Fall 2009, Vol. 12, No. 2

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The Episcopalian Split
by Frank Kirkpatrick

Meeting in Anaheim in July for its triennial General Convention, the Episcopal Church (TEC) was faced with actual schism at home and a possible breach with its fellow Anglican churches abroad.

Late June saw the formal establishment of a rival to TEC calling itself the Anglican Church in North America and consisting of a number of dissident Episcopalians, including bishops who had left their dioceses over the previous six years. In covering this story (which Julia Duin of the Washington Times did with particular assiduity), the press had a tendency to say that certain dioceses and parishes had seceded from the church—something they cannot do, according to church polity, because they are creations of the church. (Only persons can leave.)

It is on this basis that TEC claims to retain all the buildings, moveable property, and money belonging to a diocese or parish whose members choose to depart. Legal battles all over the country have ensued because the departing people believe otherwise. 

On the international front, the Convention had to deal with the “Anglican Covenant” proposed by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams to overcome the division in the Anglican Communion—the association of 38 national churches affiliated with the Church of England—brought about by the election of Gene Robinson, an openly gay and partnered priest, as bishop of New Hampshire in 2003.

In its latest iteration (The Cambridge Ridely Draft), the Covenant would create two classes of membership in the Communion. The first would be comprised of those churches willing to subject themselves to all the resolutions passed at the Communion’s decennial Lambeth conferences. Those who diverged from the resolutions on some contentious issues (read: homosexuality) would belong to the second class.

In Anaheim, the delegates voted to commend the draft to the dioceses for study and comment, and to report back to the 2012 General Convention. This signaled the general tone and mood of the convention as a whole: cautious and nuanced but probably (if not definitively) heading toward some kind of rupture with large segments of the Communion.

Of the resolutions voted on at the convention, the three most contentious dealt with the sexual issues that have been roiling the church during the past decade.

Media attention focused most closely on resolution D025, in large part because it was unclear, including to many of the deputies, just what it meant. After going through a series of revisions, the final form of the resolution affirmed that “God has called and may call” to “any ordained ministry” gay and lesbian persons who are living in “lifelong committed relationships” according to the criteria laid down in Resolution D039 in the 2000 Convention. These criteria were “fidelity, monogamy, mutual affection and respect, careful honest communication, and the holy love which enables those in such relationships to see in each other the image of God.”

At the same time, D025 linked itself directly (some might even say obsequiously) to the Communion. Formally entitled “Commitment and Witness to the Anglican Communion,” the resolution affirmed “the continued participation of the Episcopal Church” in it. D025 also (in a not-too-subtle reminder) affirmed TEC’s financial contribution to the Communion, which amounts to over a third of its budget.

The press—and many of the deputies themselves—saw D025 as a repudiation of Resolution B033, in which the 2006 Convention called on dioceses “to exercise restraint by not consenting to the consecration of any candidate to the episcopate whose manner of life [read: overtly homosexual] presents a challenge to the wider church and will lead to further strains on communion.” Although B033 never used the word “moratorium,” it was widely understood as imposing one—a moratorium that D025 was then understood as “lifting.” (To her credit, the New York Times Laurie Goodstein expressed appropriate caution in her July 15 story by saying that the resolution had effectively ended “what many regard as a moratorium”.) 

In fact, D025 said nothing about annulling the exercise of restraint called for by B033. Had the term “moratorium” been understood more accurately as a delay in an otherwise legal and valid procedure, the confusion might not have arisen.

In fact, B033 was not a repudiation of the right of gay persons to ordination but merely an exercise in refraining from doing so for the time being. In passing D025, TEC was, in the opinion of many of its proponents, merely saying that there is no theological impediment to the ordination of gay persons. To be sure, there will be those who wonder why it was thought necessary to reiterate existing theology.

I asked one bishop what the thinking of the House of Bishops was and he said he thought there were as many interpretations of what it meant as there were bishops. Most supporters seemed to agree that it accurately described where the Church is.

In a July 15 letter to the leaders (“primates”) of the other national churches, Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori called the resolution “more descriptive than prescriptive in nature” (subtly suggesting perhaps that the moratorium might not be lifted) and restated the resolution’s “ongoing commitment on all levels to our relationships within the Anglican Communion.”

In a letter to Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, Jefferts Scholar and Bonnie Anderson, president of the House of Deputies, expressed the hope that the  “authenticity [of the convention’s sentiments reflected in the resolution] would contribute to deeper conversation” in these matters. They also stated unequivocally that B033 had not been repealed, but confessed that “it remains to be seen how” B033 “will be understood and interpreted in light of” D025.

And that was the nub of the problem.

