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A series of essays toward General Convention 2003 and beyond

By Schisms Rent Asunder, by Heresies Distressed

By Schisms Rent Asunder, by Heresies Distressed

By the Rev. Dr. Harold T. Lewis
Rector, Calvary Episcopal Church, Pittsburgh

Shared with Dr. Lewis' gracious permission. It first appeared in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Sunday, September 21, 2003

Dr. Lewis
In the summer of 1967, fresh out of college, I went to the Congo to participate in a program called Operation Crossroads Africa. Founded by James Robinson, a Presbyterian minister from New York, Crossroads' motto was "Building Bridges of Friendship." Our group's task was to erect, together with local counterparts, an infirmary in the port city of Boma.

Unfortunately for us, however, our arrival coincided with serious political upheaval caused by a mercenary uprising. Shortly after arriving at our worksite, we were visited by an armed contingent from the Congolese army who placed us under arrest. Thankfully, after long and tense deliberations, we convinced our captors that we were not, after all, on a nefarious mission, and we were released. At the end of it all, the capitaine in charge of the raiding party announced, "Nous sommes dans une situation confuse."

I thought of that remark recently as I pondered the state of affairs in the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh. We are indeed in a confusing situation.

Many of us, believing ourselves to be building bridges, have been arrested on trumped-up charges of apostasy, heresy and unconstitutionality. Our bishop, like the Congolese captain, has declared us to be in a confusing situation, but unlike the captain's, it is a situation entirely of the bishop's own making, despite his protestations that it is a "conflict into which the decisions of others have now plunged us."

The decisions to which he refers are General Convention's approval this summer of the consecration of an openly gay man as bishop of New Hampshire -- you'll remember the front-page headlines -- and the provision that body made for the blessing of same-sex relationships. At the convention, Pittsburgh Bishop Robert Duncan acted as spokesman for about 20 bishops who believe that the convention by its actions has caused the "separating of the Episcopal Church from the Anglican Communion and from the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church."

Later this week, there will be a special convention of the diocese, the first of its kind in its 138-year history. If Bishop Duncan gets his way and the six proposed resolutions are passed, the convention may well mark the demise of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh, and it is as ironic as it is tragic that that is precisely what Bishop Duncan wants.

Ironic because as pontifex (literally, bridge-builder) of the diocese, he should be about the business of building up the body of Christ and not dismantling it; tragic because the proposed convention is an event which is not only unnecessary, but mean-spirited and ill-conceived. Having accused the Episcopal Church of arrogance for the actions it took, Bishop Duncan, I am afraid, has been hoist by his own petard.

Let us make one thing abundantly clear. The issue here is no longer human sexuality. As in every other institution in America, our conflict speaks to the issue of authority.

Who is in charge? The General Convention, the triennial legislative authority of the Episcopal Church? The archbishop of Canterbury, the spiritual head of the Anglican Communion? The primates, the 38 heads of the autonomous provinces that make up that Communion? The Lambeth Conference, the decennial gathering of Anglican bishops from around the world? The soi-disant "orthodox" Episcopalians? Individual dioceses who take exception to General Convention decisions?

At the General Convention, 42 diocesan bishops voted against the approval of Canon Gene Robinson's election, and yet only seven or eight of those bishops have called special conventions in their dioceses to protest that decision, and only one, the bishop of Pittsburgh, has proposed draconian measures which would result in the creation of two Episcopal churches. In following the dictates of his conscience, Bishop Duncan could have simply dissociated himself from the Diocese of New Hampshire, in the same way that he dissociated himself from the Diocese of Delaware last year when it voted unilaterally to approve same-sex blessings.

Moreover, since the General Convention has vested with bishops the right to allow the use of rites for same-sex blessings in their respective dioceses, Bishop Duncan could simply forbid their use in the Diocese of Pittsburgh (which he has in fact done). The road he has chosen to take, however, is nothing short of overkill.

Anglicanism has long lived with tensions and disagreements.

For example, three or four dioceses in the Episcopal Church and several provinces in the Anglican Communion still refuse to recognize the validity of women's ordination. Several parishes have refused to recognize the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, preferring to use the 1928 version.

The Lambeth Conference, while purporting that heterosexual monogamy is the sole context in which sexual relations can take place, has nevertheless made provisions for polygamists who convert to Christianity to keep all the wives with whom they had contracted marriage prior to their Baptism.

And, lest we forget, the Anglican Church has long been able to tolerate a broad range of theological differences as reflected in vastly different liturgical styles, affectionately known as the low and lazy, broad and hazy, and high and crazy!

There is some question, too, as to whether the convention has the right to pass, much less enforce, the resolutions in question.

A bridge club may pass a resolution that diamonds outrank spades, but that doesn't make it so. A diocesan convention is not empowered to declare General Convention actions "null and void." A diocese canonically bound to support the national church structure cannot arbitrarily refuse to do so. And given that courts both ecclesiastical and civil have consistently held that parishes own property only insofar as they remain in communion with the Episcopal Church, a special convention resolution cannot, willy-nilly, overturn that long cherished principle.

It seems to me that the movement spearheaded by Bishop Duncan looks more and more like modern-day Donatists. The Donatists were a 4th-century sect whose members refused to accept the duly elected bishop of Carthage because his consecrator was a traditor, one who had turned over the church's Scriptures during the Diocletian persecution.

Rigorists who maintained that people of God must remain holy, and believing that sacraments celebrated by the traditors were invalid, and that even those to whom they had ministered were infected, the Donatists declared that they alone formed the true church. After St. Augustine of Hippo pointed out their theological deficiencies, a church council declared the Donatists to be schismatic.

At the special convention, opponents to the resolutions will be made up not only of those who approved of Canon Robinson's confirmation and the same-sex blessing resolution, but many who strenuously opposed both measures. What both groups have in common is that they do not want their beloved church -- the only major denomination not to split over slavery at the time of the Civil War -- to split over the issue of human sexuality a century and a half later.

Bishop Duncan and other "orthodox" bishops hope to demonstrate to the primates, who meet in London next month, that their dioceses support their positions. They may discover, however, that the faithful do not want to sell their birthright for a mess of pottage of such dubious nutritional value.

You are welcome to submit your essays for consideration for this series. Send them to Identify yourself by name, snail address, parish, and other connections to the Episcopal Church. Please encourage others to do the same.


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