Wednesday, July 16, 2008

A Tale of Three Bishops

This is Part III of a Special Series in honor of the opening of the 2008 Lambeth Conference. Part I is here; Part II is here.

This is a story about three very different bishops. Each belonged to a church in the Anglican Communion.

The first bishop was considered by the great majority of those in the Anglican Communion to be in the highest degree heretical. He was considered so heretical, in fact, that the Archbishop of Canterbury deliberately did not invite him to the Lambeth Conference---the (approximately) decennial gathering of all Anglican bishops.

Although this bishop was duly consecrated in accordance with the prescribed rites and laying on of hands by other bishops, the great majority of remaining bishops in the Anglican Communion later refused to regard him as a bishop within the Communion.

This bishop did not see himself as leading any kind of a movement in the church, but only as being true to his own (strongly held) convictions. He refused to depart from his path or change his ways, no matter the abuse and calumny that was heaped upon him. He lived a long but somewhat lonely life (although he never regarded it as such), ministering faithfully to the communicants in his diocese.

The second bishop in this tale was also considered by the majority in the Anglican Communion to be heretical. Unlike the first bishop, he was never formally charged with heresy. Like the first bishop, however, he was deliberately not invited to the Lambeth Conference. Although his own church claimed that his consecration had been validly performed, many of the other churches in the Anglican Communion refused to recognize its validity.

Nevertheless, this bishop also continued to function as the chief pastor to his own diocese, despite the vociferous objections to his consecration and ministry. Unlike the first bishop in our tale, our second bishop saw himself as the leader of a new movement in the Church as a whole, and his life was by no means as lonely---although it did manifest from time to time the signs of a sense of alienation.

The third bishop, in contrast to the other two, was considered by the rest of the Anglican Communion to be highly orthodox---and no doubt to some his orthodoxy was seen as so rooted in ancient tradition as to border on what they now considered to be the heretical. Nevertheless, just like the other two, there came a time when his status as a bishop was no longer recognized by many in the Anglican Communion, and in this case, not even by most of those in his own Church. He, too, was made unwelcome at Lambeth, and he, too, suffered obloquy and vituperation for his firmly held views.

Like the other two in our tale, this third bishop lived out a long life in his own diocese, faithfully ministering to his flock, and undeterred by the reverberations emanating from his fixed course.

Now, from what I have told you about our three bishops, can you guess the identity of each?

If not, here are some more clues:

The reason that many in the Communion did not want to recognize the first and the third bishops is that each of them was "deposed" after formal charges had been lodged against them on account of their conduct. However, in each case, the validity of the procedure followed to depose them was very much in question.

The controversy surrounding the first bishop was a major factor in pulling the rest of the Anglican Communion together; indeed, they came together as never before (and probably never since). In contrast, the controversy surrounding the second bishop was a major factor in pulling the Anglican Communion apart---once again, most probably as never before. That controversy also resulted in the charges leading to the "deposition" of our third bishop.

Their own respective churches each tried to bring down the first and the third bishops by erecting new dioceses that overlapped with their original ones, and by appointing new bishops to have jurisdiction in the new dioceses so created. It took many years for the confusion and uncertainty thereby engendered to be resolved. Nevertheless, the original bishops remained steadfast in their posts, and withstood all the turmoil swirling around them while they went about their pastoral duties.

Now you should be able to identify each of the players in our little tale. Scroll down when you are ready to continue.

The third bishop is the Rt. Rev. John-David Schofield, who is currently the Bishop of the Anglican Diocese of San Joaquin. The Episcopal Church claims to have deposed him, but nearly all canon lawyers and a good number of Episcopal dioceses agree that the vote to depose was insufficient. Acting on her own authority and without any canons to support her, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori brushed aside the diocesan Standing Committee, summoned a new convention on very short notice, and had the attendees---each of whom had to sign a loyalty oath to TEC as a condition of being seated---form a new diocese. (Actually, it was a new unincorporated association under California law, because the previously existing one followed Bishop Schofield; the Presiding Bishop has simply treated it as if it were still the old one.) With a new bishop, and covering the same territory as that of the Diocese of San Joaquin headed by Bishop Schofield, the Episcopal diocese of San Joaquin is a case of history repeating itself, as we shall see in a minute.

The second bishop is the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, Bishop of New Hampshire, who needs no further explanation, since he is the subject of so much coverage in the news media today. He was never charged with or deposed for heresy, but his consecration remains a stumbling block for those provinces in Africa where homosexuality is still taboo in the local culture, and for many other individuals in the Communion whose theology bans any such ministry in the Church.

And the first bishop in our tale is the Rt. Rev. John William Colenso, about whom most of us today could probably use a refresher, but who (like Bishop Robinson today) would have needed no introduction to Anglicans of the 1860's, because he was in all the headlines. Appointed to be Bishop of the Diocese of Natal in the Province of South Africa, he used his time there to be a true shepherd to his flock, and he is still admired as a hero by the Zulu tribes today (for those who can take a sizeable download, here is a brochure published by the Diocese in his honor in 2003). A gifted classical and Hebrew scholar, he mastered the Zulu language in short order, and published a Zulu-English grammar and dictionary that are still in use today.

