Sunday, November 19, 2006

Ironies, Ideologies, and Inconsistencies

This essay appeared in "The Rector's Ruminations" column of the November 12 issue of the Agape newsletter, by the Rev. Dr. Harold T. Lewis, rector of Calvary Episcopal Church, Pittsburgh. It provides an insider's view of what transpired during Pittsburgh's diocesan convention during the weekend of November 3. The interior of Calvary's church is pictured below.

Ironies, Ideologies, and Inconsistencies: Reflections on the 141st Convention of the Diocese of Pittsburgh
The Rev. Dr. Harold T. Lewis

The ironies were lost on no one. While thousands of Episcopalians – bishops, priests, deacons and layfolk, not to mention ecumenical and inter-faith supporters, gathered in the Cathedral Church of SS. Peter & Paul in the City and Diocese of Washington for the Investiture of the duly elected 26th Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, the Diocese of Pittsburgh, meeting in convention 200 miles to the west, voted overwhelmingly to reject the new Primate’s authority, and to ask the Archbishop of Canterbury to appoint and dispatch an “alternative” primate. The stated objection to the Most Reverend Katharine Jefferts Schori was that her doctrinal views unfit her for the office. The Bishop of Pittsburgh (a.k.a. the Moderator of the Network of Anglican Dioceses and Parishes) acknowledged that the request for alternative primatial oversight was “novel,” but in what could be called a tit-for-tat approach to theology, justified his actions by saying that they were less novel than the theological “innovations” espoused by Bishop Jefferts Schori!

Another irony: In the final hour of Convention, the Rector of Ligonier moved that the clergy and lay deputies assembled express their profound gratitude and appreciation for the work done by the Very Reverend George Werner, in his capacity as president of the House of Deputies of the Episcopal Church. The resolution cited Dean Werner’s fairness, his commitment to keeping people of all theological and political stripes “at the table,” and the grace and aplomb with which he acquitted himself in his office. As the delegates rose and gave a thunderous round of applause, did they remember that three years ago, ignoring the very qualities they were now recognizing, they failed to re-elect the said Dean Werner as a deputy to General Convention, an action which had the direct effect of preventing him from continuing in his presidency of the House of Deputies? As they honored the Dean, did they remember that less than twenty-four hours previously, he stood before the convention, lamenting the fact that as a result of the actions taken by Convention, he felt, after serving for two decades as the pastor of the mother church of the Diocese, like an outsider?

What happened at Convention? The other half of the resolution requesting ALPO was a decision to remove the Diocese from Province III of the Episcopal Church. Moreover, the diocesan budget has now taken funds previously earmarked for Province III, and designated them for the support of the Network. The Network, explained Bishop Duncan, would now function as our province. We believe the Diocese, in taking this action, may be in violation of a court order, since our lawsuit won for all parishes the right to disaffiliate from the Network. The Episcopal Church is made up of nine geographically-determined provinces.

Province III consists of the dioceses in the states of Pennsylvania, Delaware, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia. The provincial system was created about a hundred years ago to assist the growing Episcopal Church to organize its work. Certain powers inhere to provincial synods, such as electing representatives to Executive Council. Importantly, each province has a court to which clergy found guilty of a charge within a member diocese may appeal. It is the intention of the Diocese of Pittsburgh to eventually become part of a Province X, which would be constituted not on the basis of geography, but on ideology, specifically, what the members of the Network would describe as “theological orthodoxy.” Indeed, many opine that it is the Network’s not-too-hidden agenda that Province X would be ultimately recognized as a separate province not of the Episcopal Church, but of the Anglican Communion!

In taking the action to leave Province III, the bishop proffers two specious justifications. The first is that there is precedent, namely the withdrawal of the Diocese of Missouri from the province to which it originally belonged. What the bishop fails to mention is that Missouri left one province and joined another, geographically contiguous province, and, moreover, that the transfer was voted upon and approved by both houses of the General Convention. No mention was made at our diocesan convention about taking the matter of leaving Province III to General Convention, (since the Diocese does not understand itself to be responsible to that body) and we may be reasonably certain that if it were, the request would be summarily rejected! The second baseless and misleading justification for the action is that it is in accordance with the Constitution of the Episcopal Church, which states, in Article VII, that “no diocese shall be included in a Province without its consent.” The Chancellor of our Diocese would have us to believe that that means that consent is granted until such time as the diocese may choose to withdraw it. Had the Constitution been intended to refer only to the initial consent given at the time the Provinces were created, he maintains, the framers would have stipulated “at the time of admission.” What Mr. Devlin conveniently ignores, according to a knowledgeable canon lawyer, is that such clarifying language was not necessary, since at the time of the adoption of Article VII in 1901 the Provinces did not yet exist. The canon lawyer offers an analogy:

