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A series of essays toward General Convention 2003 and beyond
A Rumination on the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, 2003
Now that the fires have died down, Bishop-Elect Gene Robinson has to live into life in that strange prison we call the Episcopate, and all that will happen up in New Hampshire without us. After all, we are mostly engaged in other matters, more local and more immediate. Those who seemed so central will revert to being central to a small circle of friends. We might well remember to pray for him, but our prayers are now more parochial.
Now that the fires have died down, bishops across the Church are making clear that nothing has changed where they are concerning the blessing of same sex unions. Those that are allowing such blessings will continue to do so; those who will not allow will likewise exercise authority, as is meet and just. Life in the Episcopal Church, mostly located in congregational context, will continue. Still, maybe we have learned something in all this.
Now that the fires have died down, those angered and appalled by the actions of General Convention will guard the hot coals of their discontent and plan for another day, not too far distant, when their efforts of the last ten years will perhaps ignite a new and, they hope, purifying fire which will sweep through the church. (As this is written on 8/27-8, 2003 the first stirrings from Pittsburgh have been posted on the internet.)
The blazing fires of immediate passion rapidly give way to hot coals as days and weeks go by. They can be fired up again, stirred to new flame, but the passage of time favors heat, not light. So it is with the passions that so centrally marked the 2003 General Convention.
Just one month has passed since the meeting of Convention and already we can begin to see the immediate fire and light giving way to the coals of warmth and anger in the wider context of a struggle to articulate the continuing vocation of the Episcopal Church and to understand what sort of thing the Anglican Communion is meant to be.
It is perhaps time to ask, “What are we to make of this General Convention?”
The Warmth and Light of the Fire:
The unfolding of the issues of Canon Robinson’s election and the blessing of same sex relations at General Convention severely tested the Episcopal Church’s governing structures and processes. They held. And when all the passions were declared and the warnings, affirmations and detractions were put on the table and the votes were taken we find ourselves in a Church very much like the Church we knew all along: A bit clunky and aging, but able to rise to the occasion.
As regards these two specific legislative actions, my sense is that we Episcopalians have made our decisions as a mature Christian community. The deputies and bishops whose charge is to provide governance did so as well as they were able. No decision was made unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently and deliberately.
We did good.
I believe that we Episcopalians can take pride in our commitment in this Convention to the process by which we make decisions about our common life. We can commend the process that dealt with the accusations against Canon Robinson in a timely and appropriate way. I believe we Episcopalians can take pride in a debate and decision carried on in the gaze of the public eye, and in making decisions (whatever the outcome) that people who never otherwise paid much attention to the Episcopal Church found important. We can illustrate the effort to respond to the realities we face as a church in a caring and pastoral way by pointing to the long and difficult legislative process that gave rise to the final version of C051 regarding same sex blessings. That carefully crafted resolution fell short of everyone’s agendas, but served a common hope that disagreement in belief and action need not mean separation.
One of the first negative reactions to the House of Deputies positive consent to Bishop Elect Robinson’s election was, "This church will never be the same again." In the passions of the moment that seemed true, although it was in a positive context that I echoed that sentiment. But now, on reflection, I believe both the negative and positive reaction that everything is different was mistaken.
We did at General Convention precisely what it is we are meant to do: work through divisive and difficult matters and respond to the matters before us in thoughtful and God-fearing ways for the good of the Faith and Order both.
For Episcopalians, Faith and Order are grounded in part in a reasoned examination of Scripture and Tradition, such reasoned examination being that which is grounded in common prayer, common practice and common sense. This sense of commonality is a legacy of the Church of England to us.
It remained for us in the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America to apply that sense of commonality to a way of organizing. Participatory legislating bodies, locally in Diocesan Conventions or Synods and nationally in the General Convention, are a hallmark of the organizational life of the Episcopal Church.
Along with our forbears in civil affairs in this country, we in the Episcopal Church have mostly embraced the notion that various forms of collective decision making are instruments for the common good. In the Church these instruments are venues in which the presence and guidance of the Holy Spirit can be hoped for and in which there are opportunities for the unfolding of Holy Wisdom.
