Monday, February 05, 2007

Episcopal Vows and the State of the Church

This all started when I read Father Woodward’s post on the House of Bishops and Deputies discussion list, a post he subsequently reproduced on his website. While I remain unconvinced of the wisdom (and charity) of some of the actions (and comments) made by those with whom I am in theological sympathy, I have always tended to feel that my bishop (Robert Duncan of Pittsburgh) has been an honorable man in his dealings with those with whom he disagrees. (In the interests of full disclosure let it be noted here that, insofar as Bishop Duncan represents the Diocese that has hired me to write its history, he is my employer.) The wider issue of what the vows taken at consecration mean (to whom and to what they are made) also interests me and Father Woodward provided an opportunity to explore the topic. Father Woodward was kind enough to permit me to publish this exchange, so for whatever historical value there may be, I do.

Father Woodward queried my use of the term “Continuers,” which I intended as shorthand for ‘those who joined the Continuing Churches’ in 1976 and thereafter. My intention was not to express an opinion on whether or not they were right to do what they did, but to contrast their approach to that of Bishop Duncan. They could not claim (any more than the Reformed Episcopal Church could claim in the 1870s) that they represented the mind of the Church (understood as the Anglican Communion); Bishop Duncan can plausibly claim that he does. Of course, if Father Woodward is right about where the locus of authority lies, then Bishop Duncan is in breach of his consecration vows. Clearly, I do not believe this and our exchange illustrates the extent of the divide. At least we can both say that our dialogue was conducted with relative civility.

The original post:

The Breaking of Vows

Two images come to mind in reading Pittsburgh’s bishop, Bob Duncan, explain his reasons for seeking Alternative Primatial Oversight for his diocese, even though he knows and his attorneys know that such is illegal and completely against the polity of The Episcopal Church, which he has sworn to honor:

1. St. Paul in Romans 9-11 goes to great pains to assert that when God makes a promise, that promise is unbreakable. Otherwise God would be untrustworthy. The same is true with our Lord's promises of faithfulness to his vocation -- the Cross is preferable to the slightest deviation from his promise. When we break our ordination or consecration vows, we undermine the credibility of the Christian Church, the Body of Christ we were ordained or consecrated to serve. To do so, in two words, is to commit spiritual abuse.

2. When dealing with a married couple when one of the couple wants out to begin or continue with a different partner, the advice of professional is almost always the same: deal first with the stresses and anguish within your marriage -- and divorce if you must. Only then and only after a period of time should you consider any new affiliation.

My own conclusion is that Bishop Duncan should first deal with his ordination and consecration vows of loyalty to The Episcopal Church and its doctrine and discipline. He should have done so without involving his clergy or the people of his diocese. The honorable thing to have done would have been to take a leave of absence to sort things out with peers or spiritual advisors, then announce his decision to leave The Episcopal Church's ordained ministry because he could no longer honor his vows (without which he would not have been ordained or consecrated) or hold a private ceremony of recommitment to his ordination and consecration vows. Once separated from his vows, he would be free to seek out whatever succor or position he wanted in the church of God. Encouragement of one's clergy to follow anything but this process is, I believe, conduct unbecoming. From my own experience of leadership in the civil rights movement and the Sanctuary movement, I know how beguiling power and the attraction of opposition is -- those of us who have been more or less successful in resisting the evil hold of those things are fortunate while those who succumb end up doing more damage than any good they could have envisioned.


My comment:

Forgive me if I'm missing something here (and I will admit my own partiality) but could not one make the case that Episcopal Church leaders are just as desirous of having their cake and eating it as the Anglican Communion Network. Much of my reading suggests that, until very recently, the understanding of the Episcopal Church (at least by those who discussed theology) was decidedly catholic. (When the Continuers went out in 1976, one feels they did so at least in part because they sensed that the Communion would ratify reception of women's ordination and so Anglicanism, as such, would cease to be apostolic.)

Ordination and consecration vows, by their very nature, are made to a Vincentian notion of doctrine (if not of discipline). In other words, we are not sectarians (or at least so we have proclaimed for much of our history). We can debate to what extent TEC crossed the line last year, but we already have indications - and not just from the usual suspects - that the response was inadequate. The suggestion of infidelity to vows on Bishop Duncan's part implies that any effort to try and keep faith, in a catholic sense, with what the Church worldwide is proclaiming, is somehow insincere.