Many see D025 as leading inevitably toward greater schism and the actual election and consecration of openly gay bishops and priests. Writing in the Guardian July 18, blogger Jim Naughton of the Diocese of Washington, D.C., rejected what he called “a false choice” offered by Williams either to accept his doctrinal opposition to partnered gay bishops or be relegated, through the Covenant, to second-class status in the Communion. 

“It is not necessary to toe a narrow doctrinal line of the archbishop’s choosing to enjoy deep fellowship in the Anglican Communion,” Naughton wrote.

Holding out hope that the resolution would not create schism in the Communion, Naughton called attention to the presence at Anaheim of 70 primates, priests, and laity from other parts of the world, many of whom had opposed Robinson’s election. Almost all were reported (in a July 13 article Mary Frances Schjonberg of the Episcopal News Service) to have been impressed with the way in which serious differences of opinion could still be fought out in the same family. In words that could not have warmed conservatives’ hearts, many allowed as how their own presence at the convention was, in the words of Archbishop Mauricio Andrade of Brazil, “a refutation of Episcopalians’ worries that their church has been pushed to the margins of the worldwide body.”

Although most of the press focused on D025, the convention passed two other resolutions that underscored the TEC’s acceptance of same-sex couples as eligible for the blessing or marriage rites of the Church. C056, recognizing the existence of civil unions for gay and lesbian persons and the need for a “renewed pastoral response,” called for the consideration and collection of “theological and liturgical resources for the blessing of same gender relationships,” and (in the spirit of caution) for the reporting of their work to the next General Convention in 2012. 

Resolution B012, acknowledging the legality of same-sex marriages in some states, called for “generous discretion” in the way in which the Book of Common Prayer is applied to the blessings of marriages. Although the resolution did not authorize clergy to perform a same-sex marriage, it gave them the latitude to celebrate and bless one. Press coverage did not always grasp the distinction between the two.

What do the three resolutions presage for future actions within TEC? In an interview with the New York Times Goodstein on July 17, Gene Robinson claimed that the church wouldn’t look much different than before. No diocese, he said, was going to elect a bishop just because they are gay.

Speaking with Michael Paulson of the Boston Globe two days earlier, Robinson asked why clergy should do the work of the state in officiating at marriages at all. Marriages should be “solemnized” by civil authorities and blessed by the Church, Robinson said. This could be one of the emerging issues within the church over the next few years.

But a less enamored Rowan Williams may have pointed more presciently toward the future than Robinson.

In a set of reflections posted on his website following the Convention July 27, Williams acknowledged that C056 and D025 did not have the automatic effect of overturning the moratorium and noted TEC’s desire not to cut itself off from the Communion. But he went on say that the characterization of the resolutions as “descriptive” was “unlikely to allay anxieties” in the Communion.

He refused to accept a distinction between blessing same sex unions and performing a same-sex marriage. Apparently ignoring TEC’s 2005 study of homosexuality in the Bible (“To Set Our Hope on Christ”), he asked for more “painstaking biblical exegesis” of the subject. And echoing a common conservative theme, he seemed to dismiss the progressives’ position as mere truckling to contemporary culture. 

In this context, it is not surprising that Williams again called for acceptance of the Covenant idea, with its two-tiered approach to membership in the Communion. He thus again positioned himself between progressive impatience and conservative resistance.

Writing on the Anglican Communion Institute website July 30, N.T. Wright, the conservative bishop of Durham, England, took Williams to task for refusing to recognize that a schism between TEC and the rest of the Communion had to all intents and purposes already occurred. In no uncertain terms, Wright rejected the liberal argument that, since there is no prohibition against baptizing gay persons, all other positions in the church should be open to them.

Meanwhile, a group of dissenting bishops issued an “Anaheim Statement” calling for the maintenance of the moratoria on same-gender blessings and the ordination of gay and lesbian persons, and expressing support for the Covenant Process. In early September, seven of the signatories met with Williams—provoking speculation that some dioceses might endorse the Covenant on their own, and even that the Communion might eventually recognize the new Anglican Church in North America (ACNA).

Shortly after the convention, and lending support to the idea that the moratorium had effectively been terminated, gay candidates for the episcopate were announced in the dioceses of Minnesota and Los Angeles. If either one were elected, there is little question that some in other parts of the Communion—to say nothing of ACNA—would seize the occasion to push even harder for a formal break with TEC.

On August 21, a new complication arose when the Evangelical Churches of America (ECLA)—with which TEC is in full communion—voted the complete acceptance of gay and lesbian clergy. In contrast to the tortuous Episcopalian process, the Lutheran action happened quickly and by a 3-1 margin.

According to the inter-communion agreement between the two bodies, Lutheran and Episcopal priests are free to apply to serve in any churches in either denomination. How the Lutheran action will play in Episcopal churches wary of accepting gay or lesbian clergy remains to be seen.



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