This embrace of decision by a participatory council relates to every sort of ecclesiastical decision, from the naming of bishops to the determination of canons and the interpretation of doctrines. We continually work on ways for such forms of decision-making to better reflect this democratic impulse.
We believe that the bishops, clergy and lay persons who gather at General Convention are equipped by the fact of their election out of the church communities from which they came to make the decisions for us as a Church. In that context we acted at General Convention in totally appropriate ways. We were the same Church when we finished as when we started.
On the matter of consent: both Houses consented to the election of Canon Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire. In effect, we also affirmed that the particulars of his personal relationships to companion, family and community were not cause for withholding consent.
This decision was a further development in the already growing understanding within the Episcopal Church that persons are to be affirmed and relationships commended on the content of their character and the measure of their selfless loving kindness and not on the raw data of physical and psychosocial identity.
The decision to consent is, in this respect, an example of the Episcopal Church’s affirmation of the progressive sensibility in governance, order and faithfulness in which it is true indeed that “new occasions teach new duties.” But we ought to be clear that the decision by this Convention to confirm was entirely in order. The need to vote is required by canon and the arguments for confirmation carried the day. Regarding the form and procedure for voting, I see no canonical or constitutional basis for a challenge.
On the matter of same-sex blessings: Both Houses agreed to a piece of legislation that reflects the current state of affairs in the Church itself, that state of affairs including the recognition that local faith communities are indeed already making use of liturgies for blessing same sex unions, and that those communities doing so are “operating within the bounds of our common life.” There was in this piece of legislation a recognition that the differences of opinion regarding same sex blessing are real and that people act on those differences, but such differences in belief and action are not grounds for separation from the body of the Church provided such action takes place in accordance with the Constitution and Canons.
So in the end we did two things: we determined that being in a same-sex relationship is not in and of itself grounds for exclusion from office in this Church and we pledged that, although not of one mind on the appropriateness of blessing same-sex relationships, such disagreement, even when acted on, ought not lead to a break in the Church. Not bad for this old ship.
Snakes in the Churchyard:
No assessment of this General Convention is complete, however, without the reminder that the principal parties to dissent and objection at this convention -- who speak now most loudly of “realignment” and alternative governance to that provided by the Episcopal Church through its canons -- are, roughly speaking, the same people and institutions who began work prior to Lambeth 1998 for what William Stringfellow once called a “coup d’eglise” – a toppling of the governance and the takeover of the church leadership by a small group.
A retrospective on church takeover.
Stringfellow saw practice for such a coup in the attempted (and perhaps realized) captivity of the Episcopal Church by ultra-right-whites, whose agenda in the early 1960’s was to dismantle or prevent the involvement by the Episcopal Church in the social issues of the time, particularly as regards civil rights work and the criticism of the policies of the government then rapidly embroiling us all in the War in Vietnam. The vehicle for action against the Episcopal Church on a national level was the threat of withdrawing monies from the National Church.
Stringfellow suggests that the principal officers of the Church -- its Bishops and Presiding Bishop -- quickly moved to appease the ultra-right-whites to the point where control of the agenda devolved to them. The Church withdrew from clear support of ecumenically based civil rights work and never really took on the widening war. It was a dress rehearsal for what would happen in the early seventies when the social programs of the national church initiated at the Special Convention of 1969 were dismantled and replaced by more domesticated programs that “serviced” the dioceses, again with the withdrawal of funds as the threat.
All of this is detailed in the Stringfellow and Towne book, The Bishop Pike Affair in which the appeasement to the right in the proceedings against Pike was seen by the authors as an example of the extent to which the Church had become subservient to the ultra-right-white agenda.1 Moreover, the opposition to Pike served as a strategy deflecting the Churce’s Bishops from attending to concerns about the widening war in Viet Nam and the worsening situation in race relations in the United States.
