Monday, November 19, 2007

Mark Harris on Provisionality

Mark Harris, a priest of our church and the blogger at Preludium, continues to write fine essays on the state of the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. This weekend, he exceeded even my high expectations with his essay, "The Limits of Provisionality." As I said in the comments on his post, I found it one of the saddest and most hopeful essays I've read in the last few years.

He begins:

One of the marks of Anglicanism is the sense that we Anglicans hold those behaviors, actions, ceremonials, theologies, statements, etc, that are peculiarly Anglican as provisional against the day when God will inform us in deeper ways through Scripture, Reason and Tradition of the Truth in Jesus Christ. That is, we do not assume that we Anglicans are in any final way right. We do not claim to be the true church, but rather an expression of the true church.

One way to think of ourselves is to suppose we are in a large room, crowded with Anglicans with various recent experiences, and at the same time some sense of family. We find ourselves grounded in different perspectives on theology, used to different ceremonial, have differing sensibilities about social and moral concerns. Everyone at this gathering talks of what they know of the presence of the Lord in their lives, the missionary sense that they derive from such presence, and the lives they lead in the light of Christ. They eat and drink together a lot. Some will accuse us of being a party in progress.

He speaks poetically and passionately of the things that are best in our Big Fat Anglican Family.
He then speaks of the unrest that has been introduced into the Anglican Communion, at least since the consecration of Gene Robinson, or maybe dating back to the ordination of women:

We might expect that when some in the crowd become more and more uncomfortable with being provisional and begin to assert that their understandings are of the catholic faith and those of others in the crowd were not, the limits of provisionality would get tested. The more the push for a particular position as that of the "faith once delivered of the Saints," the more the community would begin to be nervous about their own provisionality. What had seemed a gracious effort to be a community of mutuality and loving kindness now would look like a lack of faith. Others than might begin to be more stringent as well, calling for obedience to the call that they had experienced and with which they were engaged.
He then comes to a very sad conclusion. He concludes that the generous provisionality that has characterized the Anglican Communion has died:

What are the limits to provisionality? Well, after all the conversation in the big room, with all the Anglicans from around the world and in our own back yards talking and learning from one another, when those who clamor for the definitive community that is the True Church wreck the provisional life, there is only this to do:

Turn off the lights and take out the trash.

Provisionality does not include being held hostage to some covenanted code, or someone's sense that they are the true protectors of the faith once delivered, or some high toned loyalty oath to the unvarnished scriptures. When the conversation is dominated by those who rant and who are no longer interested in gathering in a room big enough for common action among truly diverse peoples, it may be time to say, "The party's over. Come back tomorrow."

I think the party is over: Time to turn off the lights and take out the trash.

Then he continues with the hopeful part:

Several years ago I suggested that the Anglican Communion is an organic thing: it has a life and it came into self-conscious existence at some point and it will someday die. What we can hope for is that when the provisional community gathers again they will remember with thanksgiving the work that the Anglican Communion has done. I believe that.

I strongly believe that the Anglican Communion, as a fellowship of churches committed to being an expression of the Church, but not The Church, provisional and diverse in its understandings and experience of the faith and willing to work together as churches, will continue. I believe the Episcopal Church will be a part of that fellowship.

I also believe that when this community gathers, perhaps at Lambeth, but surely in a wide variety of gatherings great and small in which bread is broken and stories told, God's will for us all will be advanced and we will be made new for new days.

Others will go and make their own way.

But for this to happen it is time to declare that this party is over. This party has become spiritually disabling.

The only way to believe in the resurrection is to practice resurrection. […] When this gathering is over there is another ready to begin.

The Anglican sense of provisionality will find new form.

The Episcopal Church will live into that provisionality.

The gathering will gather again.

I suspect Mark Harris is right. We Episcopalians cleave to the incarnation and the resurrection. This experiment in tolerance (or "provisionality" in Mark's terms) cannot be over. Perhaps we need to let this current structure die, so that we can see what kind of resurrection we will experience after the schismatics do their worst and leave.

Do go over to Preludium and read Mark Harris's full essay.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Causes and Effects

by Christopher L. Webber

I know people who wear green because they are blonde and think it’s flattering. I know others who wear green because they are Irish. The result is the same, but the cause is very different. When it comes to wearing green, it doesn’t much matter. When it comes to the divisions in the Anglican Communion, causes matter a lot.

The 1998 Lambeth Conference called on the churches of the Anglican Communion to enter into a listening process on the subject of sexuality. Recently I came across the report of the Church in Nigeria on that “Listening Process.” The report is lengthy and seems to me to show little evidence of listening to people with different understandings, but we would do well to listen to what Anglicans in Nigeria are really saying.