Bishop Colenso got into trouble with his peers by following his scholarship unstintingly where it led him. It is difficult today to translate our 21st-century minds back to the "higher criticism" controversies of the latter half of the nineteenth century. Suffice it to say that scholarship taking root in the German universities began to call into question aspects of the historicity and accuracy of the Bible, particularly the Old Testament. Bishop Colenso began with a translation of and commentary on Paul's Epistle to the Romans, "Explained from a Missionary Point of View," published in 1861. Applying many of the text-critical methods of the new scholarship in ways that blazed a path wholly new at the time, he shocked traditional Anglican scholars with his analogies of the Jews addressed by Paul to the colonial settlers in South Africa; the "Gentiles" of the Epistle, whom he thought the Jews treated as unclean and inferior, he analogized to the Zulus to whom he preached. This was pouring gasoline on the flames that had already leapt up with the publication earlier of Essays and Reviews, a collection by the new generation of Anglican scholars which set off alarm bells and cries of "heresy!" throughout all England, and which resulted in charges of heresy brought against one of its authors, named Rowland Williams (collectively the seven authors had been labeled "The Seven Against Christ").

It was into this charged atmosphere that Bishop Colenso in 1862 decided to publish his commentaries on the Pentateuch and the Book of Joshua. In this series of volumes, published over the next seventeen years and continued despite the charges brought against him, he discussed many of the ideas that are now considered commonplace, such as the multiple authorship of the so-called "Five Books of Moses." He also found occasion to express again his own views, gained from years with the Zulus, on what the Old Testament allowed in regard to polygamy. The cumulative effect of his published opinions caused his metropolitan, the Rt. Rev. Richard Gray of Capetown, to entertain charges from his Dean and Canon to depose Bishop Colenso for heresy.

Bishop Gray convened an ecclesiastical court in Capetown in December 1863. Bishop Colenso ignored the summons, but was represented at the hearing by a canon lawyer. Not surprisingly, the tribunal voted unanimously to depose him. Citing numerous technical grounds, Bishop Colenso appealed the decision to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. In 1865, it sustained his appeal and ruled that since, at the time Bishop Gray received his commission as the metropolitan of the Province of South Africa in 1853, South Africa had its own parliament competent to act in the matter, the letters patent issued to Bishop Gray from Queen Victoria were of no force and effect in South Africa. Consequently, Bishop Gray had no jurisdiction over Bishop Colenso, and the deposition was invalid.

Bishop Gray was peeved that a decision on the merits of the controversy had thus been avoided on technical grounds. He proceeded to "excommunicate" Bishop Colenso, i.e., to depose him on spiritual grounds, and then prevailed on the Archbishop of Canterbury to withhold from Bishop Colenso an invitation to the first Lambeth Conference convened in 1867. Although the Archbishop initially ruled out the Colenso affair as a subject for discussion at the Conference, Bishop Gray threatened to resign his post in Africa if the Conference failed to ratify the decision the previous year by the Convocation of Canterbury to declare the see of Natal vacant, and to appoint a new bishop. Thus began the officially Church-sanctioned establishment of the Diocese of Maritzburg, whose boundaries were coterminous with the Diocese of Natal (the story of what happened at Lambeth on this topic is dramatized in Part I of this series).

Three bishops, three tales: as mentioned earlier, the Colenso affair was part of what pulled the Anglican Communion together, in the convening of the first Lambeth Conference, because of the fear that the rulings of the Privy Council had cut the colonial churches off from the Mother Church. Without any governance from England, and without such a periodic gathering, the fear was that as time passed the other churches would become less and less "Anglican."

The Robinson affair, however, has had the opposite effect. Whether the Communion can now remain together will largely depend on the outcome of this year's Lambeth Conference. The Archbishop of Canterbury has distributed to those attending a paper which emphasizes the harm to the Communion done by those who have decided not to attend. Those who have stayed away, however, decry the "lack of respect" on the part of their brethren that leaves them with no alternative:
"Respect is earned. When it is thrown away, gathering it can be difficult. From the Mother Church of England, there is the assumption that therefore we can do anything and Africans will automatically come with us, or respect us. I think that is an insult.

"So now Gafcon is an alternative to that, where we can cry together, look at our struggles, HIV and Aids problems, infant mortality, all those issues that dehumanise us as Africans. The wider Anglican world, if you ask my opinion, don't want to listen to us."
Indeed, the demonizing of the conservatives by those attending this year's Conference seems to have begun. The first casualty of the conflict appears to have been Bishop John-David Schofield. (UPDATE [07/17/2008]: For more on what internal processes at Lambeth may have led to "the suggestion" to Bishop Schofield that he might want to stay home, see this story.)

By the way, Bishop Colenso would have felt right at home at the 2008 Lambeth Conference, with its Zulu-based "indaba" groups. Remember---he authored the first published Zulu-English Dictionary. Here is how he defined the word:
DABA (In), n. Story, tale, adventure; report; matter, case, affair, business, doing: plur. izindaba, news.
And that is exactly what we have going on now at Lambeth.


  1. "Whether the Communion can now remain together will largely depend on the outcome of this year's Lambeth Conference."

    And I thought this Lambeth Conference was not about outcomes.

  2. So they say, so they say. To quote Bishop Colenso on the subject: Indaba ezinhle!