Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The Undermining of the Episcopal Church, Part 3

“A Case of Spiritual Adultery”
by the Reverend Thomas B. Woodward

Editor's Note: This is the third installment in Father Woodward's essay, "The Undermining of the Episcopal Church." Parts 1 and 2 are available here and here.

We urge those who have not read
Canon Brooks' memorandum on the Anglican Constitution here at The Episcopal Majority to do so, as it reflects some of Father Woodward's observations about the current shredding of the authority of the laity by those who want to discipline the Episcopal Church.


We have a curious situation in the Episcopal Church. Several bishops, whose chief duty is the oversight of their dioceses, are publicly opposed to their church – and this is not simply a matter of having serious concerns about one’s church. A number of bishops and others were actively critical of the church in the 1960s and '70s. What is different in the current situation is that these bishops are not speaking primarily from within the church and to the church. Rather, they are placing themselves outside the church and vilifying our church from that "outside" position. In addition, these bishops are active members of organizations such as the Anglican Communion Network and CANA that have been working for years to replace the Episcopal Church! On the whole, their strategy has consisted of public verbal attacks on the church, while seeking alliances wherever they can be found around the globe.

As I noted in Part 2 of this series, their pronouncements on the authority and interpretation of Scripture, their shredding of the authority of the laity in the church, and their decision to substitute the theology and ethics of a misogynist prayer book for our 1979 Book of Common Prayer represent a consistent attack on the very church that continues to pay their salaries. It also represents a repudiation of the vows these bishops and many priests made before God – and without which they would not have been ordained priests or bishops – although few will acknowledge that. There is a name for this – not a pretty name at all – but that will come later.

At the consecration of a bishop in the Episcopal Church, the one being consecrated makes a solemn vow before God. Along with marriage vows, the words and the promise made at one’s ordination are the most solemn any human being can utter. In the 1928 Book of Common Prayer the vow is this:
“In the Name of God, Amen. I, N., chosen Bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church in N., do promise conformity and obedience to the Doctrine, Discipline, and Worship of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America. So help me God, through Jesus Christ.” (p. 552)
If you chose not to make the vow, you were not consecrated. Note that the vow of obedience is to the Doctrine, Discipline, and Worship of the Episcopal Church, not to “what I believe the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the church should be” or “what primates from other parts of the Anglican Communion tell me it ought to be.” Note, also, there is no qualifier such as “all things being equal . . .” or “. . . until I believe otherwise.” The vow is absolute. In the 1979 Book of Common Prayer the vow is similar:
“… I do solemnly engage to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of The Episcopal Church.” (p. 523)
This is on top of the vow made at one’s priesting and when being ordered deacon:
“Will you be loyal to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of Christ as this Church has received them? And will you, in accordance with the canons of this Church, obey your bishop and other ministers who may have authority over you and your work?” (BCP, pp. 526 and 538)

Why Are Ordination Vows Important?

In our church, we take marriage vows very seriously. The vows made at ordination are equally serious. Why is that so?

First, St. Paul in Romans 9-11 goes to great pains to assert that when God makes a promise, that promise is unbreakable. Otherwise, God would be untrustworthy. The same is true with our Lord's promises of faithfulness to his vocation: for Jesus, the cross is preferable to the slightest deviation from his promise of obedience to the Father.

It is in that context that clergy and religious (monks and nuns) make their vows. When we break our ordination or consecration vows, we undermine the credibility of the Christian Church, the Body of Christ we were ordained or consecrated to serve. When we break these vows and walk the walk of disobedience, we repudiate before our people the unique power of the Cross. Simply stated, we commit spiritual abuse on those who trust us to keep our vows.

Second, when dealing with a married couple when one of the couple wants out of the marriage to begin or continue with a different partner, the advice of professionals is almost always the same: deal first with the stresses and anguish within your marriage, then divorce if you must. Only then – and only after a period of time – should you consider any new affiliation.

The same applies to one’s vows to the church. Spiritual adultery (pretending to be faithful to one while cleaving to another) is just that – spiritual adultery. It is holding onto your position of pledged loyalty and trust at the same time you are betraying it. Spiritual adultery – like marital adultery – tears at the hearts of too many people, including the heart of the adulterer, to be tolerated.

