Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Ghost of Bishop Pike

The publicity machines are in full tilt over the Global Anglican Future Conference in Jerusalem (GAFCON). Both sides are cranking out their speeches and articles, and the usual Websites have full coverage and links for anyone interested.

In the midst of all the hoopla, I came across an essay worth considering, which I want to use as a launching pad for my own thoughts on GAFCON and the future of the Anglican Communion. Entitled "The Ghost of Bishop Pike, Revisited", it was authored by the Rt. Rev. Pierre W. Whalon, Bishop-in-Charge of the Convocation of American Churches in Europe, and echoes a piece on the same theme he had written a year earlier. Each invokes "the ghost of Bishop Pike" as a sort of spectral explanation for the inability of the Episcopal Church's House of Bishops to put a halt to the downward slide that is sending the Church slowly but inexorably into the Sea of Irrelevancy. Let Bishop Whalon explain:
A year ago, after the last House of Bishops meeting at Camp Allen, this writer composed a column about the ghost of Bishop James Pike haunting the House of Bishops. It is shorthand for the way in which we bishops in the House deal with each other—or rather, don't. Pike was a brilliant, mediagenic bishop who provocatively raised many difficult doctrinal questions, and then began a slow descent into mental illness. Rather than put him on trial for heresy or attempt to deal with him in a more loving way, he was censured, shoved out of the House, and eventually he went off into the desert of Judea to die.

What his ghost accuses the House of Bishops of is not necessarily the way he died, but rather the way the House decided not to deal with him head-on. Not to be caring about him, when he so obviously needed help. And as he steadfastly refused such help, the House decided not to discipline him, apparently because he threatened to unmask Jesus as a revolutionary zealot on the pages of the New York Times if the bishops tried.
The inability of the House to deal with such problems has been manifest ever since:
In any event, since the Pike affair, the House of Bishops has engaged in a great deal of avoidance behavior. The issues that Pike sought to raise have not gone away, indeed they have come upon all of us: the role of women and gays in the church, sexual morality, the adequacy of doctrinal formulations like the Creeds, and so on. In response, the Episcopal Church as a whole has invested heavily in its legislative processes as a means of dealing with these and other issues.
However, the polity of The Episcopal Church is not well suited for achieving a unified approach:
Furthermore, we are talking about the General Convention. Our system of government looks like the American secular politics we are so familiar with, but in fact, it differs significantly. The Constitution of the United States calls for a strong central government, while the Episcopal Church Constitution explicitly prevents one. We are a confederation of dioceses, essentially the same structure since Bishop William White designed our polity in the 18th century.

As a result, legislation is rarely binding upon all the dioceses. General Convention's resolutions are non-binding, unless they change the constitution or canons, including revising the Prayer Book. Using the General Convention to effect change in the church is an ungainly process at best, not only because the balance of the Houses of Deputies and Bishops is not offset by a strong president and independent judiciary, but also because of the problems inherent to a body of nearly one thousand voting members.
Such problems result inevitably in the rise of warring factions:
And when it comes about, change by legislation creates a division between winners and losers. As a result, following a trend in secular politics, lots of interest groups have formed to influence the Convention in one direction or another. As the decisions of Convention have evolved, so have these groups, clustering together along the political spectrum.

These clusters of groups at either end of the spectrum curiously resemble each other. Their rhetorical style is similar, inventing lexicons of invective like "heterosexist" and "homoerotic." They organize fundraisers to pay for campaigns to lobby Convention. Each, sadly, has invited the other to leave the church. Now since Lambeth 1998, both are involved in a struggle to persuade the larger Communion that theirs has the right to be considered the "real" American Anglican province. Our side must win and the other side must lose, even if we must involve the whole world. In style, at least, they are so similar . . .
Bishop Whalon has seen the effects of this polarization first-hand at the meetings of the House, which continues to be haunted by the ghost of Bishop Pike:
All voting bodies, including the ecumenical councils, create winners and losers. And there is a time for such decisions. But what has been missing for a long time in the Episcopal Church—and I for convenience date it to the bishops' censure of James Pike at a meeting in Wheeling in 1966—is a process for deciding when such votes are necessary, and for putting the church back together following them. And where this lack is most clearly felt is in the House of Bishops. Unlike the Deputies to Convention, who have to be re-elected in order to return to their House, the bishops are in their House for life and meet much more often. So the consequences are felt much more directly.

By trying to avoid the inevitable conflicts that rapid change has forced upon us, we bishops have by and large helped it increase to unmanageable proportions. When Bishops John Spong and John McNaughton nearly came to blows during the 1991 Convention in Phoenix, bringing it virtually to a halt, an annual spring retreat for the bishops was inaugurated for conflict management. And yet, despite earnest attempts at a process to effect reconciliation, the maneuvering of the two groups has continued to make conflict avoidance the easiest way out.
The conflict within became the conflict without:
But unmanaged conflict has to come out somewhere, and so it has appeared in the larger church. While a diocese-by-diocese gradualist approach to the acceptance of women's orders, same-sex unions and ordination of partnered gays has prevailed, there have been abortive attempts to stem the tide from the other end. A proposed resolution to Convention 1994 that would outlaw the opposition [to women's ordination] (designed to [be] voted down and so legitimize dissent) was turned into a committee to investigate how the remaining dioceses who do not ordain women were to comply. Someone made the attempt to trademark the name "PECUSA, Inc.", and so control the name of the church. An assistant bishop who had ordained a gay man to the diaconate was brought up on charges (instead of the diocesan responsible) which the court threw out because there is not and never has been an explicit canon or rubric forbidding such ordinations. These of course only fueled the conflict further.

