Nottingham ACC meeting; we passed B033; our bishops encouraged Rowan in New Orleans. In short, we have led our detractors to think that, in the end, we can be pushed around. Perhaps, more to the point, we have allowed Rowan to think that he can keep the Communion together by using TEC as a whipping boy. By disabusing everyone of their illusions, we make it clear that they either need to learn how to live with TEC or they will have to walk apart.”

  10. Part One:
    Many people, who are not priests, grow and change, along with their religious beliefs. Jesus demonstrates in Luke 2:41-52 when in his youth he remained behind at the temple that asking questions and learning answers allows each of us to grow in wisdom and faith. To put it another way: "He who is not busy being born is busy dying". Bob Dylan. We were never meant to be locked in a childlike vision of the faith, as alluring as that might be. (To quote that esteemed philosopher Garry Trudeau: "The world needs adults, Zonker".) Sometimes, growth in wisdom and faith will cause the conscientious believer to seek out the denomination which is more harmonious in its discipline and practices. In like manner, the church itself must grow in wisdom, maturity and faith. It is not a betrayal of the received faith for wisdom to continue to mature, but instead is the obligation and fulfillment of that faith. The error of some churches has been their failure to grow in wisdom and faith with their congregations. (As we are seeing again in Ireland, Germany and Holland, a non-doctrinal, non-essential practice such as celibacy can lead to a chain of events which enormously interferes with that church's essential mission. In Germany resignations from the Catholic Church are now growing rapidly). Thus, there must be a rough equivalency between individual and institutional growth in wisdom and faith, and either may lag. Perhaps the church has an even greater obligation to gently help its congregants to grow in wisdom and faith, rather than oppose such growth and attempt to lock everyone into a static faith. A failure to grow in wisdom and faith can occur with a priest just as it does with a congregant, but the only difference is that the priest has bound herself to the discipline of that church. He/she may have devoted years of life to dedicated service only to suffer a crisis of faith. If post-mortem accounts of Mother Teresa are to be believed, she suffered the same crises of faith later in life, as anyone else could. However, a priest's years of service and the commitment to the Church do not confer any additional rights to church property. (The self-serving attempts by priests to claim property interests and hereditability rights are what led to the wrongheaded creation of celibacy in the first instance, and this diocese has been involved in a subtle new variation in an old game.) Go to Part two.

  11. Part two
    The priest is just as free as the congregant to move on, and take along only his spiritual convictions. One cannot take what one does not own. In this diocese, the former bishop and his sympathetic priests did not just leave, but they asserted rights to assets while acting like the assets were theirs to withdraw. They confused ownership in trust with personal or group ownership. It is hard to see how such actions can be viewed as anything other than a violation of fiduciary duties. The departed clerics often engaged in sophistry of the worst sort to attempt to rationalize their ongoing efforts to assert dominion and control over church assets. For example, the Court of Common Pleas had no difficulty seeing through the disingenuous use of the "Episcopal Church-Anglican" label for what it was- a desperate effort to comply with the letter but not the intent of prior documents, and hang onto what was not theirs. The citation to Jesus' attack on Pharisees who acted in conformity with the letter but not the intent of the law is almost too obvious to mention. It was never likely that the Court in the local case would hold other than it did. As one of our remaining priests has accurately stated, it has been an Alice in Wonderland experience. It is particularly distasteful when clerics, the truth tellers, engage in sophistry to implement their organizational goals. The formulation of "the church has left me" is nothing more than an acknowledgement that the individual complainant has not grown in wisdom and faith to the same extent or direction as her church, which is all well and good if the complainants did not also purportedly imply a right to take along diocesan assets. Let us not confuse an individual priest's right to resign, with the events in this diocese. What transpired in this diocese was at an entirely different level of conflict. The notion that a high minded spiritual disagreement explains everything has always struck me as false. In my opinion, the former bishop was elected in the first instance because he was not as conservative as the committee's candidates, but he betrayed the faith of his original supporters. Instead, the former bishop over a period of years engaged in a Machiavellian effort to fill every position with avid loyalists. In retrospect, one must wonder if he would ever rest until he had achieved his ambition to serve as an archbishop of some church or other. His movement towards a more fundamentalist faith has always struck me as less than genuine, but instead as a calculation resulting observations of the accelerated growth of the un-affiliated mega-churches elsewhere, as well as the local operations such as Orchard Hill, Christ Church at Grove Park etc. The sum total of the events in this diocese over a period of years has always seemed to me to be not simply the result of a few crises of faith, but far more earthly in their motivations. The ordination of the gay bishop was just the long sought trigger for the planned move. In reality I do not regret the departures as I have little interest in appearing to support the bigoted views of homophobes. As for the departed former bishop, a good case could be made that he should be surcharged and held liable to the diocese of Pittsburgh, for violations of his fiduciary duties through his use of funds to build, advocate and ultimately attempt to defend his breakaway organization in court. However, as Gerard Ford taught us, it is sometimes best to pardon Nixon and move on. In closing, I still find it intellectually dishonest for any member of the breakaway bunch to argue anything other than the foregoing analysis. I am grateful to Lionel for expressing his well-developed thoughts on the matter. I am also grateful to Lionel for his articulate and convincing response to the startling comments by Bruce Robison. I also have several thoughts about Father Robison's comments, but I have said enough for today. The end, for now.

