"I could not possibly be more proud of our bishops, who with great care and deliberation sought to articulate our shared ministry of reconciliation in ways that are generous toward those who feel themselves in some sense alienated from our common life," Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold said, commending the House of Bishops’ paper ‘Caring for all the Churches’.
The paper itself lays equal stress on a doctrine of reconciliation and on the role of bishop as a focus of unity. It needs to be asked, therefore, what reconciliation the bishops envisage or expect as a result of their initiative.
As the bishops admit, two conflicting opinions are held in the Episcopal Church about the moral admissibility of homosexual acts. Where is compromise between these positions to be sought? What issues are at stake and how might they be settled?
In understanding of the Scriptures? Here there is a fundamental disagreement.
On the one hand there are those who suppose the plain meaning of scripture in the matter of same sex relationships to be apparent to all and to be upheld by the consistent tradition of the Church throughout the ages.
On the other hand there are those who suppose that scripture is unclear on this and other important matters, that the tradition is no certain guide to its interpretation, and that modern knowledge raises matters previously unknown and so unaddressed by its authors. Some of them believe that the scriptures are the possession of the Church (in the sense of the contemporary believing community) and that the Church (in that sense) can re-interpret or ignore them as it will.
In attitudes to the authority and competence of the local Church? Here there are also radical differences of opinion.
On the one hand there are those who hold that the local church (in the sense of the diocese or province) has plenary authority to order its own affairs. For them a democratic decision at the appropriate level settles the matter. (That level is held by some to be diocesan – ‘the people of New Hampshire have the right to call the bishop they want’; by some it is thought to be provincial – ‘this Church has the authority to order its ministry as it alone sees fit’).
On the other hand there are those who cling tenaciously to the understanding that no province of the Anglican Communion (or even the Communion as a whole) is more than a small part of the Church Universal and that those parts are answerable for any wounds or divisions inflicted upon the wider Church. In particular they are directly answerable to other churches in the Anglican tradition and to the common inheritance.
In sexual morality? Surely it is here that the deepest disagreements lie.
On the one hand there are those who hold that marriage is the union of one man and one woman for life, and that all relations of a sexual nature outside that bond fall short of the demands made by God of Christian people. They are consequently of the opinion that a man who cannot or will not conform himself to such standards of conduct (or remain celibate) is not a fit person to assume the role of bishop in the Church, - for the bishop is to be, in the words of St Ignatius of Antioch, ‘a type of the Father’.
On the other hand there are those who suppose that a man may separate himself from his wife and family, contract a new and openly carnal relationship with a person of the same sex, and still be regarded as an appropriate person to exercise the office of a bishop and the guardianship, in the diocese over which he is appointed, of the Church’s doctrine and morals.
In short there are presently represented, in the Episcopal Church, in its dioceses and in many of its parishes, two views which are diametrically opposed. They are, moreover, asymmetrically disposed. Those who reject the ordination of a non-celibate homosexual as bishop do so, at least in part, in order to sustain the unity of the Church in present time and its continuity with the past. Those who uphold the appointment of such a man as bishop express their opinion contra mundum.
The Proposed Solution
There are, moreover, obvious and serious problems with the mechanism – Delegated Episcopal Pastoral Oversight – which the bishops have proposed as a means of dealing with these differences. The problems are of two kinds: of principle and of process.
The principle underlying the bishops’ statement is that the unity of the Church consists, not in shared belief, but in due canonical form. ‘Sensitive pastoral care does not presuppose like-mindedness,‘ say the bishops. ‘Bishops and congregations have frequently disagreed about particular articulations and interpretations of scripture and the Creeds while being able to transcend their differences through common prayer and celebration of the sacraments of the new covenant.’
Some of this, of course, is true - to a limited extent. But it is not true that bishops may, with impunity, entertain whatever theological or ethical opinions they think fit. On the contrary, the Church entrusts to them the task of guarding the faith, so that it may be passed on, in its integrity, to future generations. The college of bishops, both provincial and world-wide, should be a fellowship in which restraint and discipline are exercised in charity. The failure of the House of Bishops of ECUSA to exercise, or even to acknowledge, that collegial restraint has, in the recent past, been apparent by their willingness to accept among their number bishops who have denied the principal tenets of the Nicene Faith. It is similarly manifest in their deliberate rejection of the fraternal guidance offered them by successive Lambeth Conferences, and by the recent meeting of the Primates.
Where the House of Bishops of a province is dysfunctional in this way, the responsibility to guard the faith and perpetuate its doctrines inevitably devolves to groups of clergy and laity.
Delegated Episcopal Pastoral Oversight, as the bishops define it, is a proposal which gives plenary authority to those who have precipitated the present crisis to administer provision for those alienated by their actions. It gives to those at variance with the majority in the Episcopal Church no rights in the matter whatsoever. All discretion is in the hands of the innovators. Where it counts, the protocol of proposals invariably uses the word ‘may’; where the interests of the minority are at stake the word ‘shall’ never appears. It will come as no surprise to those who drafted it, that this is wholly unacceptable to those to whom it is addressed.
Delegated Episcopal Pastoral Oversight (as the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church has defined it) is:
a) precisely, not oversight – that is to say it does not provide what the Primates of the Communion called for. They asked for ‘provinces concerned to make adequate provision for episcopal oversight of dissenting minorities within their own area of pastoral care in consultation with the Archbishop of Canterbury on behalf of the Primates'. Elsewhere in the Communion, 'oversight' (episcope) involves responsibility for the care, governance and supervision of part of the Church; in short, it necessarily involves jurisdiction. Not so, it seems, in the Episcopal Church, where the bishops assert the opposite to be the case: 'In our Episcopal Church polity,’ they claim, "oversight" does not confer "jurisdiction." ' By this sleight of hand, redefining episcope to mean what they want it to mean, the bishops of the Episcopal Church have sought to evade the very provision demanded of them
b) in any case, minimal – that is to say it affects the existing rights and jurisdiction of the diocesan bishop in no way. Nor does the provision include anything new, or even extend what already exists. As the bishops themselves say: ‘We believe that the present Constitution and Canons of The Episcopal Church are sufficient for dealing with questions of episcopal oversight, supplemental episcopal pastoral care, and disputes that may arise between the bishop and a congregation. We encourage that their provisions be used wisely and in the spirit of charity.’ The problem that, in some quarters, those provisions have not been applied (with or without ‘charity’) is simply not addressed.
c) concessionary, rather than conciliatory – that is to say that it makes no admission or acknowledgement that there has been, or might have been, conduct prejudicial to the unity and well-being of the Church on the part of the bishops who have framed it.
d) temporary – that is to say that its clear intention is to eliminate dissent. ‘When an agreement is reached with respect to a plan, it shall be for the purpose of reconciliation... The plan shall be for a stated period of time with regular reviews.’ These ‘plans’ will be temporary; they are simply to allow time for the parish concerned to brought to ‘reconciliation’ with the views of its bishop. In any case, no one who has observed the fate of those opposed to the ordination of women to the priesthood and the episcopate (reduced now to three bishops whose dioceses will be unable to secure the required consents for like-minded successors) can expect a body of bishops opposed the recent innovation to survive for any length of time. A future in which there are no bishops who could be invited to offer DEPO is already in sight.
Let no one be in any doubt: DEPO will not and cannot bring about the reconciliation promised. The self-congratulatory language of those who have framed these proposals is, moreover, a further offence in itself.