Sunday, May 18, 2008

Of Bishops and Boundaries

The mistaken belief that "the ancient councils of the Church forbade Bishops from invading each other's territories" has been laid well to rest (and see also this post). The appeals to ancient norms, however, are persistent. Sometimes, the appeal is simply to current "protocol", or to "the spirit and the letter of the Windsor Report" (which also erroneously cited to the Council of Nicaea, as explained in the first link). It is granted that TEC's own Constitution (Art. II, Sec. 3) limits a Bishop to exercising authority only in his or her own diocese, and that it has so provided since it was first adopted in 1789. What is to be said about the numerous instances in which former Episcopal congregations and clergy (and now even a diocese, with others perhaps to follow) have placed themselves under the jurisdiction of bishops in other Anglican provinces?

The first thing to note is that the phenomenon is largely, if not exclusively, confined to the provinces of The Episcopal Church and of the Anglican Church of Canada. That in itself says a great deal. Can it be just a coincidence that the boundary crossings are occurring in just the two churches in the Anglican Communion which have officially refused to abide by the resolutions made by all the bishops of the Communion meeting at Lambeth? Let's take a closer look.

It is inadequate to explain that TEC and the ACoC have rejected the recommendations made in Resolution 1.10 passed at the 1998 Lambeth Conference. Implicit in their rejections, and in their refusals to retract those rejections, is a statement about their respective polities. I do not think I could improve on this analysis by "AKMA", who (looking at the Statement issued by TEC's House of Bishops in March 2007) I think has it exactly right:
What might be wrong with our polity? It looks to me as though the Episcopal Church (on both “sides”) tends to regard bishops as though they were state governors — “our elected officials.” That neglects the two aspects of a bishop’s vocation that look most important to me: the bishop’s role as a teacher, and the bishop’s role as the point where the local church (the diocese) interacts with the church catholic. On that basis, churches in Iran really do have a stake in whom the Diocese of Chicago elects as bishop; a bishop who can’t function as a liaison (either because the world refuses them, or their home diocese does) can’t fulfill a constitutive aspect of the bishop’s role. The Episcopal Church tacitly recognizes this through its assent process, and (ironically) just exercised the prerogative to not accept a bishop’s election on the grounds that not enough dioceses felt they could rely on that candidate to remain within the Episcopal Church. [Footnote omitted.] Though we do not ask every diocese around the globe to consent to each episcopal election, the principle is the same: A bishop belongs both to the diocese and to the church catholic, and both need to accept the bishop in order to maintain sound polity.
So when the House of Bishops asserts that “the meaning of the Preamble to the Constitution of The Episcopal Church is determined solely by the General Convention of The Episcopal Church,” or that we have no intention of leaving the Anglican Communion but that our polity does not permit arrangements such as the Primates requested, they’re begging the question. It’s the polity itself that has come into focus as the problem. The Primates want a polity in which our bishops stand more fully accountable to the world church, because (on this interpretation) that’s part of their job description; and the Episcopal Church says, “You can’t exclude us because that’s not the way we do things.” The US position looks an awful lot like an assimilation of ecclesiastical roles to local civic models: the U.S. bishops should lobby on behalf of the citizens they represent to bring home favorable policies (and if the governors of Utah and Mississippi, even the President of the U.S., don’t like the governor of Iowa, it’s tough luck because the Iowans voted for her). That’s not my understanding of how the members of the Body of Christ work together to build up and strengthen the whole.
Indeed, The Episcopal Church's leadership is, if I may be allowed to say it, preoccupied with concerns of civil rights and social justice that have a full and necessary place in our body politic, but which, ironically, detract from the function of a body religious. Bishops are more than elected governors, and are accountable to more things than just civil rights and social justice. Remember: "God owes us nothing" (to use the title of one of Leszek Kolakowski's books). One cannot speak of mortal sinners demanding civil rights or social justice from God. One's eligibility to be called to God's service does not hinge on whether one has been oppressed, or denied elementary civil rights by a society, so that it is now "one's turn" to assume the leadership role, just so that the Church may be said to be doing "new things."

The fallacy in bringing a civil rights point of view to matters of Church polity is not just that sinners have no "civil rights", but also that one cannot champion civil rights in a representative capacity. A Bishop represents his diocese to the church catholic, as the above quote observes. If that Bishop feels strongly about women's rights, or gay and lesbian rights, or both, or still other rights, he or she may march in all the demonstrations and parades, and even get arrested if civil disobedience is felt to be the only way to gain attention for the cause. But when a Bishop marches, or is arrested, he is placing his individual liberty on the line. (I shall switch to using a generic "he" at this point, because it is simply too cumbersome to keep repeating "he or she," "his or her," etc. Let the gender-neutral intent be understood.) As a Bishop of his Church, however, his authority does not extend to placing his Diocese on the line, because he only represents the Diocese; he is not the Diocese itself.

