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A Lenten opportunity

A TLC editorial

The still-unfolding drama in South Carolina is a massive mess, with mounting bitterness, acrimony, and hurt all around. Let us make no mistake: Losing South Carolina would be tragic, and it does not have to be like this, pace what various writers have claimed on weblogs. As attorney Mark McCall explained in “Dumbing Abandonment Down” [TLC, Nov. 18], Bishop Lawrence worked hard to keep the diocese “intact and in TEC,” almost entirely successfully until the disciplinary board prematurely and drastically certified the bishop for abandonment of the church on September 18. We watched Lawrence take his place in the council of General Convention in Indianapolis, and do not see when he has acted deceitfully or manipulatively as some have alleged. We see him as having expended himself for unity since his confirmation as bishop. He therefore deserves much more than cynical dismissal, which does not fall within the Christian lexicon in any case.

It seems the most concrete ecclesiological question that needs settling is this: Can a diocese disassociate from the larger Episcopal Church, as South Carolina now says it has done, such that its accession to the Episcopal Church’s Constitution, and its membership in the church, may be withdrawn? Indeed, may a diocese withdraw even for a time — during a painful period, or on grounds of conscience, or perhaps on constitutional grounds?

Most who would speak for the Episcopal “establishment” — the majority party — have argued against the possibility of diocesan disassociation, principally on the grounds that dioceses, by dint of accession to the Constitution and Canons of the wider church, irrevocably sign on, in effect, to obeying a higher authority and its governing body, General Convention. As the Episcopal Church’s Office of Public Affairs stated flatly in the introduction of its “fact sheet,” published online on November 9: “Dioceses cannot leave the Episcopal Church” — elaborated in a further sentence to distinguish individuals who “may choose to leave” from “congregations and property” which must remain behind for the use of the wider church.

It’s hard to see here, however, any wrestling with the substantial body of research produced especially by the Anglican Communion Institute and McCall, ACI’s lead scholar in these matters, which lends legitimacy to the possibility of licit diocesan disassociation from the wider church. The ACI effectively makes its argument in three stages, conveniently available in its recent response to Bishop Pierre Whalon, “Polity Politics or the Rule of Law?”:

(1) the formation of dioceses always precedes subsequent association with the larger Episcopal Church;

(2) a principled, non-accidental, canonically and constitutionally codified diocesan autonomy persists as the “dispersed” bottom line of authority and accountability in the Episcopal Church, legally speaking. Hence: “Dioceses [can] do what they like without any review”;

(3) therefore, the notion that General Convention stands as the “highest” authority to which all dioceses pledge unlimited allegiance amounts, at best, to wishful thinking, since the Episcopal Church’s constitution and canons claim no such thing. A better way to understand the relation of dioceses to the wider church is by analogy to the accession and subscription of Anglican churches to the constitution of the Anglican Consultative Council, which in no way confers “metropolitical authority on that organization.”

A picture of a very American and episcopal church emerges, consisting of autonomous dioceses and their bishops, not tightly orchestrated or organized. And in this regard, the ACI writers conclude, the Episcopal Church’s polity “exhibits the ‘classic hallmarks of Anglicanism,’ dispersed authority and local autonomy. Put differently, Anglican Communion polity is TEC governance writ large.”

Diocesan autonomy certainly operates in odd, even incoherent ways in the Episcopal Church, as elsewhere. Theologically speaking, autonomy ought not become untethered to wider webs of interdependent communion — succumbing to the notion that we are free to do what we want when we want on our own terms (see Windsor Report, paras. 72-86). When this occurs division is the result, as in the multiplying of “denominations” carefully cordoned off from one another in artificially erected, un-evangelical subcultures of self-preservation. Downstream of many such divisions not of our own making, we can only look for opportunities to tack back and up to the fullness of the faith and order of the Church by God’s grace, starting at home. And in this context Episcopalians should seize the opportunity of a vast and uneven terrain of apparently still-revolutionarily organized dioceses, marked by considerable cultural as well as legal diversity, some of which turns out to be avowedly, if optimistically, catholic. Consider, for instance, Bishop Alexander Charles Garrett’s meaty apologia for establishing the Diocese of Dallas as “an independent and sovereign state, held in the unity of the Catholic Church by its Episcopate, according to the rule of St. Cyprian,” in his address at the organizing convention of the diocese in 1895. Bishop James Stanton has vindicated and reclaimed these origins and the theology undergirding them in a substantial piece of his own, offered in part to note continuities with the ecclesiology of the Anglican Covenant. Would that more bishops took the time for such sustained study!

