By Daniel Martins
In the cloistered universe of Episcopalianism, recent news has concerned the Bishop of Albany’s pastoral letter explaining that he will decline to cooperate with the demands of General Convention Resolution 2018-B012, and an announcement from the Bishop of Dallas that he has engaged the services of a bishop under DEPO for three of his parishes. I have a request for DEPO from one of the parishes in the Diocese of Springfield. I am inclined to find a path to Yes, and we are trying to hammer out the details.
Such turns of events force one to make a deep dive — yet again — into the inherent nature of episcopacy. Why is it that a parish holding the traditional teaching on marriage, and whose proper bishop does not, might agonizingly conclude that it needs pastoral oversight from a bishop who concurs with its understanding of the gospel? And why is it that a bishop who advocates for the received teaching (often along with the critical mass of a diocese) may feel the need for some distance from a parish that wishes to hold a wedding between persons of the same sex?
In Springfield, there are three other Christian leaders who are styled bishop and who can be described generically as judicatories or superintendents of some kind. I have a cordial, if not overly close, relationship with all of them, which involves an occasional lunchtime conversation. We always compare notes on what our respective ministry lives are like.
I have learned from my United Methodist counterpart that he is insulated (my word, not his) from his district by a bevy of district superintendents. He works a lot with them, and they, in turn, work with clergy and congregations. My friend in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has no such layer to work through, but it sounds to me like a large share of his attention is devoted to clergy deployment and ordination. I sometimes detect a note of wistful envy that, wherever I go in my diocese, I have the prerogative of presiding and preaching. Unless he receives a specific invitation otherwise, he’s sitting in a pew on Easter Sunday. It is with my Roman Catholic opposite number that I seem to have, experientially, the most in common — which is ironic, since he’s the one least likely to acknowledge me as an actual bishop.
What mostly distinguishes my experience from my Lutheran and Methodist colleagues, and what I most share with my Roman Catholic colleague, is the ancient and catholic notion that a bishop is a sign of connection to the apostles that is primarily personal and only incidentally functional. My ministry is only secondarily about what I do. Before that, it is fundamentally about what I am. As I have many times told those on whom I am about to lay hands in confirmation or ordination: it is irrelevant that the hands belong to Dan Martins, but it is of supreme importance that they belong to the Bishop of Springfield.
This is to say, of course, that, in the Catholic tradition, the stream on which Anglicanism floats, the relation between a bishop and a diocese is sacramental. Yes, a bishop has legal or canonical jurisdiction over this, that, or the other thing, but all that is ancillary to the primary vocation of simply being, manifesting a concrete connection to Christ through the apostles that is at the same time historic and alive. A parish’s relation to its bishop is not to an administrative functionary, but to a person — a person who, in turn, is a sacramental icon, one who personally represents the whole communion of saints, embodying the inheritance of the apostles, prophets, and martyrs.
At no moment is the Church more evidently and tangibly herself than when gathered at the Eucharist in synod, with the deacons and presbyters vested according to their order, gathered with the baptized faithful at the altar of God. Moreover, this moment demonstrates why the diocese — not the parish or province — is an ecclesiastical integer, the fundamental unit of the Church. In communion with surrounding “local churches” (Vatican II code for dioceses), it contains within itself all the elements of ecclesial fullness, everything it needs to be what the Church is and do what the Church does.
The bishop, then, by logical extension, is the chief pastor, chief teacher, and chief liturgical officer of the diocese. And in this context, it is incumbent upon a bishop to be judicious about exercising these responsibilities.
First, while I may have some creative and razor-sharp theological insights from time to time, I would be abusing my office were I to propound these insights, as it were, ex cathedra. In fact, I believe I lost the privilege of being theologically creative the day I was ordained. It is my solemn burden to teach the faith that the Church has received and not burden people with my inspired flashes. While I consider all who teach in the Church to be likewise bound, the chains are heaviest on those who carry the crozier.