Then Why Do These Vows Seem To Mean So Little?

It is scandalous for ordained men (very few women) to stand in the pulpit of the church that nurtured and ordained them, urging their congregation to break faith with the Episcopal Church. That is a violation on so many levels. It is breaking one’s vows publicly. It is a violation of one’s fiduciary responsibility to the Episcopal Church, to one’s diocese, and to one’s parish church. And it makes a mockery of anything like integrity.

What does a person with integrity do when faced with irreconcilable differences with his or her employer? Do you quit? Do you continue to draw your salary while attempting to discredit, smear, or even destroy your employer? Or do you remain loyal, while working to find ways to resolve what seemed to be irreconcilable differences?

The answer is clear to those in leadership of the Anglican Communion Network and related organizations They continue to draw their salaries and they continue to enjoy the perquisites of their positions in the Episcopal Church while they work nearly full-time to discredit and undermine the church. What is true for them, unfortunately, is true for many “orthodox” parish priests: rather than resign from the church they vilify and undermine, they use the power and prestige of their positions in our church in an attempt to replace or empty it.

It's Gone Way Past Flirting

On another level, there are dioceses – such as the California Diocese of San Joaquin – which are attempting to remove any references to its constitutional dependence upon the Episcopal Church from its own Constitution and Canons. Why would those proposing such a move not simply resign from the church they so despise, instead of undermining and destroying it?

In similar fashion, it is clear that Pittsburgh’s bishop, Bob Duncan, in explaining his reasons for seeking Alternative Primatial Oversight (someone other than our Presiding Bishop) for his diocese, knows and his attorneys know that such a move is illegal and completely against the polity of the Episcopal Church, which he has sworn to honor.

This weekend, Bishops Duncan and Iker traveled to Kenya to take part in the consecration of two American priests as bishops who will represent foreign jurisdictions invading our own church in the United States! The violation of the Constitution and Canons of our church could not be more complete. The only analogy that comes to mind is a few chickens leaving the coop to deliver some steroids to a group of hungry foxes on their way to the hen house.My own conclusion is that Bishop Duncan and others should first deal with their ordination and consecration vows of loyalty to the Episcopal Church and its doctrine and discipline. They should have done so without involving their clergy or the people of their dioceses or congregations.

Bishop Duncan and others in our church could and should have done the honorable thing. They should have taken a leave of absence to sort things out with peers or spiritual advisors. If they decided they could no longer honor their vows, they should have announced their decision to leave the ordained ministry of the Episcopal Church. (After all, without those vows, none of these men would have been ordained or consecrated in the first place.) Once separated from their vows, these clergy would be free to seek out whatever succor or position they wanted in the church of God. Alternatively, they might have reached a different conclusion, after which they could have held a private ceremony of recommitment to their ordination and consecration vows.

For a bishop to encourage his clergy [and it is all male bishops at this point] to follow anything but this process is, I believe, “conduct unbecoming” – one of the grounds for presentment and trial of a bishop. From my own experience of leadership in the civil rights movement and the Sanctuary movement, I know how beguiling power and the attraction of being in the opposition can be. Those of us who have been more or less successful in resisting the evil hold of those things are fortunate, while those who succumb to that beguiling promise of self-importance always end up doing more damage than any good they might have envisioned.

The Property Issue

Some of this duplicity is reflected in the various attempts of several bishops and priests to take away the property belonging to the Episcopal Church as they strike out for life in one of the acronymous churches (such as CANA, AMiA, etc.). Who wants to present himself to a foreign jurisdiction with no property, no buildings, no cash, and in desperate need of a copy machine? Is the primate of the Church in Nigeria or Bolivia going to be happy with a new mission of 500 people in New Mexico or Florida, requiring full financial support from their own strained budgets? How about 20 such congregations?

The Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church are clear as clear can be about who owns the property. In order to be admitted into the Episcopal Church as a diocese, the petitioners have to agree that all their property is held in trust for the Episcopal Church, governed by the General Convention and Executive Council. When a group petitions to become a parish in a diocese, they have to agree, again in writing, that all their property is held by them in trust for the diocese and through the diocese for the national church. That has always been so in this church.