Whatever the level of connection between the captivity of the church by the ultra-right-white agenda and the playing out of the Bishop Pike affair, the fact is that the Episcopal Church began to step back from strong civil rights engagement. Appeasement was being practiced, and practice makes perfect.
And now, More of the Same:
In 1996-1997 the events internal to the Episcopal Church most distressing to a particular group of Episcopal Bishops, clergy and laity were the writings of Bishop Spong, the failure to find Bishop Righter guilty of something for having ordained an open and non-celibate gay man as priest, and the press for full inclusion of women in ministry throughout the church. It did not help matters that the Presiding Bishop spoke at every turn for a vision of the Episcopal Church as inclusive and recognized racism as a continuing plague in the Church. Something, it appeared, had to be done.
What was done now seems fairly clear: a variety of new organizations and groups formed to push for alternative oversight of those churches who could not abide the actions and inactions of the Episcopal Church. Others were formed to provide the beginnings of a “parallel” church to the Episcopal Church, one which would in time become perhaps the recognized Anglican church in this country. The beginning of this century saw a growing coalition come together called the American Anglican Council (AAC), and it is this organization that has promoted the notion of an Anglican mainstream made up of so called orthodox Anglicans.
These bishops were found in international allies in other parts of the communion distressed by the increasing acceptance of women in ordained ministry worldwide, by the involvement of actively homosexual persons in the life of the Churches of the “West,” by John Spong’s theses and by the seeming disinterest by the Episcopal Church to discipline him, and less obviously by the inattention by the churches of the West, while we churned through our ‘issues,’ to the crushing problems of poverty, disease and war in the Churches of the South.
These allies were important at this point because the Anglican Communion was itself becoming increasingly touted as a parallel patriarchy to that of Rome or Constantinople. As more and more was written on the instruments of unity in the Anglican Communion, more credence was given to the notion that indeed the Anglican Communion was a thing – an international institution on a different level from the participating churches. Such an “emerging Communion” (a phrase that became part of the title of a book by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Cary) would need to solidify its authority by exercising the right to intervene in matters internal to the life of specific member churches.
International allies would also lend credence to the legitimacy of these disaffected folk as the “true” Anglican community in the United States; and the so-called instruments of unity could be used to bolster their claim to be the local representation of the Anglican Communion worldwide. This, of course, is part of the challenge being currently made by the AAC.
There is no “Anglican Church”; there are Anglican Churches: The Communion is not a Patriarchy but a Fellowship.
Others and I have written extensively on the emergence of the notion of the Anglican Communion as a world church rather than a fellowship of churches.2 And, in specific terms I have tried to address the elements of church takeover that rely on one form or another of the argument that our own participatory councils are limited in what they can do by the need to refer matters to a higher council and or person, and thus to one of the “instruments of unity” of the Communion.3
I am of the strong opinion that there is no warrant for understanding the Anglican Communion as “Church.” I have argued (perhaps badly, perhaps well) that we ought to think of the Anglican Communion precisely in the way our Constitution suggests, as a “fellowship within the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. 4 In that argument I stand with those who, from the first Lambeth Conference, believed that the real danger of the Lambeth Conference was that it might become legislative, executive or juridical and eventually move from being advisory to binding in its guidance. I have recently argued that perhaps we might think of the Anglican Communion as an ecumenical fellowship, given the growing disparity in the Prayer Book practice and community norms of its constituting churches.5
I see the growing tendency to hierarchical pretensions, by the Presiding Bishop of this Church, by the Archbishop of Canterbury, by the body of Primates and so on as variations on the temptation so well illustrated in the pre-monarchical years of the people Israel. “Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, `Behold, you are old and your sons do not walk in your ways; now appoint for us a king to govern us like all the nations.'" 1 Sam 8:4-5 (RSV) Samuel’s description of what a king might do should have put them off, but to be “like all the nations” is mighty tempting. So too with church. To be like all the other churches is mighty tempting.