As with marriage, consent precedes union, and depends upon it. No one would suggest that the legal principle “no one shall be married without his or her "consent” means anything other than that consent is required for and prior to the initiation of the marriage, and once consent is given, and the marriage rite performed, it takes more than a mere change of mind or heart – or unwillingness to abide by the consent once given – formally to end the marriage.
Let us review the bidding: The diocesan convention, in one fell swoop, has rejected the duly elected presiding bishop and primate of the Episcopal Church and has asked for someone else to take her place. The request is noteworthy since there is no provision for such a course of action either in the Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church, or in the Anglican Consultative Council. Second, it has purported to withdraw from the duly established structure of the Episcopal Church as established by its constitution and canons and mandated by General Convention. But as remarkable as these events are, they pale before the claims made in the wake of them by the bishop. He maintains that these acts notwithstanding, the Diocese of Pittsburgh continues to be a diocese in good standing in the Episcopal Church, and that it is functioning within the parameters of its Constitution and Canons. To understand his claims, one must understand that the bishop has stated repeatedly that “there are two churches claiming to be the Episcopal Church.” He believes, moreover, that the Episcopal Church to which he ascribes is the one that “stands where the Episcopal Church has always stood.” For the Diocese of Pittsburgh and the other seven or eight dioceses requesting ALPO (and who have elevated the Windsor Report, a Lambeth Conference resolution and a primatial promulgation to the level as the eleventh through thirteenth Commandments) to disagree with the theology or polity of the Episcopal Church is certainly their prerogative. But for this group, some 8% of the dioceses of the Episcopal Church, and, incidentally, representing less than one fifth of the bishops who voted against Gene Robinson) to assert their moral and theological superiority over the remaining dioceses, is an act of almost unfathomable hubris.

There are many differing opinions among the members of the Episcopal Church, as there always have been. But there is only one Episcopal Church. It is the church whose General Convention approved the consecration of V. Gene Robinson, and it is the church whose House of Bishops elected Katharine Jefferts Schori as PB. These may be painful facts for some members of the church, but they remain the facts. The bishop’s assertions that the nature of alternative primatial oversight “will be the decision of the primates themselves,” and that such an interregnum will be in effect “until such time as the status of the majority of the Episcopal Church and the status of our [sic] Presiding Bishop shall finally be determined by the Communion” are misleading at best. One of the cardinal tenets of Anglicanism is that its provinces are autonomous. Archibald Tait, the Archbishop of Canterbury who convened the second Lambeth Conference, wrote in 1875: “Each church is naturally guided in the interpretation of its formularies by its recognized authorities . . . No branch of a church could interfere with the matters of any other . . . Each is considered qualified to regulate its own separate affairs, while all are united in the maintenance of one faith.” He adds “We are able by friendly intercourse to strengthen each other’s hands.” Bishop Duncan’s comment “The Episcopal Church has no Supreme Court” and that “its supreme court is the Holy Scriptures” is but another indication that the bishop is trying to redefine Anglicanism. Unless I missed something, the Anglican reformers, unlike their Calvinist cousins who fought under the banner of sola scriptura (“by Scripture alone”) espoused a theology grounded in Scripture, tradition and reason.

