Friday, November 09, 2007

A Confusion of Bishops

Today’s Church Times reports on decisions in the Convention of the Diocese of Pittsburgh that a majority believe would prepare that Diocese to withdraw from the Episcopal Church. That is, of course, a much disputed position.

The story goes on to report a letter from four bishops of the Church of England in support of Bishop Robert Duncan of Pittsburgh (and thanks to Thinking Anglicans for pointing this out). Statements in the report show some clear and distinct misunderstandings about the choices being made by Bishop Duncan and by the Convention in Pittsburgh. Let me respond to some specific statements.

“We deeply regret the increase in the atmosphere of litigiousness revealed by the Presiding Bishop’s letter to Bishop Duncan.”

Unfortunately, the “atmosphere of litigiousness” is a result of the tool chosen by Bishop Duncan in this case. As Virginia took legal action only after the departing congregations sought court recognition of their independence, so action in Pittsburgh is only taking place after efforts of the Bishop and Convention of Pittsburgh to make changes to the Canons of the diocese. This was an action to change the laws; and so a response in terms of laws can only be expected.

“We hope the Archbishop’s response to Bishop John Howe of Central Florida will also apply to Bishop Bob Duncan of Pittsburgh.”

We need to note that Bishop Howe’s letter described a different, almost opposite position as the actions of Duncan and Pittsburgh. Bishop Howe took a stance that his Diocese was not an independent unit, and that he would continue to remain in the Episcopal Church. While Canterbury’s response was problematic in its emphasis on the importance of the diocese in apposition to the congregation and its de-emphasis of national structures, the clarification pointed out that this was a narrow response, not really intended to address the relationship between the diocese and the national church. That is entirely consistent with the Windsor Report and other statements Archbishop Williams has made, including in the interview after meeting with the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church, that reconciliation should be sought within existing provincial and diocesan structures. (Indeed, this letter is evidence of just how problematic the poorly phrased letter to Bishop Howe, taken out of this context, might become.) Bishop Howe remains within the Episcopal Church and seeks to work within existing diocesan and provincial structures. Bishop Duncan manifestly does not.

The Bishop of Chester, Dr Peter Forster, said on Tuesday that the statement gave personal support to Bishop Duncan. He... emphasized that issuing the statement did not imply support for decisions taken at the Pittsburgh diocesan convention.

It seems very unclear what “personal support” might mean. The letter from the Presiding Bishop was focused primarily on the decisions taken at the diocesan convention. This seems to somehow separate Bishop Duncan’s status as a bishop from his leadership as a bishop. I’m as big a fan as anybody of the theology of an “indelible mark” in ordination. At the same time, we function as ordained persons only within the context of the community that has ordained us. I can’t simply walk into the local Methodist or Baptist church and expect that my ordination will have any significance. It has significance to the extent, and only to the extent, that it is accepted and respected by the different community. For all our intent that we ordain bishops “for the whole Church,” our bishops have no authority outside the province within which they are ordained. To function in a different province requires recognition and licensure. Bishop Duncan’s actions to violate the polity and integrity of the province within which he was ordained necessarily affect his status within that province in ways that should be resolved (preferably by resignation; necessarily by canonical measures if he doesn’t resign) before he should be accepted by any other Christian community. Want to offer personal support? Focus on Bishop Duncan’s emotions and beliefs, even as you state concerns about actions that are misguided. Otherwise, you do imply approval of the actions that Bishop Duncan has led.

“What’s needed is a pastoral, healing approach, which attempts to find a way forward.”

Well, that’s a hopeful thought. However, Bishop Duncan has rejected any pastoral care the Episcopal Church might offer. I don’t speak only of his rejection of the most recent opportunity for alternative oversight within the Episcopal Church. He rejected the first offer of alternative oversight when proposed in the fall of 2006 by Bishops Griswold and Jefferts Schori. He has largely rejected the community of the Episcopal House of Bishops for years, attending only those meetings that focus on his expression of discontent, refusing communion with sibling bishops, and even staying in different accommodations than the majority of the House. I’ve been in pastoral care for my entire career as a priest. You can’t provide pastoral care and support from someone who doesn’t want it from you, especially when he shows it by refusing your company.

Bishop Duncan is "holding out the prospect of those who wish to stay doing so, and promises to be fair and generous in his dealings with them. I think I'm asking for a similar fairness and generosity from the Episcopal Church towards those parishes who do want to leave," said Dr Forster.

I would leave response to this to the folks of Progressive Episcopalians of Pittsburgh. So far, they seem unimpressed with Bishop Duncan’s idea of what is “fair and generous.”

"Part of the Archbishop's comment is that these are matters for the bishop and the diocese. They are the primary unit.

"That doesn't give a diocese the right to do what it wants willy-nilly, but there has to be a fundamental respect, it seems to me, if a diocese says, 'We wish to align with a different province,'" Dr Forster said.

I’m sorry; what action seems more “willy-nilly” – more “I want my way or no way!” – than saying “We wish to align with a different province?” To say that it is an act of principle in no way mitigates that it is indeed an act of will in defiance of, and not in concurrence with, the Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church, or even with Anglican tradition. As noted, the clarification of Archbishop Williams’ letter and the clear intent of the Windsor Report is that, while the diocese might be the primary unit of the church, it functions only within the structures of the province. My heart pumps largely independent of my brain; but if they’re not connected in my body neither will survive. Nor can any “transplant” happen without someone being seriously injured.

I can hardly wait until some diocese of the Church of England is prepared to “align with a different province;” and I can hardly expect that this letter will hinder those in the Church of England who might want to do that. We will see how irrelevant that provincial structure is.

These four Bishops of the Church of England seem simply confused. They agree with Bishop Duncan in his opinions about GLBT persons in the life of the Church. That’s sad, but neither a surprise nor much worthy of note. On the other hand, by extending their expression of support beyond that simple fact they demonstrate their own misperceptions of the situation to which the Episcopal Church is responding. May God move in them and provide them greater clarity of vision.

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