Here’s a key passage:

In Nigerian traditional culture homosexuality is seen as taboo. Homosexuals are thought of as threatening the divinely ordained order of the community. The Western idea of human rights is subservient to the service of the common good. The so called ‘right’ to homosexual orientation threatens the order of society because the continuation of the race is threatened by gay practice. Children are treasured as fruits of marriage and any union, as a gay union, that prevents the propagation of the community's growth is a personal shame to be openly censured.
Exactly! Traditionally, homosexual unions have always been condemned for that reason: because they threatened the ongoing life of the community. The Old Testament Hebrews were an endangered species, a small tribe in a hostile world. No wonder we find the condemnation of homosexual practice in Leviticus and elsewhere. Such actions threatened the community and could not be tolerated. Not surprisingly “Nigerian traditional culture” also saw homosexuality as “taboo.” It threatened “the continuation of the race” and “the propagation of the community’s growth” and so was shamed and censured.

Most Americans are unaware of the fact that the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, the official book still of the Church of England and the book common to all Anglicans in Africa until recent years, proclaims in the opening words of the marriage service that it is vital to consider “the causes for which Matrimony was ordained.” What are these? The 1662 Prayer Book tells us:

First, It was ordained for the procreation of children, to be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord, and to the praise of his holy Name.
There was some criticism of Archbishop Cranmer’s formula even when it was first published in 1549 on the grounds that the Book of Genesis tells us that God’s first purpose was the help and comfort the man and woman were to give each other, but human life was still insecure, death in childbirth and death in infancy were still common, and the priority was given to procreation. Infant life was still insecure in late 18th century America when the first American Prayer Book was published, but no statement of the purposes of marriage was included until 1979 when we were told that marriage is first for the “mutual joy” of husband and wife, second, for the help and comfort they provide for each other, and only third, and “when it is God's will,” for the procreation of children. What we have, then, is a clear case of changing priorities and cultural change would seem to be the likeliest cause.

The Church in Nigeria would undoubtedly argue that God’s word is one thing and cultural priorities are another. That is an important argument to consider. I would argue that what God’s word shows us is God’s concern for the welfare and survival of God’s people. That concern must be honored, but it might be differently expressed today. In contemporary America families of a dozen or more do not contribute to our welfare or survival. There is no urgent need to insist on "fruitful"sexual relationships. But it may be, nonetheless, that we will have a better chance of understanding each other if we pay attention to the role of culture in shaping our approach to such issues. And it does seem important to point out that when the Nigerian Church advances “Nigerian traditional culture” as having weight in this discussion, it is not basing its case entirely on the Bible.
About the Author: Christopher L. Webber has written for The Episcopal Majority before. See "A Certain Madness," "The Conscience of a Conservative," and "1984 in the Episcopal Church" (which includes background information about the author). He is the author of Re-Inventing Marriage, as well as a new supplement to the last title, called Same Sex Marriage and the Bible (available from his website).

Friday, November 09, 2007

Bishop Iker on Notice

As she did with Bishop Duncan of Pittsburgh, Presiding Bishop Jeffferts Schori has now sent a warning letter to Bishop Iker of Fort Worth. She reminds him that his support of the constitutional and canonical changes coming before the diocese next weekend (November 16-17) would force her to take action to bring the diocese and its leadership into line with the mandates of the national Church. The full story is available at ENS.

The Presiding Bishop's letter makes clear the steps that may occur if Bishop Iker and the Diocese of Fort Worth proceed on their current course:
If these and related constitutional changes go forward, the Presiding Bishop could ask the Title IV Review Committee to consider whether the bishops who have proposed and supported them have abandoned the communion of the Episcopal Church.

If the Presiding Bishop presented materials to the Review Committee regarding potential abandonment by those bishops, and if the Committee agreed that abandonment had taken place, the bishops would have two months to recant. If they failed to do so, the matter would go to the full House of Bishops. There is no appeal and no right of formal trial outside of a hearing before the House of Bishops.

If the House concurred, the Presiding Bishop could depose the bishops and declare the episcopates of those dioceses vacant. Members of congregations in the diocese remaining in the Episcopal Church would be gathered to organize a new diocesan convention and elect a replacement Standing Committee, if necessary.

An assisting bishop would be appointed to provide episcopal ministry until a new diocesan bishop search process could be initiated and a new bishop elected and consecrated.

A lawsuit would be filed against the departed leadership and a representative sample of departing congregations if they attempted to retain Episcopal Church property.

