Friday, March 23, 2007

Bishop Steenson (of Rio Grande)

The Right Reverend Jeffrey Steenson issued a letter to the Diocese of the Rio Grande regarding the recently-concluded House of Bishops' meeting. The letter was distributed via e-mail on Friday, March 23. Since it is not available online (as far as we can find), we reproduce it here in full.

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Report from the House of Bishops (Spring 2007)

March 21, 2007

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

Greetings to you from the House of Bishops meeting at Camp Allen, Texas, on this feast day of Thomas Ken. The House of Bishops has, much to my surprise, decided to make a response to the Primates’ Communiqué. We were told this would come at our September meeting, but the majority evidently believed that they needed to speak now. I will try to keep this letter brief, and for further background, please see the most recent issue of Together.

The words that seemed to recur most often in our discussions were: “We need to say who we are.” The majority believed that the Primates misunderstood the democratic nature of the Episcopal Church and that they were trying to impose on us a hierarchical structure from outside that was contrary to our polity. Three resolutions were passed: (1) a brief statement rejecting the creation of a Pastoral Council that would have given the Primates a role in ministering to those alienated from the Episcopal Church’s leadership; (2) a letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury requesting an emergency meeting with him and the Primates’ Standing Committee; (3) a longer statement asserting the Episcopal Church’s independence and its commitment to the inclusion of homosexual persons.

Three conclusions can reasonably be drawn from these resolutions:

  1. The House of Bishops has effectively rejected a key element in the Primates’ Communiqué (the Pastoral Council).that had been designed as an interim measure to hold together all Anglicans in the USA until the Anglican Communion Covenant could be considered by all the member churches.
  2. The House of Bishops has sent a clear message to the Primates that these interventions are unwelcome and improper. The formal response to the Primates two specific requests of us (regarding the consecrations of bishops living in same-sex relationships and the liturgical blessing of same-sex unions) will almost certainly come at our September meeting, before the Sept. 30 deadline in the Communiqué. Rejection, in my opinion, is now a foregone conclusion.
  3. The request to meet with the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Primates’ Standing Committee is obviously an attempt to find a friendlier forum to discuss the Episcopal Church’s future place in the Anglican Communion than the Primates Meeting as a whole, where there is fierce criticism of the Episcopal Church.
One might now expect that the Episcopal Church’s presence at the 2008 Lambeth Conference of Anglican Bishops will be severely limited. But there may also be a complicating factor, the practical difficulty of convening the Lambeth Conference at all, because of financial shortages.

Thus, the Windsor process so many of us placed our hopes on to hold together and even strengthen the Anglican Communion is in serious trouble. Our call, as difficult as that might be, is to hear what direction may be suggested by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Primates before we take counsel together. Archbishop Rowan has already said that the response was discouraging and needs further clarification. Our own Standing Committee and Diocesan Council have previously planned a joint retreat for mid-May, and this may be the place where a direction will begin to emerge for consideration by the Diocesan Convention in the autumn.

Unfortunately, it now appears that a divorce may be unavoidable. One of the more insightful speeches here at Camp Allen came from Bishop Christopher Epting, our Ecumenical Officer, who was one of the additional special delegates to the Primates Meeting in Tanzania in February. There he suggested that the Communion ought to take careful note of three principles that guide our ecumenical conversations:
  • “we are not willing to place the best of our tradition against the worst of another – because we have learned how destructive that can be for dialogue and eventual communion;
  • “we have learned to honor difference and to look for common ground where it can be found;
  • “we have learned to respect one another and to assume that – even in disagreement – both partners are seeking to be faithful to God in their own context. Never in ecumenical conversations do we describe ourselves (as we have heard here) as being of ‘two faiths.’ We share one Christian faith!”
These norms may prove to be a helpful guide for how we might relate to one another in all this.

It was difficult to follow the arguments in the House of Bishops that the Episcopal Church has an absolute right to define itself, even if it means differentiating from the rest of the Anglican Communion. I hope to be able to contribute modestly to that argument, since I have been named to the House of Bishops Theology Committee. We have been charged with developing a Study Guide to the Communiqué and the Covenant process for use throughout the Episcopal Church by the beginning of summer.

The majority of the House of Bishops is very anxious to protect the property claims of the Episcopal Church. There seems to be no willingness to suspend civil litigation, as the Communiqué called for, but, to the contrary, the resolve to pursue such litigation is strengthening. I for one have no interest in fighting a spiritual battle on these grounds, but, consistent with church law, I continue to believe that provision needs to be made for those congregations and clergy whose consciences will permit them to go no farther. Here the work our task force on communion did last year may yet prove to be a useful foundation.

We are in high Lent and about to remember those decisive events of Jesus’ last week, in obedience to the Father, for the salvation of all. I do not intend to lose sight of this primary work of the Gospel, and I ask you to exercise great care as well to keep these temporal matters out of the pulpit. It seems ironic that we have finished our work here on the feast day of the non-juring Thomas Ken; his life seems especially appropriate for reflection at the conclusion of this difficult and painful meeting, but it is the doxology for which he is chiefly remembered. The praise of God remains all of our chief business as well.

Yours faithfully,
+Jeffrey Steenson

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