  12. Yes, I regret the division of our diocese and the separations in so many ways that have followed. No question about that, and I do understand that many on both sides don't. I wish it hadn't happened, that we might have found a better way.

    I believe that both sides bear significant responsibility for what happened, and, yes, that issues of personality and power, again on both sides, have been at least as important as the very real and very important continuing conversation about the competence of our or any local synod to define essential doctrine--and about the role that the Episcopal Church may or may not be called to play within the life of the wider Communion and Christian family.

    In any event, I personally have a strong commitment to continuing life and ministry within the Episcopal Church--and to the rebuilding of our diocese in spiritual health, Jesus Christ as the Chief Cornerstone, and with the materials day by day that the Spirit will give if we ask: love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance.

  13. Bruce,

    You said: “I believe that both sides bear significant responsibility for what happened.”

    The responsibility of those who engineered the departure from The Episcopal Church is mostly obvious. Whom do you blame on the other side?

    Do you blame Harold Lewis? There was no Harold Lewis in San Joaquin or Fort Worth or Quincy. Are those dioceses better off for it?

    Do you blame PEP? The primary role of PEP was truth-telling. Did we have too much truth-telling in Pittsburgh?

    Perhaps you are thinking of the conservatives in the diocese who did not want to leave The Episcopal Church but were blind to the threat represented by Bishop Duncan.

    Please name names and identify roles. True, we cannot fix the past, but be can learn from our mistakes and try to avoid them in the future.

    I find your statement akin to suggesting that the Axis and Allied powers were equally responsible for the onset of World War II. Yes there is a grain of truth in that, but hardly any more than a grain.

  14. Lionel,

    No, I don't "blame" my friend Harold or my friends in PEP for the division of the Pittsburgh diocese. Nor do I "blame" the vast majority of my friends among the clergy and laity in the congregations of what is now the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh. I do believe folks on both sides could have done a better job in cultivating attitudes of charity, patience, and forgiveness. Iknow that I could have done a better job of this as well.

    I'm not sure if your challenge to "name names" is one that can fairly be answered, but I would say that when those who are relentless in their pursuit of justice, no matter what that pursuit costs the Body, crash headfirst into those who are relentless in their pursuit of theological purity, no matter what that pursuit costs the Body, the resulting collison leaves a lot of bodies scattered over the nearby terrain. In my opinion. I think there was a better way to walk, but it would have caused both sides to live into the Christian virtue of "longsuffering," and there weren't too many on either side who wanted or seem to want to sign up for that . . . .

    In the midst of it all, I continue to see much faithful Christian life and ministry going on in the renewal of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh and, from a distance, in the renewal of the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh. And I also do see aspects of the life of both of our bodies that of course continue to fall short of the goal set before us in Christ.

  15. Bruce,

    As I believe is true in the case of the Anglican Communion, in Pittsburgh, unity is simply not the highest good. The schism, however painful, has, in many ways, liberated the energies of both groups. We still have issues to work out, of course, but, in the end everyone may be better off in a church in which he or she feels closer to the mainstream.

    These are difficult times for the Christian Church. Social change happens at an unprecedented rate, and the Church may be ill-equipped to deal with it. It is a challenge that must be met if the Church is to survive, however.

  16. Lionel,

    While I agree faithfully that "unity is not the highest good," I do personally believe that unity is a good that is in this season a higher good than the "goods" being pursued by those on both sides of the current division.

    Nonetheless, for all of us down here in the weeds the division is the reality, and if a sense of "liberated energies" for the work of the Gospel of Christ is somehow a part of the result, then certainly I'm glad of that and desire to be a part of it. Folks who sit in their rooms and continue to refight old battles may conjur a certain romantic interest--like Civil War reenactors, I guess--but it is important to get on with the work we have in front of us.

  17. Didn't you people say something like this to the Pope back in the 1500s?
    I guess it depends whether or not you've got a king behind you and you're on a large island.

  18. Wayne Besen
    Founder of Truth Wins Out, a non-profit organization that debunks anti-gay lies and myths

    The Episcopalian Gay Revolution

    Southern California already had its hands full with an invasion of giant squid when another squishy invertebrate washed ashore. At the Episcopal Church's annual conference in Anaheim, California, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, wrapped his amoral tentacles around a proposal to allow more gay bishops.
    Williams kicked off the convention with a deplorable speech urging the American church to, once again, abandon their gay friends and family members. His sole mission was to hold together the worldwide Anglican Communion and appease conservatives, even at the expense of the denomination's decency and dignity.

