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Denigrating Bishops’ Conscience: A Brief History

By Nathaniel W. Pierce

I support the concerns about the amended Resolution B012 expressed by John Bauerschmidt, George Sumner, Jordan Hylden, and Christopher Wells. In this commentary I would like to add a bit of history.

In 1976, when General Convention was wrestling with the issue of women’s ordination, Bishop Gordon of Alaska suggested an amendment that would have affirmed a bishop’s authority to continue to make the final decision on all ordinations. Of course, that was already in our canons and had been long recognized as integral to a bishop’s ministry. The Coalition to Ordain Women publicly affirmed its support of this canonical provision (as reported by Issues, no less, the long-standing liberal daily newsletter at General Convention) and the legislation proceeded.

In 1977 the House of Bishops issued a pastoral letter on conscience that included what became known as the Conscience Clause:

No Bishop, Priest, or Lay Person should be coerced or penalized in any manner, nor suffer any canonical disabilities as a result of his or her conscientious objection to or support of the sixty-fifth General Convention’s actions with regard to the ordination of women to the priesthood or episcopate.

Since this clause was adopted by the House of Bishops only, and not also by the House of Deputies, it had no canonical authority, but unquestionably honored and affirmed the informal agreement evoked by Bishop Gordon’s proposed amendment the year before.

The clause assured that no bishop could be punished for opposing the ordination of women in the Episcopal Church. The Lambeth Conference of 1978 adopted a similar measure in Resolution 21. It stated that the conference accepts those member churches that ordain women, and declared “its acceptance of those member churches which do not ordain women.”

This Anglican compromise lasted until 1997, when General Convention made the ordination of women mandatory in all dioceses of the Episcopal Church. The informal, public agreement to honor the bishop’s canonical authority was trashed; the principle of respecting conscientious objection, long a primary characteristic of the Anglican tradition, was gone. And, of course, once one starts down this slippery slope, there is no end to it.

This unfortunate denigration of the role of the episcopate in the American Church, as defined by the overwhelming majority of Anglican provinces, seems to occur now on a 20-year cycle. That is to say we can expect a new iteration of this creeping congregationalism in another 20 years. Eventually, there will be nothing left of the episcopate except someone wearing a cope and miter, holding a crozier, and giving everyone what they have demanded. After all, justice delayed is justice denied.

The Rev. Nathaniel W. Pierce is a Province III representative to Executive Council and served as a deputy to the 1979 General Convention from the Diocese of Idaho.

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