Moving past Goodbye
By Nathaniel W. Pierce
Reflections on the 77th General Convention have one characteristic in common: an eagerness to interpret the data through the prism of a deeply held ideology. And, if we were to experience for a moment the presence of not only the holy but also the generous Holy Spirit, we might be willing to admit that there is a touch of truth in every perspective.
My prism is family system theory. I ask: “How did we get here?”
The 65th General Convention (1976) was pivotal in the history of the Episcopal Church as it adopted a new Prayer Book (on the first reading and in which there was not one reference to the Anglican Communion) and approved local option for women’s ordination. At the time it felt like a major split could occur. And yet for the most part the Episcopal Church held together, thanks in large measure to public assurances in 1976 and the Statement on Conscience adopted by the House of Bishops in 1977. In effect the bishops and others said that Episcopalians were big enough to embrace those who would ordain women and those who would not, for reasons rooted in conscientious conviction. Lambeth 1978 explicitly affirmed local option for women’s ordination.
This principle was strengthened by Lambeth 1988 which, at the request of the Episcopal Church, expanded the principle of local option to include women in the episcopate. In 1989 the Rt. Rev. Barbara C. Harris became Bishop Suffragan of Massachusetts, and the first woman to serve as a bishop in the Anglican Communion.
I believe the turning point came five years later, in 1994, the 20th anniversary of the ordination of the Philadelphia 11. At a service commemorating that event, Bishop Harris preached directly to “traditionalist Episcopalians” who still opposed women’s ordination. They should recognize that they had been defeated and leave: “If this means saying goodbye to the selective traditionalists in our Church, … God go with you and peace — goodbye.”
Then the 72nd General Convention (1997), acting on the recommendations of a committee led by the Rt. Rev. Robert D. Rowley, abandoned the 1977 statement on conscience. Previous public promises notwithstanding, what had been optional was now mandatory.
During the same convention, 87 ordained women signed and distributed “An Open Letter to the Church.” They rejected the policy of ideological cleansing as advocated by Bishops Harris and Rowley. They argued for a catholic theology rooted in the witness of the Virgin Mary, specifically affirming eschatology, the gift of patience, the importance of being faithful to promises made (see the 1976 and 1977 statements on conscience), and trusting in the efficacy of the Holy Spirit over time. Nevertheless, the cleansing proceeded.
From that point on the story becomes even more predictable. In reaction to the decision of General Convention to end the policy of local option, Lambeth 1998 refused to extend the principle of local option to openly gay and lesbian people in ordained ministry.
General Convention, in turn, gave consent to the Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson’s election as Bishop of New Hampshire. The Anglican Communion then produced The Windsor Report and a proposed Covenant. The Archbishop of Canterbury declined to invite Bishop Robinson to attend the 2008 Lambeth Conference.
The theological and political divide only grew wider. The Anglican Communion dug in its heels as the Episcopal Church, now with far fewer conservatives and evangelicals in its midst, became more liberal. In recent years deputies to General Convention often report more unanimity, less rancor, a oneness in Christ.
Of course, this is precisely what is now playing out in the politics of Washington, D.C. Moderate politicians in both parties are leaving (or being voted out of office) as the forces of ideological purity wage their respective wars of cleansing. There is no middle, no compromise, no via media.
What held the Episcopal Church together during potentially divisive moments in the past (the Civil War, 1976, and 1989) was a generosity of spirit, a willingness to live as well as possible with those who disagreed with the majority’s views. But that spirit has now largely disappeared.
Under this analysis, the most significant decisions by the 2012 General Convention were the two resolutions on the proposed Anglican Covenant. The first stated (again) the Episcopal Church’s commitment to seek deeper unity with the Anglican Communion. As some have noted, there appears to be an inherent contradiction between that commitment and proceeding on our own with same-sex blessings.
The second resolution said the Episcopal Church “decline[s] to take a position on the Anglican Covenant at this convention,” a clear rejection of the position adopted by the Executive Council which called for an unambiguous rejection of the Covenant. Both resolutions were adopted.
Thus for the first time in 18 years one party had stepped back from the brink. Surprisingly, at least to this retired cleric, it was the Episcopal Church.
Let it be noted that a memorial adopted by the Diocese of Easton at its 2012 Convention had recommended much the same course: “That this 144th Convention of the Diocese of Easton memorializes the 2012 General Convention of the Episcopal Church to call for and encourage further study and reflection on the proposed Anglican Covenant (the fourth Draft).” But in a brilliant change of wording by the World Mission Committee considering all Covenant resolutions, “call for and encourage further study and reflection” became “decline to take a position on the Anglican Covenant at this convention.” The committee had found the via media which brought together those who advocated rejection of the Covenant and those who supported its adoption.
If we can be guided by systems theory, we will always be alert for insights about how our behavior and our policies have helped to produce a problem. Organizations tend to create a scapegoat or “identified patient.” If we can “fix” that person, the problem will be solved. Systems theory teaches instead that everyone in the system, as in a family with one alcoholic member, has a role to play. “Fixing” the problem always starts with “fixing” ourselves.
Consider this passage by the Rev. Winnie Varghese, rector of St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery in New York City and a deputy to the 77th General Convention:
“In those places where we are working on being a better church, respecting the dignity of all people (see The Book of Common Prayer), those that have left [the Episcopal Church] because of those battles, as the great Bobby Castle used to say (and probably still does), ‘are the ones that should go.’ He did not mean that in a nice way” (Huffington Post, July 16).
Well, that is one way of interpreting our history. But if we can be honest with ourselves, perhaps we can also speak the truth that many who left the Episcopal Church did so because we told them to leave, because we were quite happy to say to them (to quote Bishop Harris): “Leave. Goodbye.”
And the height of the irony in this situation is that many of us told “traditionalist Episcopalians” to leave while waving the banners of justice and inclusivity. I have waved some of those banners myself. The danger is that we can become so preoccupied with the cause (at any given moment) that we may lose sight of the Anglican ethos which during its best days respected and valued those in the minority.
Perhaps one lesson here is that Episcopalians’ understanding of inclusiveness needs to be expanded to include not only the minority in our midst but also the wider Anglican Communion.
The Rev. Nathaniel W. Pierce of Trappe, Maryland, was a clerical deputy for the Diocese of Idaho at the 66th General Convention (1979).
Photo by Matt Townsend/TLC