Thursday, February 22, 2007

Is we is or is we ain't in the Communion???

The latest development in the continuing saga of the trials and tribulations that are bedeviling the Episcopal Church(TEC) dropped the other day when the Primates of the Anglican Communion finished their meeting in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania over last weekend and produced a Communique for publication to the wider church.

The Communique was the culmination of four days of meetings between the leaders of the 38 churches that make up the Anglican Communion, and the major subject of the meeting was what to do about the stance taken by the Episcopal Church of the United States concerning same-sex unions, the consecration of an openly gay bishop, and the perceived lack of adherence to Orthodox Christian doctrine regarding various topics such as the deity of Christ, original sin, and other basic Christian dogma. But first, a little backstory, as this piece will be long enough as it is.

The Anglican Church in general, and the Episcopal Church in particular, has always been a church that has entertained diverse views regarding Christian doctrine. Unlike more conservative churches that tend to more rigid in their beliefs, and are less tolerant about views that vary outside of their narrowly interpreted scope, the Anglican Church has always encouraged their members to develop their own spiritual views through the three basic lenses of "Scripture, Tradition, and Reason" and to engage in a healthy discussion about them with other members. The church is based on an attitude of mutual respect of diverse views as long as the basic common tenets are observed, and there's even some tolerance of diversity regarding those views. It's sort of a ' live and let live' type of Christianity. As a result, there are a multitude of opinions and beliefs that occasionally strain the seams of the 'big tent' of Anglicanism, and when that happens, the tent magically expands to accommodate. But there has always been a small conservative wing of the church that has resisted the various innovations that have happened throughout the church's history. In 1976, when the General Convention of the Episcopal Church voted to extend ordination to women, the conservatives objected on the grounds that Jesus didn't have female disciples, and that the Apostle Paul preached that women should not be allowed to exercise authority over men, but mostly because the priest during the Holy Eucharist represents Christ at the Last Supper, and since Jesus was a man, it's not Scripturally correct that a woman should represent Jesus at the Holy Table. The measure went through, the conservatives complained, and life went on. Occasionally when a high ranking cleric like a John Spong espouses views that tend to stretch the fabric of the big tent, the conservatives will speak out against that person's opinion, everybody notes the objection, and life goes on. Pretty much, the liberal majority and the conservative minority were able to at least worship together, share in the Eucharist together, and even hang out at coffee hour in peace and without too much rancor. Lively debates about the relevance of Scripture, and other controversial topics could happen and there would be no blood on the ground and both parties could escape with their dignity intact. And that is the way it's supposed to be.

Fast forward to 2003. This is the year of General Convention, which is the supreme legislative body of the Episcopal Church, Meeting every three years, General Convention is the only body in the Church that has the authority to pass binding legislation upon the membership of the church. Changes in the Constitution and Canons can only happen in General Convention. Rules concerning ordination can only be passed at General Convention. The Episcopal Church is governed by a process very similar to the federal government in that it is a bicameral legislature with two houses, One composed of the Bishops of the church, the other composed of deputies from the clergy and laity. Legislation created in one house has to pass the other house before being enacted.

Anyhoo, the kerfuffle started when the Convention voted to confirm the election of one V. Gene Robinson as the Bishop of New Hampshire. Mr. Robinson is a gay man. Now there have been and there are gay clergy in the Episcopal Church. The Episcopal Church does not forbid gay clergy as long as they remain celibate. The problem is that Bp. Robinson is openly gay and living in a committed relationship with another man. At that point, the conservative wing of the church declared 'enough is enough.' They grumbled and a few ran to the Roman Catholic Church when the Episcopalians voted to ordain women. They winced and gnashed their teeth as liberal bishops and clergy started espousing beliefs that questioned orthodox Christian doctrine. But this was the straw that broke the camel's back. The conservatives immediately started to come up with plans and strategies to either force the Episcopal Church to repent of their actions or break away from the Church and either establish an alternate orthodox structure either within or without the Church. The Bishop of Pittsburgh, Robert Duncan was named the Moderator of the Network of Anglican Dioceses and Parishes renamed the Anglican Communion Network, an organization of parishes and dioceses that are committed to maintaining an orthodox conservative Anglican presence in the Episcopal Church. The Network along with other conservative organizations such as Forward in Faith and the American Anglican Council appealed to their conservative brethren in other parts of the Anglican Communion to bring pressure to bear on the Episcopal Church to either mend their ways, or to be shunned from the Anglican Communion. As a result of all the screaming and hollering by the conservatives about what happened at General Convention, the Archbishop of Canterbury appointed the Archbishop Robin Eames, the Anglican Primate of All-Ireland to chair the Lambeth Commission on Communion to investigate the effect the Robinson confirmation would have on the unity of the Anglican Communion.