    "I hope and pray there won't be decisions in the coming days that will push us further apart," sniveled the feckless Williams.
    Williams should understand that a church that uses bigotry as the glue that binds is not worth saving. Furthermore, his obsession with church growth has led to the embrace of sordid tyrants like Nigerian Archbishop, Peter J. Akinola, who is associated with shady activities, if not outright atrocities in Africa.
    Fortunately, the American bishops made history and voted 104-30, with 2 abstentions, in favor of the pro-gay measure. The homophobes, of course, offered a heaping helping of hysterics and histrionics. It seems they just can't find spiritual fulfillment without stepping on the dreams and aspirations of other people.
    "It is breaking my heart to see the church destroy itself," whined Bishop William Love of Albany, clearly betraying his family name.
    Don't you just adore how these divisive souls carelessly wield the wrecking ball yet always accuse other people of division and destruction? Without gay people to kick around, these troglodytes might have nothing better to do than focus on God. What fun would that be?
    Now that the Episcopal Church has made a bold decision, one wonders if it can survive. The denomination of two million members decreased six percent between 2003-2007 and the recession has affected its finances.
    It seems they are banking on the radical idea that a church can expand by promoting "inclusivity." I hope that they are proven correct, but I have my doubts. It is no secret that the fastest growing churches have branded themselves as bastions of intellectual stagnation and social intolerance. The slogan for such places might read: "America may have changed, but you don't have to."
    To be continued

  19. Benson, part two, or, 'How another part of the world views the debate"

    This version of Christianity thrives because fearful people want security and justice in an insecure and unjust world. Many of these believers view God as an angry vigilante who smites people they personally detest. On good days, the deity is a rabbit's foot who doles out luck and small miracles, such as sunny weather at the beach or a raise at work.
    Central to this belief system are velvet rope values, where one's superiority complex is vindicated by an exclusive church membership or inclusion in the Rapture. In this religious scheme, Jesus is the hero who forgives one for holding such mean-spirited and self-centered beliefs.
    This cosmic avenger/lucky charm model of Christianity has been wildly successful in creating marketable mega-churches. Yet, it has been even more accomplished in driving people away in droves from all religion, because they view it as intolerant and retrograde.
    The Episcopal Church and other progressive denominations have to answer a serious question: Is there a significant market for an enlightened, modern Christianity that focuses on loving, rather than loathing one's neighbors?
    Put another way, will the masses still find religion necessary once religion is decoupled from being exclusionary? I think that Europe, once the heartland of Christianity, proves that America may not forever remain a nation of the faithful.
    The burden on progressive churches is not to prove that there are millions of Christians who are tolerant and merciful. We already know this to be true. What they must show is that the "inclusiveness" brand can attract a significant number of new followers and transform the entire religion.
    The battle in the Episcopal Church is largely over, with moral evolution triumphing over mindless evil. With this newfound clarity, the Episcopal Church has an opportunity to fundamentally shift America away from dreary fundamentalism. It can cast aside the tyrannical and puritanical by offering a new Christianity for the 21st Century.
    My advice to the Episcopal Church is to move forward with confidence and the evangelical fervor to match that of its conservative counterparts. If the progressive wing backs off and gets squishy, like Rowan Williams, it is sure to get squished. The future of religion in America now rests in their hands. Let's pray they are up to the challenge.

  20. People who are "inclusive" and "progresssive" see you proclaiming "diversity" while remaining as white as cream cheese.
    Why should they believe you when you don't practice what you preach?
    Why should they bother with religion when they can involve themselves with left of center politics/"progressive" causes without the bother/cost of going to church?
    Why bother to run twice as fast to get to the same place? Just to have the pitiful satisfaction of feeling better than people who have different political opinions?
    Mainline protestantism isn't good, it's aging. Congratulating it for not hurting anybody is like congratulating a 90 year-old man for not assaulting people.
    Your politics aren't the problem. It's the underlying idea that morals need the supernatural.
    The fastest growing segment of the US population is "None of the Above"-25% of those under 30 belong to it. Only 3.4% of those under 26 years old belong to Mainline protestant families.
    The fundies have (or soon will) have the same problems you do; irrelevance coupled with declining numbers.

  21. One of the amazing, no, astouding, elements of the argument of those who leave the Episcopal Church over such minor changes, in terms of the Gospel message, as a new prayer book, women clergy, full acceptance of minorities and homosexuals, is while they say they are being true to the Gospal they forget -- or ignore -- many salient messages, such as that found in Galatians 3:28.

    Jack H. Taylor Jr.
    Dallas, Texas

  22. One cannot take a congregation. If individual members feel that leaving to find faith is proper than they have the right to do so. Test what is true. The Anglican and Episcopal faiths were established when they were stolen from the Roman Catholic faith by Henry VIII.


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