Indeed, civil disobedience makes sense only from an individual standpoint, as I noted in an earlier post. There is no admirable sacrifice of liberty, no example for others to follow, if you use your representative authority to get someone else to go to jail for you. And this has been the problem with how TEC (and the ACoC) have gone about advancing the cause of gay and lesbian "rights" within the Anglican Communion. (I place the word in quotes, remember, because it does not make sense to speak of demanding from God a "right" to be ordained, or to receive God's blessing on one's relationship.) They claim to have done so in order to "be a witness" to the "new things" which the Holy Spirit is doing in the Church---that is the language of (religious) civil rights demonstrators. In fact, the compulsion for former Presiding Bishop Griswold to be a witness was so great that he could leave the Primates' Meeting at Lambeth Palace in October 2003, having signed a statement that urged TEC not to go forward with the consecration of Bishop Robinson, and then officiate at the ceremony just seventeen days later; he left it to his deputies to justify his conduct to the Communion. And the compulsion of the current Presiding Bishop to brook no opposition to the social justice agenda was foreshadowed even before she was elected.

In order to send a signal that they were witnessing to the cause of gay and lesbian civil rights, the Bishops of TEC and ACoC did not just pronounce that Lambeth Resolution 1.10 was not going to be followed in their churches; TEC actually consecrated a Bishop who, it was warned in advance, would not be able to represent his diocese to the wider church, and who could not be invited to the gathering at Lambeth without making a mockery of the actions taken there. And asked to clarify its stance, the Anglican Church of Canada responded with an ambiguous authorization to hold rites for the blessing of same-sex unions. Each of these actions, be it noted, constituted official acts of the respective churches, performed and approved by their delegates in their representative capacities. No one's individual liberty was placed at risk by such Anglican disobedience; instead, what it called into question was the churches' willingness to remain as full partners in the Communion.

It is very difficult to remain impartial about the different sides of this dispute, because there is so much at stake once the disobedience went to a representative, as opposed to staying on an individual, level. Some devout Episcopalians, whose sincerity cannot be questioned (even though the other side will not credit it), believe (along with Lambeth 1.10) that participating in or approving the ordination of a non-celibate gay or lesbian to the ministry simply cannot be reconciled with Holy Scripture, and quite a number of these Episcopalians also believe that it concerns one's salvation. The other side believes just as sincerely that gays and lesbians have for too long been discriminated against by the powers of the Church, are determined to put an end to the discrimination they see, and think that what they are doing is strengthening, not weakening the Church. The problem is that by taking action in the name of the whole Church, the activists have made it impossible for those who disagree to remain neutral or indifferent. The reasserters (to use the neutral terminology now current) cannot accept what has been done, and what continues to be done, in their name. And for their part, the reappraisers are just as determined to continue with what they have started, and to do so in the name of the Church as a whole.

One of the predictable consequences of such an impasse is that the reasserters will seek to be led by Bishops and clergy whom they see as faithful to Holy Scripture, and will reject the leadership of those who are approving and performing gay and lesbian ordinations and blessings. The results are the withdrawals, the joining of other Anglican provinces, and the border crossings by Bishops. The reappraisers can insist all they want that parishes in a diocese are not free to pick and choose whom they will individually have as their Bishop, that the majority rules, and that once a Bishop has been elected and consecrated the entire diocese has to live with that choice, or accept whatever that Bishop offers as alternative oversight. But for reasons I have set out in this post, those parishes have decided that when they joined The Episcopal Church, they did not delegate to their representatives the authority to take steps that would make them no longer a part of the Communion, or that could affect their salvation. Those decisions belong to the parishioners and their ministers alone, and they are voting with both their wallets and their feet. (Moreover, for an instance of why "Delegated Episcopal Pastoral Oversight" [DEPO] as offered to reasserters is unacceptable, read carefully this link, especially pages 13-19.)

