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Ready to Walk Apart?

Episcopal bishops reject oversight from "distant" prelates.

The Episcopal Church is at least one step closer to an historic split with the 78-million-member Anglican Communion. The national church's House of Bishops with its left-leaning majority rejected a newly proposed pastoral oversight council, calling it an "unprecedented" power play.

In a letter to the 2.1 million American Episcopalians, the bishops expressed a "strong desire" to remain within the Anglican Communion despite differences over same-sex rites and openly gay bishops.

But the bishops deeply disputed the communiqué that the Anglican Communion's top leaders (primates) issued in mid-February after they met in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The primates, many of them theological conservatives, called for the American church to receive oversight from a pastoral council and for appointment of a "primatial vicar." The council and vicar would provide a means to keep conservative congregations and dioceses within the Episcopal Church.

The bishops raised significant concerns about the primates' plan, saying, "first among these is what is arguably an unprecedented shift of power toward the primates, represented, in part, by the proposed 'pastoral scheme.'" Under the plan, a non-American primate would chair the council and the primates would name two of the five council members. Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, head of the American church, would name the other two.

The bishops said the plan violated their constitution, and they urged the church's executive council to turn it down. The Episcopal executive council meets in June and is expected to hear from an internal working group about the February communiqué. The bishops indicated they continue to address the "pastoral concerns" of conservatives through other means more acceptable to the bishops. But the national church is also backing litigation against conservative priests and parishes seeking to leave the denomination and hold onto their church buildings.

The actions of the House of Bishops, accomplished through three resolutions, took many church watchers by surprise. Jefferts Schori and others as recently as three weeks ago predicted this meeting would not result in decisive action. The primates have given the Episcopal Church until September 30 to indicate clearly that they would no longer allow any rite of blessing for same-sex couples and would prevent another openly gay man from becoming a bishop, as happened in 2003.

But instead of acting on those requests, the bishops passed three resolutions. In the resolutions, the bishops called the primates' plan "injurious to the Episcopal Church." They requested an "urgent" meeting with Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams to discuss their concerns. (Jefferts Schori admitted at a press briefing, "There is some belief in this house that other parts of the Communion do not understand us very well.")

The bishops said the plan violated their founding principles following their "liberation from colonialism and the beginning of a life independent of the Church of England."

"For the first time since our separation from the papacy in the 16th century, [the primates' plan] replaces local governance of the church by its own people with the decisions of a distant and unaccountable group of prelates," they said.

The bishops in their lengthy third resolution noted:

  • Primates set "simply impossible" conditions for the Episcopal Church in order to end boundary violations in which conservative overseas primates provide oversight to certain American parishes.

  • Primates were "distressingly silent" on the subject of violence against gays and lesbians worldwide.

  • The Episcopal Church's emphasis on "a gospel that welcomes diversity of thought. … If that means that others reject us and communion with us, as some have already done, we must with great regret and sorrow accept their decision."

According to Bishop of Central Florida John Howe, Jefferts Schori told her fellow bishops she could on her own initiative still name a primatial vicar who would have delegated authority to visit dioceses and consecrate priests, but she could not delegate her role in disciplining bishops.

Late on Wednesday, Archbishop of Canterbury Williams issued a brief statement, saying, "This initial response of the House of Bishops is discouraging and indicates the need for further discussion and clarification. Some important questions have still to be addressed; no one is underestimating the challenges ahead." It is unclear whether he will continue to endorse appointment of the pastoral council and vicar.

For conservatives, future challenges could hardly be more daunting than the immediate challenges confronting them.

Those include:

  • The Episcopal Church headquarters declaring invalid the election of a conservative to be bishop of the diocese of South Carolina, a conservative stronghold.

  • The beginnings of a legal process to place William J. Cox, an 86-year-old retired conservative bishop, on trial for illegally performing sacramental acts without the permission of the local bishop. The incident dates to his ordination of two priests and a deacon in 2005, according to a report from The Living Church.

  • The rejection by Bishop of Florida Samuel Howard of a complex plan to provide a conservative parish (Church of the Redeemer in Jacksonville) with alternative episcopal oversight. The plan had the backing of the so-called panel of reference, supported by Archbishop Williams.

  • The extensive litigation against 10 conservative parishes in Virginia despite the call by primates for all litigation to stop.

Late on Wednesday, David C. Anderson, head of the conservative American Anglican Council, said in a statement the Episcopal Church's "desire for power and autonomy goes hand in hand with its rebellion against Scriptural authority."

"The church's arrogance is at its height; they still think they can dictate the relationship on their own terms, but the primates and the Archbishop of Canterbury have clearly said that that is impossible."