Quo vadimus? Does anybody outside of Western Pennsylvania care about what Pittsburgh’s Convention hath wrought? I think so. In 2003, following the General Convention, a special convention of the Diocese introduced an amendment to its constitution (ratified by a second vote the following year) declaring that on those occasions when the Diocese disagrees with the national church’s canons, or when a General Convention resolution does not conform to theological orthodoxy as this diocese understands it, the local opinion shall prevail. Despite the irregularity, indeed the illegality of this action, no opinion or admonition was forthcoming from the office of the then Presiding Bishop. Our lawsuit, which sought to uphold the canons of the Episcopal Church, was met with a similar deafening silence. But, as the hymn reminds us, “new life, new hope awaits.” In a recent action, Chancellor David Booth Beers, on behalf of the new Presiding Bishop, has issued letters to two “traditionalist” dioceses, Quincy (Illinois) and Fort Worth, demanding that they change “language that can be read as cutting against an ‘unqualified accession’ to the Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church.” The letter went on to say “Should your diocese decline to take that step, the Presiding Bishop will have to consider what sort of action she must take in order to bring your diocese into compliance.” It is entirely likely, in my opinion, that the Diocese of Pittsburgh, guilty of the same transgression, will receive a similar letter in due course.

Finally, how do we respond locally? First and foremost, we will continue, by the grace of God, to build up the Body of Christ in this place. We will worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness, and we will continue to welcome all in the Name of Christ, especially those who find us a place of refuge during these troublous times. But it is also important to say what we will not do. At convention, a delegate suggested that the vacant district of the Diocese of Pittsburgh (the Diocese is divided into Districts 1 – 10, except that for some reason District 9 is currently defunct) be reconstituted, and that its new members be the so-called minority, i.e., non-Network congregations. This means that Calvary, under such a plan would leave District 7 and join District 9. In this way, reasoned the delegate, those loyal to the Episcopal Church and who recognize the primacy of Bishop Jefferts Schori could live in peace. The Convention defeated the motion, but remarkably, the bishop brought the matter up later in our deliberations and said that the Diocesan Council (which acts on behalf of the Diocese between conventions) might consider the matter. This idea was reiterated in a motion made at the end of the Convention on Saturday. Let me say why I think this is a very bad idea:

1. The plan would send the message that we approve what the Diocese has done and that we accept our “minority status” when in fact we represent a majority of the Episcopal Church.

2. Such an arrangement would make it appear that all of the so-called minority folk are to be found within the “borders” of District 9, when the truth is that every parish in the Diocese (even those whose clergy and lay deputies voted with the majority) has among its membership persons, sometimes a significant number of persons, who are not in favor of what has happened, and would prefer not to leave the structures of the Episcopal Church.

3. Such dialogue as exists in the Diocese would be cut off, since the ideological divisions of the Diocese would be rendered official by such actions, resulting, theoretically, in only like-minded people being exposed to each other.

4. But most important, such a plan would result in the Bantunization of the Diocese, creating a virtual ghetto for those who hold a minority point of view.

This last repercussion is especially troubling. When I listened to the plan being put forward, I thought of the decision of the Province of Sewanee (now Province IV in the Episcopal Church) in 1883 to create a “colored missionary district” in which all African Americans, regardless of the diocese in which they were physically resident, would be under a white suffragan bishop. This matter came before the General Convention of that year, and thanks to the House of Deputies, was defeated. The bishops, being exceeding wroth, then returned to their dioceses to institute at a local level what they were unable to accomplish nationally, and created “colored convocations.” Under this plan, all African American clergy and laypeople in dioceses throughout the South were forced to meet on their own, apart from the diocesan delegations. The last such convocation sat in Charleston in 1954! [For a complete discussion, see my book, Yet With a Steady Beat: The African American Struggle for Recognition in the Episcopal Church, available in the Calvary Bookstore.] The District 9 plan is no less insidious than the so-called “Sewanee Canon” which resulted in the creation of colored convocations. The only difference is that theological ideology would be used as a basis for segregation instead of race.

The events, not only of our recent convention, but those in the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion over the past several years, have been as unsettling as they are unprecedented. We will continue to navigate in uncharted waters, it would appear, for some time to come. As we do so, I continue to be profoundly grateful to all of you for your prayers and support for the Rector and Vestry as we seek to be faithful to our Lord and to his Church. In times like these, I take comfort in the words of one of my favorite hymns (which, of course, is no longer in the Hymnal):


Forward! Be our watchword, steps and voices joined;
Seek the things before us, Not a look behind;
Burns the fiery pillar at our army’s head;
Who shall dream of shrinking, by our Captain led?
Forward through the desert, through the toil and fight,
Jordan flows before us; Zion beams with light.

[Hymn 561, The Hymnal 1940]

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