One thing that has to remembered here is that the Anglican Communion is a loose confederation of 38 autonomous churches, the key word being autonomous. The pronouncements and decisions made by any body of the Anglican Communion committees and commissions have NO force of law behind them. Any church can choose to accept or reject those pronouncements. One of the key attributes of Anglicanism is that no Primate of one church can intervene in the affairs of another church, and this extends down to the diocesan level as well. If a bishop of one diocese is invited to perform an episcopal function, that is, a liturgical function within the authority he/she holds because of his office, in another diocese, he/she must get that bishops permission before he arrives. This section will be made more relevant later on in this piece.

The Lambeth or Eames Commission met in Dromantine, Ireland in 2004. From that meeting came the Windsor Report. This lengthy report basically called the Episcopal Church on the carpet for "straining the bonds of affection" that bind the Communion together, and causing a disruption in the harmony of the Communion. The report called on the Episcopal Church to make a statement of apology at its 2006 General Convention for confirming the election of Gene Robinson and to declare a moratorium for the consecration of bishops in a same-sex relationship as well as not enacting rites of blessing for same-sex unions. It would also recommend the creation of an Anglican Covenant that would require an Communion member church to seek the opinions and approval of other members of the Communion before enacting a major piece of legislation that affects church doctrine. Also the creation of a Panel of Reference that would consider the claims of those congregations or groups that had issues with their bishop and requested alternative oversight. Liberals complained that the Episcopal Church should not have to ask "mother may I" to the rest of the Communion before making changes in their Constitution and Canons, and conservatives complained that the report didn't flat out throw the Episcopal Church out of the Communion and declare them the "true representation of Anglicanism in the USA. In short everyone was pissed off about the Windsor report. Nobody got what they really wanted out of it, which is pretty much status quo in the Anglican Communion.

General Convention 2006 served to fan the flames and make the lines in the sand even deeper. The Convention apologized for causing the Communion hurt and pain by confirming Bp. Robinson, but they didn't apologize for the act itself, sending conservatives into a tizzy. What really drove the right-wingers around the bend was that the Convention elected, for the first time ever, a female Presiding Bishop. The Episcopal Church allowed women to be ordained in 1976. But as an accommodation to the very few dioceses whose bishops don't approve of women's ordination, the church essentially handed down a grandfather clause that would not force those dioceses into accepting female clergy. Presently, there are three dioceses that do not ordain women: Fort Worth, Quincy, and San Joaquin. There are also a few dioceses, Pittsburgh included, whose bishops will not recognize the ministry of one Katharine Jefferts Schori, not because she's a woman, but because she embraces the doctrine of the blessing of same-sex unions, and because a bishop cannot perform episcopal acts within another bishop's diocese without that bishops okay, It's safe to say that Bp. Schori won't be gracing the sanctuary of any church in the Diocese of Pittsburgh anytime soon. If these actions of the Convention didn't cause the conservative wing of the church to start spitting nickels, nothing would. They and their compatriots in the wider Communion immediately went running to the Archbishop of Canterbury and put even more pressure on him to do something that would kick TEC to the curb, and also provide alternative primatial oversight to those US dioceses that could not accept the mission of Bp. Schori. The concept of alternative primatial oversight is essentially unheard of as it would allow Primates from other churches within the Communion to come into the American Church and provide pastoral care at the Primate level to dioceses in the US church. There is such a thing as alternative episcopal oversight where a parish within a specific diocese that is at odds with their bishop can request a bishop from another diocese come in and provide pastoral care and perform episcopal acts for that parish as the needs arise. One parish in Pittsburgh has availed themselves of that option.