The anguish of having to decide whether to leave the Church is not being assuaged by the unsympathetic stance of the reappraisers toward those who are faced with the choice. From the Presiding Bishop on down, the attitude is: Leave if you must, but don't try to take any property with you, because our side has all the money in the world for lawyers who will plague you like locusts. Moreover, don't even ask if you can buy the property from us, because we won't sell it to you---we'd rather it went to a sleazy nightclub, and end up like this, than to a parish "in competition" with us. So long as you try to remain part of the Anglican Communion without also being a part of TEC, we will depose your clergy and bishops so they can never minister in this Church again; we will not recognize those whom you ordain, we will hound whatever bishop takes you under his wing every time he tries to make a pastoral visit to you, and we will threaten to depose those in this Church who cooperate with foreign bishops. We will never recognize your affiliation, and if we can get the Archbishop of Canterbury to listen to us, he will not either. And don't try to blame us for forcing you to do this: you and your rigid and antiquated readings of Scripture are what is causing this to happen.

The position of TEC towards those who leave it borders on violating their First Amendment freedom to associate, as I noted here. If TEC had its way in the courts, it would be illegal for a parish within its geographical territory to join another province of the Anglican Communion, let alone a newly formed province in America itself (which would require the assent of the Primates and the Anglican Consultative Council). As the link just given explains, the Anglican Consultative Council gives consent to the creation of new provinces, not dioceses. With the latest news from the Province of the Southern Cone about amending its Constitution to allow it to include dioceses in North America, we may eventually see some kind of test in court of TEC's hard and fast position that no foreign dioceses can exist within its geographical territory. At this point, however, the issues are not well-defined for adjudication.

The Church has split before over matters seen as involving salvation, and it has never been accomplished without trials and tribulations on both sides. There is little hope of reconciling the two groups, given the current stances, for the reasons just given: one is acting out of conviction born from faith in Scripture, while the other is acting out of conviction born from faith in human dignity and social justice. What I hope the reappraisers will come to see is that the departures and the "incursions" are the inevitable consequences of presuming to decide questions at a Church level that were not theirs to decide (at least, not until the Communion as a whole was ready to do so). And what I hope the reasserters will come to see is that the early failures to object to the undermining of doctrine, and to the post-modernizing of the Church, served only to postpone the difficult decisions they now must make today.

I shall close with a juxtaposition that is apt of two quotes on this subject. The first is the aforementioned Statement from the House of Bishops:
Other Anglican bishops, indeed including some Primates, have violated our provincial boundaries and caused great suffering and contributed immeasurably to our difficulties in solving our problems and in attempting to communicate for ourselves with our Anglican brothers and sisters. We have been repeatedly assured that boundary violations are inappropriate under the most ancient authorities and should cease. The Lambeth Conferences of 1988 and 1998 did so. The Windsor Report did so. The Dromantine Communiqué did so. None of these assurances has been heeded. The Dar es Salaam Communiqué affirms the principle that boundary violations are impermissible, but then sets conditions for ending those violations, conditions that are simply impossible for us to meet without calling a special meeting of our General Convention.

— A Statement from the House of Bishops of TEC – March 20, 2007

And the second quotation is from John Henry (later Cardinal) Newman (hat-tip: I'd Rather Not Say):
If unity lies in the Apostolical succession, an act of schism is from the nature of the case impossible; for as no one can reverse his parentage, so no Church can undo the fact that its clergy have come by lineal descent from the Apostles. Either there is no such sin as schism, or unity does not lie in the Episcopal form or in the Episcopal ordination. And this is felt by the controversialists of this day; who in consequence are obliged to invent a sin, and to consider, not division of Church from Church, but interference of Church with Church to be the sin of schism, as if local dioceses and bishops with restraint were more than ecclesiastical arrangements and by-laws of the Church, however sacred, while schism is a sin against her essence. Thus they strain out a gnat, and swallow a camel. Division is the schism, if schism there be, not interference. If interference is a sin, division which is the cause of it is greater; but where division is a duty, there can be no sin in interference.

—John Henry Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, 1845


  1. Sinners have no civil rights?

    Not only do I not agree with the calling of sin (in context), but they DO have civil rights. Accused are guaranteed a trial by their peers, for instance.

    If not this, then what kind of "civil rights", exactly, are you speaking of?

  2. Cany, thanks for pointing out anything that’s unclear. I want to be very clear: We all are sinners, and yes, because we all are sinners, we have no “civil rights” before God. Kolakowski’s book says it best: God Owes Us Nothing! People have civil rights in the context of their societies, and can demand them of their political leaders by marching and demonstrating, and even by getting arrested. But you can’t persuade God to grant you anything by marching and demonstrating, and (unless you are St. Paul, maybe) He won’t get you out of jail if you are arrested. Nor, at the final judgment, will you be able to demand "a trial by your peers."

    So I’m not saying that we church members have no civil rights, it’s just that neither we (nor anyone else) has them before God.