How can we think about the property grab by those leaving the Episcopal Church? It is probably like a teenage boy who joins a neighborhood basketball game. He plays happily and then discovers that the other boys have made a rule change he doesn’t like. What does he do? He picks up their basketball and goes home.

When anyone claims an independent right to the property of their parish church, they are acting outside church law. When people leaving the Episcopal Church argue that it was their money that built and maintained the church, they need to be reminded that when we donate money or property to the church, we relinquish any right or control over that money. Ask your church treasurer: every receipt of gifts given to the church and every pledge statement is required to note that the only thing you get for your gift consists of spiritual, not material benefits. You can’t claim a tax deduction for a charitable donation to the church, and then claim that it was an investment! The legal consequences of that dodge are considerable.

The particulars about our Constitution and Canons as they relate to our current struggles have been explored in a number of places. My point is that there is a disgraceful lack of integrity among those who remain on the church’s payroll while undermining it and among those who leave while they attempt to take with them the property that belongs to those they call apostate. Let us be clear: their actions and attitudes undermine not only the church that nurtured and (for the clergy) ordained them, but the holiness and seriousness of the baptismal or ordination vows they made.


This is spiritual adultery, and it is time to name it as spiritual adultery. The issues and concerns in our “Anglican Agonies” are not just differences of opinion. This goes way beyond differences of opinion: the undermining of our Book of Common Prayer, our commitment to the full participation of the laity, our long tradition of honoring the Bible and its authority in the church and in our lives, and the holiness of our vows and our signed agreements about property is about destroying the bedrock of our church’s existence. As such, it is an offense not just against those with whom you disagree: it’s an offense against God.


Postscript: Part 4 of Father Woodward's series on "The Undermining of the Episcopal Church" will be published in a few days.

10 Comments:

Blogger Marshall said...

Re: ordination vows: this is why I have felt for some time that if charges are brought and presenments sought, they should be for violation of the discipline of the Church. While charges of heresy or abandonment of communion are attractive, even sexy, they are, in many cases, hard to parse and quite subjective. Violation of discipline, on the other hand, in violation of Constitution and Canons can be relatively clear and discreet.

9/06/2007 9:29 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Schmitz said...

From Schmitz Blitz: schmitzblitz.wordpress.com

“Homosexuality and lesbianism are inhuman. Those who practice them are insane, satanic and are not fit to live because they are rebels to God’s purpose for man.”

That quotation comes from Rt. Rev. Isaac Orama, Anglican Bishop of Uyo, Nigeria in an interview with the News Agency of Nigeria.

Sadly, in Nigeria, gays actually do face the death penalty.

It’s a shame that more and more American Episcopals prefer the hatred of the Anglican African Bishops as exemplified by Orama and Archbishop Akinola to accepting gay clergy in America.

9/06/2007 10:39 AM  
Blogger Tom said...

Elizabeth,
When we have lost our vocation to love, we have lost all touch with our Lord. To use his Name while associating with those who would kill and maim His children must be awfully close to what Jesus described as the unforgivable sin.
Thank you for your response to the article.
Marshall,
Likewise, thank you for taking the time to respond -- I agree with your observations about presentments -- especially after having been involved in bringing one against a bishop. This should be a slam dunk.
My fantasy is that at the upcoming meeting of the HoBD, our Presiding Bishop will open the meeting with the common recital of Consecration Vows.
Tom Woodward

9/06/2007 5:15 PM  
Blogger R said...

Tom,

Thank you very much for this. Responding as an ordained priest, I deeply resonate with your arguments here. The most patently offensive thing to me in all of this, after the dismissal of the dignity of too many brothers and sisters in Christ, is the flagrant violation of the disciplinary elements of the ordination vows while continuing to exercise the privileges they grant.

Many of the theological and ethical arguments on the table may be subjective, but I agree with Marshall -- the disciplinary parts of our vows are the most easily measured, and they most effectively help retain the integrity of authority and community precisely when it comes to contentious episodes like the one we're all living through right now.