At this point I can only say that those who want a world-wide structured hierarchical orthodox body bearing the name Anglican may well have their reward. When they get there, they may well find that “that blessed ‘liberty wherewith Christ has made us free’” has been dissipated and usurped by new hierarchies . They may look back and wonder at this wonderful experiment in Christian living called the Episcopal Church. Are there those who want to be a Church like all those other patriarchal churches of Christendom? Fine. Go and may your faith be as free as it is allowed by such systems.
But what I see no reason to put up with is the desire by these disaffected bishops, clergy and lay people to take with them our name, our property, or our legitimacy as a “constituent member of the Anglican Communion, a fellowship ….” To the extent that these disaffected folk are attempting to do any of those things they are engaged in a coup d’eglise and we must resist.
This group of so called orthodox bishops and clergy has been working at an effort, by whatever means necessary, to effect a takeover of the Episcopal Church, a coup d’eglise. Practice has indeed been useful, and there are surprising parallels between the efforts in the 1960-70’s and the 1990’s to the present.
Just as the previous efforts at a church takeover were accompanied by withholding funds, so such withholding is emerging as a tactic now.
The argument for withholding funds then was that it was a protest of the radical agenda of the ecumenical community in relation to the civil rights movement and the Episcopal Church’s part in it. The underlying reason, however, was to assure that the Episcopal Church would not seriously engage the social and moral issues of the day, particularly as they related to the imperial stance of the government and the overt racism in the society.
I suggest that the argument now is similarly aligned: the overt reason for withholding money is the inclusion of gay and lesbian persons more fully in the life of the church and the “forcing” of a liberal agenda on the church. The reason behind the reason is so to preoccupy this Church with ecclesial survival problems as to make it increasingly ineffective as a critic of the imperial power of the United States.
There is one major difference between the two attempts at church takeover. The first had as a tactic pressing the bishops of this church to the point of appeasement. That was the purpose of the threat to withhold funds. Perhaps it worked. Stringfellow opined, “Appeasement of the ultra-right-whites in the Episcopal Church is now so widespread, has happened so often in so many ways in so many places, that it is apt to become habitual among bishops… Freedom, which is inherent in (the Anglican) tradition: freedom of association, freedom of inquiry, freedom of action – is a weakness which the totalitarian mentality exploits.6” The purpose, again, of the previous attempt at takeover was to habituate appeasement on the part of church leaders.
My sense is that this current attempt at church takeover is not interested primarily in appeasement as a ploy, although so long as every vote in the House of Bishops counts it is always useful to cast the liberal bishops as somehow heterodox, captive of the culture, unfaithful to their vows, etc. This takeover attempt is more interested in sowing the seeds of liberal guilt and reaping the harvest of legal and ecclesiastical cases and perhaps the capitulation of those contested. The object is to harass to the point of distraction. That is, the dissonant bishops, clergy and laity no longer seem to want to force appeasement, but want instead to tire the progressive majority of this church to the point where we drop out of the way as they march on to better things.
Such better things, of course, being funded now by the monies withheld as well as by the coffers of the politically conservative. Such better things being of course to represent the true orthodox Anglican presence in America and replace the Episcopal Church as part of the Anglican Communion. Such better things being to realign the Anglican stream so that they represent the main currents in that stream.
So those bent on church takeover are learning new tactics: no more efforts to get bishops to modify their progressive stances. Instead, preoccupy them so that there is no time to address the church’s mission in the urban and globalized world of the twenty-first century. Instead, walk around them as they are frozen in liberal guilt and walk off with the money, the land and buildings if possible, and the good name of the Episcopal Church. Instead walk off into some new Anglican patriarchy, part of a coherent worldwide Church, dragging as much of the patrimony as possible with them.
Meanwhile, the politically conservative right of this Church will leap for joy, for whatever there is left of the politically critical progressive side of the Church will, it is hoped, be exhausted by the efforts of the day.
