28 March 2007

Bishops Down The Rabbit Hole.*

lmost two months ago, our parish family began a discernment process – a time of prayerful and thoughtful reflection on the mess (what better word is there?) that is the Episcopal Church these days and how to be faithful to God in such times. While we borrowed (gratefully) the “Forty Days of Discernment” program developed by the Falls Church and Truro Church in Virginia, we had said from the beginning that no decision would be made until after Easter; rather, we would, and will, meet together and discuss together until some consensus might be reached among us as to what options might be desirable or even possible, and until we are ready to make a decision together “in the fullness of time.” Nonetheless, it may be helpful at this stage to offer, from my perspective, a progress report.

Since we began our discernment process, two major conversation-changing events have occurred in the life of the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. The first of which should by this time be thoroughly familiar to you, so I will just sketch it here (if it's not, you have been delinquent in your participation; consider yourself firmly rebuked!). At their meeting in Africa, the Primates of the Communion called on the Episcopal Church’s House of Bishops unequivocally to confirm that moratoria are in place on the consecration of partnered homosexuals to the episcopate and the blessing of same-sex unions, and to provide that confirmation by September 30th. Further, the Primates enacted a “pastoral scheme” wherein a Primatial Vicar would provide alternative primatial oversight to those Episcopal dioceses and congregations not able to accept to current leadership and direction of the Episcopal Church. It is to be remembered that the Primates proposed this plan in the hope that it would actually facilitate reconciliation within the Episcopal Church and between the Episcopal Church and its sister churches in the Anglican Communion. The Primates acted more decisively than just about anyone expected, and in so doing validated the concerns of and gave hope to those of us who have wanted to be faithful Anglicans in the Episcopal Church. There seemed finally to be a way forward that was realistic and marked by faith, hope, and charity, and this of course greatly affected our conversation and the direction of our discernment, particularly given Bishop Bauerschmidt’s strong affirmation of the Windsor Report and the Primates’ proposals: “The Primates have given us a Pastoral Scheme that allows us to move ahead, holding up before us the possibility of continuing as the Communion of Churches that I am convinced we are called to be.”

And then came the March meeting of the House of Bishops in Texas. While not responding to either of the requested moratoria (though bishops from all sides of the controversies have indicated that response will be a loud “No.”), the bishops passed resolutions not just rejecting but actually condemning the Primates’ pastoral scheme as “injurious to the Episcopal Church” and “spiritually unsound.” It is tempting to dilate upon that rejection, but the bishops said one more thing that I believe portends far worse for the Episcopal Church. According to the bishops, the initiatives of the Primates had to be rejected because “The meaning of the Preamble to the Constitution of The Episcopal Church is determined solely by the General Convention of The Episcopal Church.” Here are the lines from the Preamble to which they were referring:
The Episcopal Church . . . is a constituent member of the Anglican Communion, a Fellowship within the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, of those duly constituted Dioceses, Provinces, and regional Churches in communion with the See of Canterbury, upholding and propagating the historic Faith and Order as set forth in the Book of Common Prayer.

You can see the import of these words: Anglicanism, catholicity, communion with Canterbury – these things are defined only by the latest meeting of the General Convention. The bishops are committed to a principle of unfettered autonomy in an ecclesial Wonderland where, as Humpty-Dumpty told Alice, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less.”

I recently read an essay concerned with what John Henry Newman long ago called “the idea of a University,” particularly with how a university might maintain a distinctively Christian identity and vocation. The author wrote,

The Christian University requires a structured form of conversation, both affirmative and critical, with a particular community of Christian faith. In the absence of such accountability – an accountability that is not imposed but freely sought – the Christian university will most likely succumb to the institutional and theological dynamics of other kinds of universities.

I’ve not thought very much about the evolution and devolution of our institutions of higher learning, but this observation about Christian universities seems a very fine analogue for what has happened in the Episcopal Church.

Perhaps you remember the rest of Alice’s and Humpty-Dumpty’s conversation. “The question is, whether you can make words mean so many different things,” said Alice. “The question is: which is to be master - that's all,” responded Humpty-Dumpty. Can the Episcopal Church recognize any master beyond its own structures and its own will? And – not too fine a point on it – if not, will it recognize the Master when he returns (or vice versa; Mt. 7.21-23)?

The Primates have called – pleaded with, even – the Episcopal Church to return to a relationship of mutual accountability within the Anglican Communion, a relationship and an accountability “that is not imposed but freely sought,” that “structured conversation” wherein difference may be engaged and truth discerned. Absent such relationships of accountability, the cruel dynamics of human willfulness take over: “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17.6).

What does all this mean for our discernment? The bishops’ words seem to me to be fairly definitive, and they clearly recognize that the consequence of their self-assertion may well be separation from the Anglican Communion (a price they confess themselves willing to pay). Yet again, we are in the difficult position of waiting for events to unfold and clear leadership to be provided. In light of the decisiveness shown by the Primates at their Tanzania meeting, I do not think that they will be cowed by the House of Bishops. I hope and pray that they will set in place Pastoral Council and Primatial Vicar even without the Episcopal Church’s participation – and there is good reason to believe they will.

I had hoped by this writing to have heard of some response to the House of Bishop’s meeting from Bishop Bauerschmidt [since promulgated, see below] and Bishop Duncan (on behalf of the Anglican Communion Network) [see below]; as soon as (and if) those responses are made, I will communicate them with you.

Again, we had said from the beginning of this process that we would wait till after Holy Week and Easter to make any decisions. Why? Because it is in Holy Week and Easter that we come to the very heart of our salvation – those great deeds whereby God in Christ has acted to redeem us, those matters of "first importance" which ahave received from the Apostles (1 Cor. 15.3-5). I encourage you to let this letter be the last you think of these Church controversies until after Easter, and I will try to do the same.

Feast of the Annunciation (tr.)
*From a letter to the parish.


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