I can't help but feel that the insistence of Bishop Lee (and others) on deposing the clergy of seceding parishes sends its own message. Had Bishop Lee made the statement that he was doing so not because they had committed any offense worthy of deprivation from the priesthood but only because he did not believe that letters of transfer could be given unless the person in question moved to the relevant province, that would have been one thing. However, I have yet to see a statement of his attesting to their priestly and pastoral character. To the uninformed outsider it will appear as if they have been deprived of Holy Orders for conduct unbecoming.

That speaks volumes about how TEC intends to deal with provinces that disagree with them and also about the Church's claim to be still within the Communion. If Bishop Duncan were to do what you suggest, could that not simply be treated as further evidence of schismatic tendencies? If the validity of CANA is denied by the Presiding Bishop, why should such a move by Bishop Duncan be treated any differently? If one views the matter from a more catholic standpoint, Bishop Duncan is waiting upon the Instruments of Unity to make the necessary changes.

I don't think either side is free from impulsive actions and pejorative language, but until there is some consensus as to what - or who - constitutes the Communion, the present mess is likely to continue.

Father Woodward’s reply:

Thank you for your response.

The term "Continuers" is new to me -- I assume it refers to those who left The Episcopal Church over the issue of the ordination of women. I do not understand how the ordination of women would have anything to do with TEC being apostolic. Strictly speaking, of course, those ordained by our Lord were all Semitic. In that sense, if apostolic means absolute fidelity to the life of the very early church, we ceased to be apostolic in the early years of the second century. If apostolic means that we have been sent rather than self-starters, we continue to be apostolic whether we ordain women or not.

Regarding Windsor responses, the Windsor Report suggested a process, not a final exam. There are no requirements in the Report, though some have misinterpreted the document to include them. Your bishop swore allegiance to the doctrine and discipline of The Episcopal Church, not to what an African or South American primate wants it to be. That doctrine and discipline is of The General Convention of The Episcopal Church, not what any bishop wishes it were, instead. If we obey only those matters we agree with, there is no real meaning to obedience or vows. We are under discipline -- and it is under discipline of the General Convention of TEC, not a group of primates. If you can no longer accept the discipline of TEC, you are required to leave the church or to abandon your orders. TEC has been more than lenient with Bishop Duncan.

Bishop Lee went way beyond the bounds of charity in dealing with the clergy he eventually deposed. The record on that is very clear. They were in clear rebellion against TEC and, given their ordination vows and our Constitution and Canons, Bishop Lee had no other alternative. He has been generous and kind and has received nothing of that sort back from the 21. As you may know, Martyn Minns - despite his protestations - dumped those parishioners who did not agree with his leaving the church and undermining the continuing Episcopalians. Letters Dimissory, which bishops provide clergy entering other jurisdictions, are a serious matter -- and given the actions of the 21, attesting to their character and loyalty to TEC would have been scandalous and would have opened Peter Lee and the Diocese of Virginia to lawsuits.

My experience of Bishop Duncan is that he has expressed scorn for The Episcopal Church and with his bellicose language has declared war on TEC. To use the analogy of a married couple, he has trashed his spouse, calling her all kinds of names in public and attacking her and her friends, but does not want to divorce her until their is another woman willing to marry him before his first marriage is over. That lacks integrity in my world.

I am aware that Bishop Duncan has been a good pastor to many and that he is on fire for the gospel he believes. I know too many clergy, though, who have been mistreated and abused by his single-mindedness and by his disdain for those who believe differently.

One last note. There is no question about who and what is the Anglican Communion -- and who belongs to it. That is spelled out in great simplicity in our Constitution and Canons. Unfortunately, Bishop Duncan either disregards them or is unacquainted with their contents. Were he better informed, we all would be in a much better place.

1 comment:

Thomas B. Woodward said...

This is a rare moment in blogging, that you would fairly represent two sides to an important issue. I am grateful for your kindness and your fairness. Your Diocese of Pittsburgh is fortunate to have someone of your character (as would any diocese be fortunate to have you).
Tom Woodward