In her homily at the closing Eucharist, Jefferts Schori analyzed her church's predicament as a competition between two worldviews: One of them based in the Enlightenment, and the other in postmodernism. She compared seeing the church's situation to a scientist who perceives light as both a wave and a particle of energy. "There are occasions when it makes more sense to treat light as a wave and other times when using particle physics is more fruitful. Both are accurate; neither is sufficient."

But many conservatives see Jefferts Schori as inconsistent at best, not someone holding two perspectives in creative tension.

A humorist at Cartoon Church seemed to capture conservatives' doubtful opinion of Jefferts Shori and her fellow bishops by depicting a lonely, mitred primatial vicar sitting in a coffee shop awaiting instructions. Two thought balloons float above the vicar's head. One thought is set at the primates' meeting, where one primate pronounces, "A primatial vicar! Brilliant idea!" The second is at the Episcopal bishops' meeting, and a leader says, "A primatial vicar! No way!"

A brilliant idea with no chance of success, such as the oversight plan seems to have become, leaves both conservatives and liberals in the increasingly fractious Anglican Communion with the bleak prospect of the primates' ultimatum turning into a global game of lose-lose.

Timothy C. Morgan is deputy managing editor of Christianity Today.

Related Elsewhere:

Timothy Morgan reported on the recent primates' meeting in Tanzania in "Global Ultimatum."

Our special section on the widening division in the Anglican Communion has news stories and opinion pieces.

Several blogs are following the crisis in the Episcopal Church, including TitusOneNine and Stand Firm.

The Episcopal Church website offers an article on the bishops' March 20 resolutions, 'A Message to God's People,' and Jefferts Schori's homily.

Related news articles include:

Episcopal bishops reject Anglican ultimatum on gays | The Episcopal House of Bishops has rebuffed an ultimatum from the worldwide Anglican Communion to establish a church-within-the-church to minister to parishes and dioceses that dissent from the U.S. church's stances on homosexuality and the Bible. (USA Today)
Episcopal bishops reject Anglican demands | Episcopal Church bishops meeting in Texas resolved yesterday not to kowtow to "spiritually unsound" demands from worldwide Anglican Communion leaders to allow a separate council to oversee theologically conservative dioceses unhappy with the church's position on gay clergy and same-sex marriages. (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
Episcopal Church Rejects Demand for a 2nd Leadership | Responding to an ultimatum from leaders of the worldwide Anglican Communion, bishops of the Episcopal Church have rejected a key demand to create a parallel leadership structure to serve the conservative minority of Episcopalians who oppose their church's liberal stand on homosexuality. (The New York Times)
Episcopal Bishops in U.S. Defy Anglican Communion | The nation's Episcopal bishops have rejected a key demand from the larger Anglican Communion, saying a plan to place discontented U.S. parishes under international leadership could do permanent harm to the American church. (The Washington Post)
Episcopal-Anglican rift deepens | The Episcopal Church moved closer Wednesday to a showdown with the worldwide Anglican Communion, even as the church's bishops emphasized their desire to remain within that body. (The Los Angeles Times)
Anglicans closer to schism as US bishops reject gay ultimatum | The Anglican Church took another step towards its apparently inevitable schism when US Episcopal bishops rejected the ultimatum from primates of the Anglican Communion to fall into line over homosexuals. (The Times, London)

Christianity Today's Weblog covered Episcopal bishops' response to the primates' communiqué.

Christianity Today's recent articles on ECUSA and Katharine Jefferts Schori include:

Church Divorce Done Right | Denominational splits just aren't what they used to be. By Ted Olsen (Mar 7, 2007)
Dividing the Faithful | Conservatives fleeing the Episcopal Church regroup —apart. (February 9, 2007)
Falling Apart | Controversial decisions at the recent General Convention have accelerated the break-up of the Episcopal Church. (August 1, 2006)
Episcopalian General Convention Adopts Vague Resolution | Call for 'restraint' in consecration of practicing gays falls short of recommendations of Anglican leaders. (June 22, 2006)
General Convention Brushes Against Its Deadline | Conservatives, liberals can't agree on response to the Windsor Report. (June 21, 2006)
Conservatives Stunned by Bishop's Election | The new church leader supports same-sex marriages, vows to bend over backwards for those she disagrees with. (June 20, 2006)
Episcopalians Elect Female Nevada Bishop as Top Leader | Conservatives see election as confirmation of church's 'revisionist theology,' while one diocese appeals for alternative oversight. (June 19, 2006)
Gays in the Church Debated | Conservatives press Episcopal convention to repent of gay bishop's consecration. (June 16, 2006)

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