Second, a bishop does well (as I have written before) to exercise authority without being authoritarian. I may not like some of the liturgical choices the rector of St. Swithun’s in-the-Swamps makes, but, so long as they comply with the texts and rubrics of the prayer book, I’m generally going to suck it up and try to do things that way when I visit. I may not heartily approve of a book the vicar of St. Gilbert’s in-the-Filberts uses for a Lenten teaching series, but as long as it doesn’t spew rank heresy, I’m going to have a hands-off attitude.
What to do, though, when there is substantial divergence between a bishop and a parish on a core issue — like, for instance, marriage? This is the situation we now face in a handful of parishes each in the dioceses of Albany and Dallas and, truth to tell, in one parish in the Diocese of Springfield. These parishes perceive the matter of same-sex marriage as one of gospel justice, and hold that perspective so strongly that they cannot faithfully receive the teaching enjoined on their dioceses by the one who lives among them as the personal icon of apostolic authority. As some of Jesus’ audience for his eucharistic discourse in John 6 put it, “This is a hard saying; who can hear it?”
Similarly, there are parishes whose laity and clergy hold the accepted position on marriage, but who are in mainstream Episcopal dioceses where the progressive view prevails, and whose bishops teach things they believe to be so egregiously in error that they feel spiritually imperiled being under that bishop’s authority. The teaching ministry of their proper bishop has no credibility with them. This is why DEPO was originally created.
I served for three years as a DEPO bishop for a parish in South Carolina, and have continued to serve, for nearly six years now, as DEPO bishop for a Mississippi parish. It has worked, or is still working, in both cases to calm the waters, and allow them to remain in the life of their respective dioceses, even though, in the latter case, the parish no longer receives the direct teaching and sacramental ministrations of their canonical bishop. In the first case, the parish was reconciled with its more “normal” situation, and my services were no longer needed. In the other, the parish’s relationship with me continues to be a necessary reality.
What, then, of the perspective of a proper geographic bishop? This is where the difference between bishop as functional judicatory and bishop as sacramental sign emerges in importance. My Lutheran colleague holds the classic understanding of marriage, a minority view in the ELCA as mine is in TEC. As an administrative functionary, he lacks even the conceptual authority to prohibit same-sex marriage in the churches of his synod. But it’s of small consequence, because it is at worst an annoying personal rebuff and not a sacramental and theological train wreck. He embodies in his person no teaching office or authority beyond that of any other minister of Word and sacrament. For me — and, presumably, for my Roman Catholic counterpart— it is a first-order crisis. Any sacramental or liturgical act by any cleric of the diocese is done as a surrogate of the bishop, and represents the sacramental integrity that binds the bishop to the diocese. This is why there needs to be distance or even, as I have put it elsewhere, a firewall.
DEPO is surely not any kind of good but only a lesser evil. It comes under the heading of exercising authority without being authoritarian (which is to say, without being capricious or self-serving). My Communion Partner colleagues and I, in our God-given role as chief teachers and chief liturgical officers in our dioceses, have — in humility, we all hope — handed on what we have received about marriage. This teaching is not something we have invented, but it is something of which we are stewards.
Per the Thirty-nine Articles, councils can and have erred, and thus General Convention has erred. Some parishes within our dioceses have chosen to reject this teaching. The network of “neighboring dioceses” to which we are accountable, and which is the environmental precondition for the integrity of our local churches — namely, General Convention — has determined that we can no longer canonically enforce the vow of obedience we hold from each of our clergy as it relates to teaching on marriage. But in the context of the larger network to which we are also accountable — the Anglican Communion, worldwide Christianity, and, actually, God himself — neither can we have our spiritual fingerprints on the liturgical blessing of a relationship that purports to be marriage, but is between persons of the same sex. For the sake of any measure of integrity (and this I now say only for myself), I cannot be the apostolic pastor and teacher to a community that will not receive established Christian teaching on marriage.
Hence, DEPO. It’s not clean, it’s not pretty, it’s theologically all kinds of a hot mess. That a parish or an individual can shop for a bishop is anathema to any sort of catholic ecclesiology. But if there’s something else that can get us a step or two through this deadlock, I’m all ears.