All this leads up to the Primate's meeting held in February, 2007 in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. Some of the more hard core orthodox Primates made clear their displeasure that Bp. Schori would be attending this meeting as was her right as the Primate of the American church, but also that they would refuse to take communion from her, and in some cases would not even sit in the same room with her. The purpose of the meeting primarily was to once again address the complaints by the orthodox primates that the American Episcopal church has chosen to "walk apart" from the rest of the Communion, and what was going to be done about it. After 4 days of meetings, Bible studies, and fellowship the main points of the Communique was that while the conservative wing was guilty of requesting non US Primates to intervene in the affairs of the Episcopal Church despite the ban on such activity, the Primates did not consider that a " moral equivalent" to what TEC did in defying the teachings of the 1998 Lambeth Resolution 1.10
which stated that marriage was between a man and a woman and that homosexual behavior was incompatible with Scriptural teaching, by consecrating Bp. Robinson. Also the Primates believed that the apology offered by TEC during General Convention was not acceptable. The Communique also once again called for the establishment of an Anglican Covenant that would further solidfy the "bonds of affection" between the member churches of the Communion. Those Primates who have intervened in TEC feel that those interventions were necessary to care for those groups in TEC that cannot accept the ministry of the current Presiding Bishop, and that real change must occur in TEC before the interventions can cease. To that end, the Primates emphasized the need to:

1. Reaffirm the findings of the Windsor Report and Lambeth resolution 1.10
2. Set in place an Anglican Covenant
3. Encourage healing and reconciliation between the members of the AC and TEC,
4. Respect the constitutional autonomy of each of the Communion churches, while acknowledging the interdependent life and mutual responsibility of the Churches to one another.
5. Provide pastoral care for those alienated by the developments in the TEC.

To do all this, the Primates further propsed the creation of a Pastoral Council composed of members, some of which are outside of TEC. This council would work with TEC to insure compliance with the Windsor Report as well as the Lambeth Statement of 2003
which states that the American and Canadian churches must make provision for episcopal oversight of dissenting minorities within the church. Essentially, this council would make sure that those who did not agree with TEC's actions would be taken care of. The Presiding Bishop would also be required to appoint a Primatial Vicar who would provide pastoral care for those dissenters in TEC. Finally, the Primates requested that TEC House of Bishops make a firm declaration that there would a moratorium on same-sex blessings and a consecration of gay bishops until a new consensus arises in the Communion, and the Bishops would have until September 30th, 2007 to make their response. Failure to comply with the request would result in as of yet unknown consequence.

This seems like a body punch to the mostly liberal wing of the TEC.
But the conservatives still didn't get all they wanted either. The Communion Primates don't understand that any statement made by the House of Bishops regarding these matters has no force of law. Only the General Convention can call for binding statements that truly speak the official mind of TEC, and it does not meet again until 2009, barring the calling of a special convention, which is unlikely. Maybe in some of these other provinces, the Primates can bully their legislative bodies into doing what they want, but in TEC, it does not work that way. The Presiding Bishop in TEC has relatively little power. In recent statements put out by the House of Bishops, they have strengthened their commitment to the full inclusion of gays and lesbians into all aspects of church life, and that the Pastoral Council as well as the September 30th declaration undermines the polity of TEC and scripturally unsound.

Well folks, I gave you all a lot to chew on. And it looks like the coming days will be filled with lots of suspense and highly charged emotions on all sides. The long knives will be coming out soon, and it looks like blood will fly. Too bad. There won't be any real winners in this fight, just a lot of hurt, tired people who should be worried about living out their Christian witness and not worrying about fitting tab A into slot B and who's sleeping with who.