There are snakes in the churchyard. There are dirty tricks being played out at every turn. There are learned and trumpeted declarations concerning the unconstitutionality of the work of General Convention. There are bogus arguments about how we are bound by the counsel of higher authorities in the Anglican Communion. What they are trying to do is change the understanding of what constitutes the Anglican Communion. For we may be very sure that if they were to succeed the Anglican Communion would indeed become a Church and would cease to be a fellowship.
Lightning in the Sky:
I return in my assessment to the beginning: to the perception that General Convention, as regards the two “hot” issues did creditable service to the notion of a church ordered by participatory council. We did good.
But more, we did something quite remarkable: we did indeed, as we have done before, dealt with issues wherein we had to say the biblical material in and of itself does not exhaust the informing basis on which we make our decisions as faithful people. That is, this General Convention, Bishops and Deputies alike, was unmoved by the so-called bible believers who said what we were contemplating (and indeed did) was unbiblical.
There may be no overt support for homosexual relationships in the bible and clear condemnation; no clear support for women’s freedom to speak, preach, teach and make sacrament in the church. There may be in the bible no real support for the abolition of slavery per-se (as opposed to the slavery of the Hebrew people.) There is clear restriction of divorce. In response to each of these concerns we have determined that the text does not exhaust the vocation we have as biblically based people.
This church now supports women in ministry. Now, at least, it stands against slavery in its many forms. It allows remarriage. And now it is beginning to say it supports life-long intended same-sex relationships and the vocations in the church of persons in such relationships.
What has happened here is that the Episcopal Church has been true to its intentions to “learn, mark and inwardly digest” the Holy Scriptures in such a way as to make the struggles so readily apparent in those Scriptures our own, to the end that we face with faith the times we are in as those who preceded us in the faith faced their times. I believe, vis-à-vis the issues of note here, that the Episcopal Church in General Convention assembled was indeed a gathering of Bible-believing Episcopalians.
There is lightning in the sky, light that, much like the light of the fire of our passionate concerns, grows from our vocation as a Christian Community in these times. But that lightning also, for a brief moment, lights up the shadows and we see the portent of matters unaddressed.
How did we do at General Convention? Pretty well, on the matters of lively interest to the listening world. How did we do on other things? We were distracted.
The budget thing will be a mess. No wonder no one wanted to really talk about it. What in the world will assessments mean when the disaffected walk? Not only did we not want to talk about it, we couldn’t. Why give more ammunition to the disaffected? They already were rising in the House of Deputies on points of personal privilege to tell us they would not, or could not, guarantee cooperation with the budget.
The theme of the Convention was “Engaging God’s Mission,” but it was unclear at the end just what that engagement would be about. Things were scattered, as well they might. Part of the real task of General Convention this time was simply to get through it. Those who walked out were few in number, but those who were tired out were many. And tired, we let things worthy of our common thoughts, prayers and faith get by with only a glance, as if they were shadows on the wall against the lightning of the sky. I was particularly struck by our inability to look with care at the need by this country to address the effects of slavery.
Dr. Louie Crew, eminent Deputy from the Diocese of Newark, networker extraordinaire, founder of Integrity, gay, man of humor and grace, said this in a note to me: “I hope we can move beyond labels and unite loving one another as much as God does, so that we can get on with the mission of loving the world.” That hope is a profoundly high hope, and a good one.
In the end, as Louie says, “God loves absolutely everybody.” But for the moment, God’s love is preferential: for the poor, for those who “do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with your God.” Until the envisioned end we need to attend to that preferential love and take care that our own dreams are for the kingdom of God, and not the principalities and powers of yet another world Church staking its claim, with the others, to being truer than true, purer than you or me.
1Stringfellow, William and Towne, Anthony, The Bishop Pike Affair: Scandals of Conscience and Heresy, Relevance and Solemnity in the Contemporary Church, Harper and Row, Publishers, New York, 1967
2See Harris, Mark, The Challenge of Change, the Anglican Communion in the Post Modern Era, Church Publishing, NY 1998.
4See, Challenge of Change, pg. 9-11
6The Bishop Pike Affair, p. 193
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