Appointed to the 2007-2009 Title IV Review Committee are Bishop Dorsey Henderson of Upper South Carolina (president), Bishop Suffragan Bavi E. Rivera of Olympia, Bishop Suffragan David C. Jones of Virginia, Bishop C. Wallis Ohl Jr. of Northwest Texas, the Rev. Carolyn Kuhr of Montana, the Very Rev. Scott Kirby of Eau Claire, J.P. Causey Jr. of Virginia and Deborah J. Stokes of Southern Ohio.
Faithful Episcopalians in Fort Worth have been calling for support from the Episcopal Church. The Presiding Bishop's letter seems to make clear the course that will be followed.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

A Certain Madness

Editor's Note: Christopher Webber submitted this essay on Saturday, November 3, after the Diocese of Pittsburgh voted to disassociate from the Episcopal Church. Webber has written for The Episcopal Majority before. See The Conscience of a Conservative and 1984 in the Episcopal Church (which includes background information about the author).

by Christopher L. Webber

A certain madness seems at times to take hold of entire societies and turn them toward self-destruction. Such a passion seized the authorities in South Carolina in 1861 and led them to fire on Fort Sumter. Such an irrational mood took hold of Germany in 1932 and led them to follow blindly after Adolf Hitler. Such a delusion seems to have taken possession of a few dioceses and parishes of the Episcopal Church leading them to charge off into an unknown wilderness with only the negative purpose of not being part of a church in which homosexuals have equal rights.

Yet the divisions within this chaotic disarray are greater than those in the Episcopal Church itself. Do they agree on a Prayer Book, on the ordination of women, on the authority of bishops, on the nature of the Anglican Communion itself? In fact, they don’t. [See Note 1.] But never mind; they’ll figure out who they are later. It’s as if Ted Kennedy and Rush Limbaugh formed a political party dedicated to defeating Hillary Clinton. What would they do if they won? This is a recipe for disaster. [Editor's note: The Common Cause Partners have their website here.]

"Here I stand. I can do no other. I will neither compromise the Faith once delivered to the saints, nor will I abandon the sheep who elected me to protect them."
Thus spake Bishop Duncan after the Diocese of Pittsburgh voted almost 2-1 last week to cast itself adrift in uncharted waters. [See Note 2.] But where does he stand? Does he accept the faith once delivered to Archbishop Akinola of the Church in Nigeria where lay people have no voice in the selection of clergy leadership? Does he follow the Diocese of Sydney, Australia, in yearning for lay administration of the sacraments and a total disregard for diocesan boundaries? Does he see the ordination of women as an optional extra?

And in this new thing being created, will parishes and dioceses be permitted to come and go as various issues arise and become divisive? With new American bishops being created on impulse by bishops from various dioceses in Africa, Asia, and South America, each apparently eager to claim a share of the American pie, is there any possibility of diocesan lines or will we have a half dozen parishes in the same city with allegiance to half a dozen different foreign dioceses?

Who now will define “the faith once delivered to the saints?” Will homophobia be written into their creed, their articles of incorporation, their Prayer Book? Will tradition and reason – reason especially – be disavowed as sources of authority?

When you stand at the top of the ski run and realize that you don’t know how to ski, you can still turn back. But it takes a greater humility and sense of history than is currently at work for a leader to take his troops to the edge of the precipice and then suggest an alternative. Better to jump and die even if it turns out there’s no safety net down there than to be embarrassed in public.

Bishop Duncan may see himself as Martin Luther, but from this perspective he looks a lot more like one of those false messiahs of the past who led their sheep into the wilderness and ultimate disaster in pursuit of a mad vision of righteousness.


Note 1: In fact, the Diocese of Pittsburgh ordains women, but two other leading dissident dioceses (San Joaquin and Fort Worth) see that as apostasy. Likewise, some of the dissidents are content with the 1979 Book of Common Prayer while others see it as a work of the devil.

Note 2: The lay vote was 118-58, clergy voted 109-24 for changes to the Constitution of the Diocese (that would have to be voted again next year to take effect) that would essentially eliminate all references to the diocese's connection with the Episcopal Church and leave the Diocese free to pursue connection with some other Anglican entity.

On the IRD

From Talk2Action:
The Episcopal Church is getting tough with an openly schismatic bishop who has been one of the Akinola Anglicans cheered and supported by the neoconservative Institute on Religion and Democracy. Similarly, local breakaway parishes are discovering that they can leave the church, but they can't take it with them. (For those who are not familiar, Nigerian Anglican Archbishop Peter Akinola is a rightwing, vehemently antigay prelate with whom a number of renegade American Episcopal churches are affiliating.)