It may seem convenient — as well as politically expedient — for minority dioceses to cite the argument for every diocese a unit of the Catholic Church in the teeth of our current crisis, and it is convenient. But the principle is widely established and defended, as in the influential work of Orthodox metropolitan John Zizioulas, Walter Cardinal Kasper, and our own Rowan Williams, building in part on the historical research of his teacher Henry Chadwick. And if it proves to have been preserved canonically in peculiar ways, lo these many years, within the dispersed diocesan structure of the Episcopal Church in the United States, then we should not — and hopefully cannot — avoid owning up to it directly, clearly, and fairly, nor should we wish to.

A tall order, perhaps; but surely not too much to ask?

Several irreducible ecclesiological questions fall into the lap of the powers that be in our church — the Presiding Bishop first of all, and her office: questions that have been put carefully yet often gone without response. The ACI is right in its piece of November 11, “Consumed by Litigation,” that much more transparency and accountability are needed in the face of such power as is now being wielded, especially when articulate leaders of the minority party are recording concerns about a breakdown in basic order. All of this erodes trust and good will, and quickly can become deathly for a Christian church. Only charity and truth, together, will sustain unity.

We need a teaching approach by the Presiding Bishop and her colleagues, (1) explaining patiently and pastorally where the South Carolinian argument may have gone wrong, if it has, (2) responding to critics and widespread fear of unjust reprisal, and only then, if at all, (3) proceeding to legal steps — inhibitions, transitional committees, provisional bishops, and the rest. And we need the leaders of the majority party to be prepared to learn. Many self-described conservatives in our church who are Catholics — here we would count ourselves, and a number of friends — are watching and wondering why they should expect fair treatment in turn. The so-called amicus matter of the Fort Worth 7 will soon be coming up for evaluation and decision, and no doubt other disputes and questions will follow in time. As McCall wrote in TLC, “any canonical violation may now be deemed abandonment” — a frightening conclusion, that all putative sides in our disputes would do well to rectify at the first opportunity.

Beyond the surfeit of divisive rhetoric in our midst — imitating, and otherwise subsisting in, the same indecency, disrespect, and disdain that now dominate American secular politics — we need more careful sifting of the arguments, more explanation, more frank debate, and then settled agreement of a deep, theologically satisfying sort.

  • Why not urge the church’s scholars and public intellectuals, interested clergy, and other leaders, including representatives from the Office of the Presiding Bishop, to gather for a weeklong ecclesiological summit-cum-retreat this Lent, in advance of the House of Bishops meeting in March? Such a sustained errand of common prayer and study could be offered to the Lord as an earnest of reparative penance for our compounding of the divisions we have inherited, in the hope of finding a better way.
  • Were the church to undertake such a grassroots initiative, it should be led not by canon lawyers or power brokers but by a range of unusual suspects, working cooperatively and consensually, committed above all to discernment of truth in communion.
  • It could be sponsored by a range of para-ecclesial institutions and hosted by the deans of Bexley Hall, Nashotah House, and Virginia Theological Seminary.
  • The South Carolinian proceedings — incipient departure and reorganization both — would be placed on hold by all parties for a season of unspecified duration, leaving a space for the Spirit of truth and reconciliation.

Fantastical? With God all things are possible. We therefore hope that our brothers and sisters in Christ — Deans Thomas Ferguson of Bexley Hall, Edward Salmon of Nashotah House, and Ian Markham of VTS, the Presiding Bishop, Bishop Lawrence, and the other parties in South Carolina — may find this idea attractive, or otherwise propose something seriously and comparably constructive. And we hope they do so in partnership with leaders in the minority party, starting perhaps with the Communion Partners coalition of dioceses and parishes which remain committed to the Anglican Covenant in a bid “to hold together the evangelical faith … and the catholic order of the Church,” in the words of Bishop Michael Smith last July in Indianapolis. Colleagues from the wider Communion working on these same matters — canon law and communion — should be drawn in as well; indeed, this is the purpose of the Inter-Anglican Standing Commission on Unity, Faith, and Order. And friendly Lutheran, Roman Catholic, and Methodist observers (for starters) would not go amiss either.

We owe ourselves and one another, as well as our forbears and heirs, well-reasoned, carefully articulated, commonly understood terms of engagement for our life together in the body of Christ, based in a recognized and accepted order — laws of ecclesiastical polity, however ecumenically provisional, subject to wider Anglican discernments — undergirded by a sustained and sustaining theological grammar. Only here may be found a properly Christian breadth and depth, in service of the Church’s height and length, which have especially to do with God, exceeding the efforts and energies of one or several generations. By these measurements, all together, we will find our vocation in him and his Son, in the bond of love.

A Lenten Opportunity


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