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Controversial Bishop Edward MacBurney Dies at 94

The Rt. Rev. Edward H. MacBurney, the Diocese of Quincy’s seventh bishop and an influential leader among Anglo-Catholic traditionalists in the tumultuous 1990s and 2000s, died on March 17 at 94. His 2008 inhibition by then-Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori for administering confirmation in a non-Episcopal church in California attracted scorn from conservatives, and lent momentum to the eventual secession of the majorities of five dioceses, including his own, from the Episcopal Church.

“What they did to him galvanized those who were on the fence,” remembered the Rt. Rev. Keith Ackerman, MacBurney’s successor and Quincy’s final Episcopal bishop. “People said, ‘How in the world could a much-beloved bishop be treated this way?’”

Others fondly remembered MacBurney, who began his ministry with two decades of service as a college chaplain, as a trusted mentor with a gift for spiritual friendship, a man who never lunched alone and nurtured dozens of priestly vocations.

A native of Albany, New York, MacBurney studied at Dartmouth College and Berkeley Divinity School. He was ordained in the Church of England while pursuing post-graduate study in Oxford, but soon returned to his undergraduate alma mater, where he served as Episcopal chaplain and the rector of St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church in Hanover, New Hampshire. He followed this with over a decade as dean at Trinity Cathedral in Davenport, Iowa before his election as Bishop of Quincy in 1987.

MacBurney’s conservative views, especially his opposition to the ordination of women, were well-known at the time. At an October 1987 meeting of the Episcopal Church’s House of Bishops, Bishop John Spong of Newark, the church’s arch-liberal, urged his fellow progressive bishops and their standing committees to consent to MacBurney’s election “for the sake of the catholicity of the Church.” He was consecrated at the diocesan cathedral in Peoria on January 18, 1988.

After Barbara Harris was elected as the Episcopal Church’s first female bishop later that year, MacBurney joined five other diocesan bishops in forming the Episcopal Synod of America, and was elected its vice-president, a post he held until the group merged with other networks to become what is now Forward in Faith North America in 1999.

The network of traditionalist Anglo-Catholic and evangelical Episcopalians pushed for what became Delegated Episcopal Pastoral Oversight (DEPO), a system in which parishes that have strong theological differences with their diocesan bishop can receive oversight from another bishop. They also opened sustained conversations with churches in the Continuing Anglican Movement, laying the groundwork for the 2009 creation of the Anglican Church in North America.

MacBurney, who was 60 at the time of his consecration, served the small, mostly rural diocese for only five and a half years. He was loved for his pastoral gifts and wise counsel, and he sponsored numerous candidates for ordination from outside his diocese.

The Rev. Steven Kelly, rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Detroit, who calls MacBurney his “father in God,” was among them. Told by the Diocese of Pennsylvania’s Commission on Ministry that at 25 he was “too young, too traditional, and needed to broaden his experience,” he called Bishop MacBurney for guidance. He began his studies at Nashotah House with the bishop’s blessing a few months later. “There were five of us canonically resident in Quincy at Nashotah with me,” Kelly recalled, “none of us from Illinois.”

MacBurney ordained Kelly to the diaconate in 1994, his last act of ministry as diocesan bishop. In retirement, he made many visits to Kelly’s parishes in Pennsylvania and Michigan to preach and administer confirmation, and Kelly named his eldest son for him.

“He was such a dear, kind man,” Kelly said, remembering a time when MacBurney was staying with his family and a stranger came to the door just as dinner was breaking up. “When we went into the kitchen, there was Bishop MacBurney, with an apron on, doing the dishes.”

MacBurney and his wife Ann retired to Bettendorf, Iowa, just across the Mississippi River from the Diocese of Quincy, and along with his predecessor, the Rt. Rev. Donald Parsons, remained active in diocesan life, serving in interim and supply ministry, and participating in monthly clergy meetings.

“There was no diocesan event where the three of us were not at the altar,” Ackerman recalled, “no diocesan synod where the three of us were not seated together at the table. It was like a seamless apostolic succession; a unanimity, unity, and friendship that wasn’t manufactured. … It helped the diocese feel like one spiritual family.”

In addition to his work within the Diocese of Quincy, MacBurney served as the pastoral visitor for a widely dispersed group of traditionalist parishes under the DEPO system, officially authorized by the House of Bishops in 2004. His regular involvement with one of these parishes, Holy Trinity Church in San Diego, led to his ecclesiastical discipline at a particularly contentious moment.

In 2006, Holy Trinity voted to depart from the Episcopal Church and to affiliate with the Anglican Province of the Southern Cone. Before his visit to administer confirmation in June 2007, MacBurney sought the permission of the province’s archbishop, the Most Rev. Gregory Venables, instead of San Diego’s Episcopal bishop, Jim Mathes.

On April 2, 2008, after majorities of the Dioceses of Fort Worth and Pittsburgh also voted to leave the Episcopal Church and to affiliate with the Anglican Province of the Southern Cone, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori inhibited MacBurney from ministry, meaning that MacBurney could not function as an ordained clergy member. She cited charges that he had “performed episcopal acts and officiated by ministering the sacraments and holding a public service at a church within the physical boundaries of the Diocese of San Diego while knowing that the Bishop of San Diego had objected to his actions and expressly withheld his permission.”

MacBurney’s son Paige died of cancer two days after he received the notice. Responding partly to outrage from conservatives, the presiding bishop temporarily lifted the suspension so he could officiate at his son’s funeral. An ecclesiastical trial was scheduled for November 2008, but after MacBurney apologized to Mathes for his actions the presiding bishop removed the inhibition on September 9, 2008, restoring his ministry.

Less than two months later, the Diocese of Quincy voted by overwhelming majorities to leave the Episcopal Church and temporarily affiliate with the Anglican Province of the Southern Cone. In 2009, MacBurney renounced his vows to the Episcopal Church, accepting Venables’ invitation to return to his ministry in the Anglican Diocese of Quincy. His orders were transferred to the Anglican Church in North America after its foundation later that year, and MacBurney continued to assist in the diocese, as his health permitted, until his death.

Of the five dioceses where majorities voted to leave the Episcopal Church (Fort Worth, Pittsburgh, Quincy, San Joaquin, and South Carolina), Quincy was by far the smallest. A handful of small congregations of Episcopal Church loyalists were organized within its territory as an ongoing Episcopal Diocese of Quincy, and these were integrated into the Diocese of Chicago in 2013, forming part of its Peoria Deanery.

In addition to his leadership of the Episcopal Synod, MacBurney served as a trustee of Berkeley Seminary and Nashotah House. He was on the board of the National Organization of Episcopalians for Life (now Anglicans for Life) from 1991 until his death.

Ackerman noted that MacBurney was especially proud of having begun informal dialogues with the Reformed Episcopal Church, which broke with the Episcopal Church in 1873 after a crisis precipitated by the deposition of an influential evangelical clergyman by MacBurney’s remote predecessor, Bishop Henry Whitehouse of the Diocese of Illinois.

“Bishop MacBurney began to build bridges, and made it clear to leaders in the Reformed Episcopal Church that we didn’t need to be divided,” Ackerman said. “He was an Anglo-Catholic, but he had an ability to speak with those who came out of the evangelical, charismatic and Anglo-Catholic traditions – all three streams — and he was respected by the leadership of those various traditions.” The Reformed Episcopal Church would eventually be among the church bodies that formed the Anglican Church in North America in 2009.

The Anglican Diocese of Quincy said that funeral arrangements were not yet settled.

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