9/06/2007 11:03 PM  
Blogger Scott+ said...

This piece is to me a prime example of where many in the Episcopal Church in the United States, are honoring the institution over the Christian Church. The promises were made and one must assume that they were made in good faith. But there are times when there are higher duties than keeping promises. One of those times is when promises made are in conflict with each other.

I think that you must also look at what is part of the service at the time of becoming a Bishop. In which case the promises made as part of the whole service come into conflict with the promises which are discussed in the article.

Bishop Will you share with your fellow bishops in the government of the whole Church; will you sustain your fellow presbyters and take counsel with them; will you guide and strengthen the deacons and all others who minister in the Church?

If in fact these men of God do leave the Episcopal Church in the United States, they will still be in keeping with this command. I do not foresee that they will stop being bishops in the Holy Catholic Church or the Anglican Communion. There are times when an institution becomes so corrupt, that reform is no a good use of one time or talent. This may be true of the Episcopal Church in the United States.

My brother, the people have chosen you and have affirmed their trust in you by acclaiming your election. A bishop in God's holy Church is called to be one with the apostles in proclaiming Christ's resurrection and interpreting the Gospel, and to testify to Christ's sovereignty as Lord of lords and King of kings.

There may or has come a time when the promises from the Bishop-elect are in conflict with the immediately above paragraph. There is a message in being a member of any group. The message of being a member of the Episcopal Church is becoming the message that the social gospel trumps the Gospel revealed in Holy Scripture.

Bishop Will you boldly proclaim and interpret the Gospel of Christ, enlightening the minds and stirring up the conscience of your people?

Here to it would appear that the Episcopal Church in the United States is acting in such a way as to make the promise of the bishop-elect and the charge to the bishop-elect to be in conflict. It is wrong to stir up the conscience of people with a false gospel which call sin holy.

Additionally no Christian is bound to an oath when such an oath violates being a Christian. There is an assumption that the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church will be within the bounds of Christian morality. The morality that homosexual acts is not sin is not Christian morality.

9/08/2007 10:33 AM  
Blogger Lisa said...

Scott, I disagree with your premise that there's any such conflict. But if some bishops or clergy perceive the kind of conflict you express here, there is a simple solution, which Tom has clearly expressed: they should resign their orders in the church they find so repulsive. Their failure to do so is, as Tom clearly explained, spiritual adultery.

9/08/2007 11:41 AM  
Blogger Scott+ said...

Bishop Will you share with your fellow bishops in the government of the whole Church; will you sustain your fellow presbyters and take counsel with them; will you guide and strengthen the deacons and all others who minister in the Church?


That is why it is not cut and dry to leave. It is also not right to leave the past efforts of the faithful to support the new religion.

9/08/2007 12:02 PM  
Blogger Father Ron said...

I think your description of the basic error made by the offending clergy and bishops - as being the violation of their vows to uphold the polity, tradition and teaching of ECUSA, should be sufficient for them to be dismissed from their office in the Episcopal Church.

To continue on the pay-roll, while yet vilifying the constitutional and moral status of one's employer is surely to have forfeited all rights to further employment with ECUSA.

9/08/2007 11:00 PM  
Blogger seamus said...

Divergent discernments are nothing new to Anglicanism.At best,Scott can try to make a case for material heresy. Material heresy almost has no meaning in a church born in heresy. Only formal heresy is sufficient cause for schism otherwise Christain unity is doomed a priori. According to the theological concept of invincible ignorance,it would be the height of arrogance for any Christain to say he or she is free of material heresy.

And if the Episcopal Church is not quilty of formal hersey then the actions of the African Primates spurred on by schismatic Episcopalian bishops who knowingly and with hubris slander and plunder the polity of the Episcopal Church may themselves be quilty of formal heresy.
Therein would lie a poetic justice as the sin of spiritual pride is greater then any of the sins of the flesh.

9/08/2007 11:28 PM  
Blogger Craig Goodrich said...

... all their property is held in trust for the Episcopal Church ... That has always been so in this church.

So the Dennis Canon was superfluous? Thanks for pointing that out, Tom, I was unaware of that fact.

11/11/2007 3:25 AM  

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