Then at Lambeth 1998 the conflict spilled over into the Anglican Communion. Serious lobbying for the moral authority of the Conference and eventually the Communion to outflank or confirm the American political process began in earnest. Finally General Convention 2003 made a decision (to consecrate the Bishop of New Hampshire) and passed a resolution (not to authorize the creation of rites of same-sex blessings). There ensued the Windsor Report, the Primates Communiqué ... and now the Covenant.
Writing this essay in March 2005 just after the House of Bishops had voted to suspend all consecrations until General Convention 2006, and not to authorize same-sex blessings (which resolutions he terms a "Covenant"---not to be confused with the proposal for an Anglican Covenant), Bishop Whalon permitted himself a small ray of hope:
Time will tell whether the Covenant marks a beginning of a new style of our leadership as a House, or simply staves off the inevitable schism for a little while. But as the fruit of a spontaneous collaboration of bishops from across the spectrum, it has a freshness to it that I deeply hope is a harbinger of an alternative to the spiral which has a death-grip on us all.
Now, three years later, we see that the basis for optimism has vanished. Led by a purpose-driven (i.e., hell-bent) Presiding Bishop whose election the Rt. Rev. Whalon could not have foreseen in 2005, the House of Bishops is more than ever haunted by the unexorcised ghost of Bishop Pike. The factions in the House have become more and more unequal, as even the once-moderate have been driven to take sides, and a litmus test is applied to all new candidates. The revisionists have gained the upper hand, and in September will most likely rubber-stamp Presiding Bishop Jefferts Schori's uncanonical maneuver to throw the Rt. Rev. Robert Duncan out of the Church without a trial. There will follow in quick succession equally uncanonical "depositions" of Bishops Iker and Ackerman, plus any others who are in sympathy with them. By the spring meeting of the House in early 2009, the purge will be complete. The Episcopal Church will be minus four dioceses, and by that same time there will be five major lawsuits pending (including Virginia, which will probably be on appeal by then), in which TEC will be trying---mostly unsuccessfully, I predict---to defend its "hierarchical" polity. The drain on the budget for legal expenses will be enormous. This financial drain will result in the departure of still further thousands from the pews, and may embolden still more dioceses to revolt.

The result will inevitably be that TEC will no longer be in any condition to claim that it has an exclusive franchise on Anglicanism in the United States. If GAFCON results in anything permanent as promised, there will be a new North American "province" by 2010---recognized not officially, perhaps yet, by the Anglican Consultative Council or the Archbishop of Canterbury, but by most of the provinces of the Global South. That "province" will co-exist territorially with TEC despite all the lawsuits, which as I predict, TEC will ultimately lose---ironically, because it is trying to deny to member churches and dioceses the very kind of democracy which it says is at the heart of its polity, and because the courts in the end will take the side of open, democratic processes rather than the side of despotic, rule-flaunting apostates and heresiarchs.

Those are strong (curmudgeonly) words, but the present times do not call for tea and crumpets. Here is Bishop Whalon again, to close with his invocation of the specter of Bishop Pike:
The term "irreconcilable differences" is still floating among us, even though, as the Presiding Bishop pointed out, there is a real faithlessness about it. Nevertheless, the accumulation of decades of unmanaged conflict and point-counterpoint has brought us to the point of total rupture. . . .

It would take years of hard work and lots of good will to develop better conflict management in the House of Bishops and thus finally allow the shade of Bishop Pike to go home. Maybe we have made a little start. Schism must be avoided. It is nothing less than chopping up the Body of Christ, giving the lie to the Gospel we preach, disobeying Jesus' commandment that we love each other as he has loved us, and diminishing the Church far more severely than other ways to deal with conflict and even heresy.

If a schism happens, there will lots more ghosts at future meetings of the House of Bishops. Let us pray that the Spirit will convince us to take another path.
Let us, indeed, pray---now harder than ever. With the close of GAFCON, the future will be upon us, and Lambeth as currently planned will consist of fiddling while Rome burns. Rome went on for hundreds of years after the fire, and so, no doubt, will the Anglican Communion. At the bottom of the slope, however, waits the great Sea of Irrelevancy---to swallow up all that which, on its inexorable downward slide, so desperately seeks to be called "relevant."

Or, to change the metaphor to go with Bishop Whalon's theme, what awaits The Episcopal Church on its current course, led on by the ghost of Bishop Pike, is years of wandering lost in the desert, to perish ultimately for want of spiritual nourishment in some figurative cave by the Dead Sea.


  1. Thanks for this excellent and thought-provoking article.

    For a view of the HoB from a slightly different angle, Prof. Guelzo's article from the spring of 2006, "Bonfire of the Sacristies", is available online at Virtue's archive.

  2. And I have to thank you, Craig Goodrich, for the link to Prof. Guelzo's fine article. It is especially worthwhile to read in light of the reactions to GAFCON.