The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Katharine Jefferts Schori warned Pittsburgh Bishop Robert W. Duncan Jr. that he would face civil suits and possible expulsion as bishop if a proposed resolution enabling the diocese to leave the denomination passed during a diocesan convention the other day. But he and the Anglican confederates voted to secede anyway.

Friday, November 02, 2007

On Pittsburgh

Episcopal Café has posted a fine summary of the decisions facing the Diocese of Pittsburgh, whose convention begins today, including this:
The Convention will vote on the first reading of constitutional changes that would attempt to separate the Diocese from the Episcopal Church, becoming its own free-standing entity, allow the Diocese to pick the Primate of their choice from around the Anglican Communion, and welcome into membership congregations that are not within the geographical boundaries of the Diocese of Pittsburgh.
They also have this poignant snippet from the JohnstownTribune-Democrat:
“It is like my parents are getting divorced,” said Cindy Leap, parishioner at St. Mark’s Episcopalian [sic] Church in Johnstown. “I have to pick whether to go with my mommy or daddy.”
Pray for the Church.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Stemming the Tide

Presiding Bishop Jefferts-Schori has warned Episcopal bishops that there will be consequences if they seek to lead their dioceses out of the Episcopal Church, while imploring them to remain within the church and seek reconciliation.

A press release issued yesterday from the Episcopal News Service included the text of a letter that the Presiding Bishop has sent to Bishop Robert Duncan (Pittsburgh). Bishop Duncan is also the moderator of the Anglican Communion Network and the Common Cause Partnership, both of which seem to be seeking to establish an Anglican presence in the U.S. outside the Episcopal Church. (Several of the leaders were also active in the '90s to launch a similar effort under the "Episcopal Synod of America.") Bishop Duncan also attended the consecration of bishops in Kenya and Uganda to serve in the U.S. He has advocated for the adoption of diocesan resolutions that would supposedly sever the relationship between the Diocese of Pittsburgh and the Episcopal Church.

The Presiding Bishop wrote to Bishop Duncan:

There have been numerous public references in recent weeks regarding resolutions to be introduced at your forthcoming diocesan convention. Those resolutions, if adopted, would amend several of your diocesan canons and begin the process of amending one or more provisions of your diocesan Constitution. I have reviewed a number of these proposed resolutions, and it is evident to me that they would violate the Constitutional requirement that the Diocese conform to the Constitution and Canons of The Episcopal Church. It is apparent from your pre-convention report that you endorse these proposed changes. I am also aware of other of your statements and actions in recent months that demonstrate an intention to lead your diocese into a position that would purportedly permit it to depart from The Episcopal Church. All these efforts, in my view, display a fundamental misunderstanding of the relationship between The Episcopal Church and its dioceses. Our Constitution explicitly provides that a diocese must accede to the Constitution and Canons of the Church.

I call upon you to recede from this direction and to lead your diocese on a new course that recognizes the interdependent and hierarchical relationship between the national Church and its dioceses and parishes. That relationship is at the heart of our mission, as expressed in our polity. Specifically, I sincerely hope that you will change your position and urge your diocese at its forthcoming convention not to adopt the resolutions that you have until now supported.

If your course does not change, I shall regrettably be compelled to see that appropriate canonical steps are promptly taken to consider whether you have abandoned the Communion of this Church -- by actions and substantive statements, however they may be phrased -- and whether you have committed canonical offences that warrant disciplinary action.

It grieves me that any bishop of this Church would seek to lead any of its members out of it. I would remind you of my open offer of an Episcopal Visitor if you wish to receive pastoral care from another bishop. I continue to pray for reconciliation of this situation, and I remain

Your servant in Christ,
Katharine Jefferts Schori

The ENS story makes clear that other bishops will soon receive similar letters. The Diocese of Pittsburgh's convention is November 2-3, Fort Worth's convention is November 14-15, and the Diocese of San Joaquin meets December 7-8. Those who follow the Anglican blogosphere suspect that similar letters are going to Bishops Iker and Schofield, both of whom are supporting legislation similar to +Duncan's.

The ENS story also spelled out the thinking of the Church leadership, as reported to the Executive Council last week. Father Jake described it as offering "Some Answers Regarding Bishops Leaving the Episcopal Church." Faithful Episcopalians in schismatic parishes and dioceses would do well to read the ENS story. The press release outlines a process whereby schismatic bishops may be deposed and under which authentic Episcopal dioceses would be reconstituted. It appears that the Episcopal Church leadership is indeed making plans to support faithful Episcopalians, if the diocesan leaders seek to leave the Episcopal Church.