Saturday, January 06, 2007

Reading between the Lines of Compliance

(by the Reverend James V. Stockton)

[Editor's Note: The Reverend James V. Stockton is Rector of the Episcopal Church of the Resurrection in Austin (Diocese of Texas). This essay was submitted on January 4.]

I believe it is a mistake to read the current controversy in the Episcopal Church with the template of the past. The dissidents on the Hard Right have learned well from the past, and have done so more quickly and thoroughly than have the rest of us. Due to this, the Hard Right has successfully adapted its tactics to gain ground ceded to it by the Pliant Left and which it has captured from the Broad Middle.

Most of the dissenting bishops have declared their intention not to ask their respective dioceses to leave the Episcopal Church. And they mean it. It is important, though, to recognize that their dissent makes it logically impossible for them to be loyal to the same Episcopal Church whose constitution and canons they dismiss in their dissent. Thus, it is important to discern what these bishops and their dioceses are saying to avoid being trapped by the skewed logic of their claims.

They leave the threat of overt schism to those overseas primates who are promising their support for the American dissenters, in blatant violation of the recommendations of the very Windsor Report they claim to revere. Meanwhile, some, though not all, of the American dissenters avoid open talk of schism, merely disrespecting and disavowing the new Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church and claiming to relieve their dioceses of the obligation to comply with the legislation of the Church’s General Convention. They claim to be "Windsor compliant," even as they invite and engage in non-compliance with the Church’s constitution and canon law.

A few observations are due.

First, the Windsor Report is an advisory document. In the words of its own foreword, “This Report is not a judgment. It is part of a process.” It is without legislative, juridical, or punitive authority.

Second, the Windsor Report took a very long path in making its way for official action by the Episcopal Church. The Windsor Report came to the Archbishop of Canterbury in October of 2004, then to the primates of the Anglican Communion (including our own Presiding Bishop) in 2005 and then to our House of Bishops. However, it did not make its way to the entire Episcopal Church in any formal way until General Convention 2006. This left the lay and clergy orders of the Episcopal Church scandalously little time officially and legislatively to address the recommendations of the report.

Third, because it was not prepared for the derivative jurisdictions of bishops, dioceses, parishes, and clergy, neither the Windsor Report itself nor the Archbishop of Canterbury is able to grant "Windsor-compliant" status to bishops and dioceses.

Fourth, the Windsor Report was prepared with the hope of helping the Communion keep its cohesion. It was not offered as a way to give primates, bishops, dioceses, clergy, or parishes a way to declare subcategories of "impaired" or "compliant" relationships with their fellow Anglican Christians.

Fifth, then, for a bishop and/or a diocese to claim to be "Windsor compliant" is exactly antithetical to the very report they claim to hold so dearly.

Surely no one imagines that the drafters of the Windsor Report believe that anyone can be "Windsor compliant" on the one hand, while on the other failing to be compliant with the constitution and canons of his or her respective province of the Anglican Communion. Of all people, surely the primates themselves assume that non-compliance with a province's constitution and canons means non-compliance with the spirit behind the Windsor Report.

I believe that the bishops and dioceses who have absolved themselves from their vows to abide by the Episcopal Church's constitution and canons have exposed their nuanced use of a terminology familiar to us all. They claim membership in this Church but simultaneously disavow or renounce its governance.

Certainly, one cannot presume to know God's inclusion or exclusion of anyone in the Church Catholic. However, when someone claims membership in the Episcopal Church (or in the Anglican Communion) but exhibits a simultaneous disregard for or violation of the governance of that institution, it becomes incumbent upon the rest of us to suspect the sincerity of that claim. Only through the use of a particularized definition of the term "church" can such a claim be regarded as truthful. Unspoken in this convoluted claim is their belief that that "church" of which they intend to remain a part is a "church" different from the one to which the rest of us belong.

For this reason, the self-absolving bishops and/or dioceses for whom compliance with the Episcopal Church's constitution and canons has become an inconvenience probably really do believe that their claims are genuine when they say that all are welcome. The rest of us need to recognize, however, that it would be more accurate for them to say that all are welcome only if all ascribe to their particular definition of "orthodoxy" and thus to their particular definition of "church."

When the self-absolving bishops and non-compliant dioceses say they have no intention of leaving the Episcopal Church, they mean it. Evidently, though, what they further mean is that they intend to compel the Episcopal Church to create for them an extraordinary exception to its constitution and canons that will allow them a non-geographic jurisdiction from which they shall continue to push their agenda. The rest of us need to recognize that this agenda will, if successful, make this Church inhospitable to those of us who do not wish to comply with their narrow revision of the Episcopal Church.

One hopes that the Episcopal Church will soon cease trying to mollify these dissenters as they continue negotiating for more of Anglicanism's once broad, once populous, and still sacred middle ground. The Church will do well to challenge their use of nuance, and call them to be "constitutionally and canonically compliant." To do this will be to begin effectively addressing the complexities of the current reality, and to own our own responsibility to defend that very breadth of the Gospel in which God has found us, claimed us, and set us free.

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