Bishops to dissidents: Fill out this form (in triplicate)

bearbishThe Episcopal Church’s House of Bishops churns out pastoral documents every time it meets. They are without fail rich illustrations of the bishops using many words while committing themselves to very little.

Meeting privately this weekend at an Episcopal camp in Texas, the bishops considered how to be pastoral toward Episcopal congregations unable to rejoice that the church has (1) consecrated its first openly gay bishop and (2) declared that “local faith communities are operating within the bounds of our common life as they explore and experience liturgies celebrating and blessing same-sex unions.”

The full text of the document is here. I will spare you a detailed reading of all its words and comment only on what could be called the document’s “core doctrine.” (I reported on that novel concept for Christian Research Journal [PDF] in 1995.)

The troubles begin with the document’s self-congratulating title and subtitle:

Caring for All the Churches: A Response of the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church to an expressed need of the Church

Compare and contrast with Pastor Bill Hybels’ concept of felt needs and President Clinton’s signature line of “I feel your pain.”

We as bishops are not of a common mind about issues concerning human sexuality. Different points of view on these matters also exist within our dioceses and congregations. In some instances there are significant differences between congregation(s) and the bishop and few of our congregations are themselves of one mind.

The House of Bishops has been divided on issues concerning human sexuality since the mid-1970s, and its divisions led to more than a decade of annual closed-door meetings, beginning after General Convention in 1991.

In the circumstance of disagreement regarding the actions of the 74th General Convention on issues of human sexuality, we commit ourselves to providing and to making provision for pastoral care for dissenting congregations, and we recognize that there may be a need for a bishop to delegate some pastoral oversight. Oversight means the episcopal acts performed as part of a diocesan bishop’s ministry either by the diocesan bishop or by another bishop to whom such responsibility has been delegated by the diocesan bishop. In other Anglican Provinces, the term “pastoral oversight” signifies what we mean by “pastoral care.” In our Episcopal Church polity, “oversight” does not confer “jurisdiction.” We are aware of current examples of the delegation of pastoral oversight in the gracious accommodations which have occurred in some dioceses.

Clericalism is alive and well.

Contrary to the bishops’ claim that other Anglican provinces mean merely “pastoral care” when they speak of “pastoral oversight,” Anglicans in Canada have proposed conferring temporary jurisdiction in an effort to heal divisions. But maybe those Anglicans, including bishops of a more generously liberal mind, are guilty of a literalist, if not fundamentalist, reading of the primates’ statement from last October:

We have a particular concern for those who in all conscience feel bound to dissent from the teaching and practice of their province in such matters. Whilst we reaffirm the teaching of successive Lambeth Conferences that bishops must respect the autonomy and territorial integrity of dioceses and provinces other than their own, we call on the provinces concerned to make adequate provision for episcopal oversight of dissenting minorities within their own area of pastoral care in consultation with the Archbishop of Canterbury on behalf of the Primates.

But back to the United States, where oversight means something else:

Our theology and practice hold that ordination and consecration provide the gifts and grace necessary for the sacramental acts of a bishop to be effectual. (See article XXVI of the Articles of Religion: Of the Unworthiness of the Ministers, which hinders not the effect of the Sacraments.)

It’s good to see the bishops dusting off the Articles of Religion, which the Episcopal Church has relegated to the catacombs known as the Historical Documents section of its Book of Common Prayer. Some honest progressives recently expressed many Episcopalians’ fluid interpretation of those Articles (at least when a liberal bishop’s power is not at stake):

As for the Articles of Religion, these Calvinist documents are aptly placed in the section of the Book of Common Prayer under the heading of “Historical Documents of the Church” — right alongside the Council of Chalcedon, the Creed of Athanasius, and Tables for Finding Holy Days. They are helpful documents, but the spirit of Anglicanism is neither a confessional nor strictly doctrinal faith.

Article XXVI is worth quoting in its entirety, if only for the entertainment of seeing bishops acknowledging that some among their number may be evil. (Perhaps the next General Convention will repudiate such language.)

XXVI. Of the Unworthiness of the Ministers, which hinders not the effect of the Sacraments.

Although in the visible Church the evil be ever mingled with the good, and sometimes the evil have chief authority in the Ministration of the Word and Sacraments, yet forasmuch they do not the same in their own name, but in Christ’s, and do minister by his commission and authority, we may use their Ministry, both in hearing the Word of God, and in receiving the Sacraments. Neither is the effect of Christ’s ordinance taken away by their wickedness, nor the grace of God’s gifts diminished from such as by faith, and rightly, do receive the Sacraments ministered unto them; which be effectual, because of Christ’s institution and promise, although they be ministered by evil men.

Nevertheless, it appertaineth to the discipline of the Church, that inquiry be made of evil Ministers, and that they be accused by those that have knowledge of their offences; and finally, being found guilty, by just judgment be deposed.

Finally, the bishops explain their six-step process for reconciliation:

1) In the spirit of openness, the rector and vestry, or the canonically designated lay leadership shall meet with the bishop to seek reconciliation. After such a meeting, it is our hope that in most instances a mutually agreeable way forward will be found.

2) If reconciliation does not occur, then the rector and two-thirds of the vestry, or in the absence of a rector, two-thirds of the canonically designated lay leadership, after fully engaging the congregation, may seek from their diocesan bishop, (or the diocesan bishop may suggest) a conference regarding the appropriateness and conditions for Delegated Episcopal Pastoral Oversight.

3) After such a conference the bishop may appoint another bishop to provide pastoral oversight.

4) If no reconciliation is achieved, there may then be an appeal to the bishop who is president or vice-president of the ECUSA province in which the congregation is geographically located, for help in seeking a resolution. Those making such an appeal must inform the other party of their decision to appeal.

5) When such an appeal has been made, the provincial bishop may request two other bishops, representative of the divergent views in this church, to join with the provincial bishop to review the situation, to consider the appeal, and to make recommendations to all parties. If an episcopal visitor is to be invited, that bishop shall be a member in good standing in this Church.

6) When an agreement is reached with respect to a plan, it shall be for the purpose of reconciliation. The plan shall include expectations of all parties, especially mutual accountability. The plan shall be for a stated period of time with regular reviews.

If you think bishops of the Episcopal Church are likely to hold one another accountable for anything short of embezzlement or sexual misconduct that could result in a lawsuit, read this essay by theologian Philip Turner.

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