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an essay for Anglicans Online
The Ghost of Bishop Pike, Revisited
Last week, the House of Bishops passed overwhelmingly a remarkable "Covenant". It called for a suspension of consecrations to the episcopate, of bishops' participation in same-sex blessings and authorization of rites, and an end of unauthorized interventions into dioceses by bishops. It was the fruit not of some pre-arranged process, but rather the product of an ad hoc group of bishops from across the spectrum of opinion. In the course of the meeting, a conflict erupted between two bishops, which was not swept under a blanket of civility.
It seemed to me that Bishop Pike's ghost was a bit appeased.
A year ago, after the last House of Bishops meeting at Camp Allen, this writer composed a column about the ghost of Bishop James Pike haunting the House of Bishops. It is shorthand for the way in which we bishops in the House deal with each other—or rather, don't. Pike was a brilliant, mediagenic bishop who provocatively raised many difficult doctrinal questions, and then began a slow descent into mental illness. Rather than put him on trial for heresy or attempt to deal with him in a more loving way, he was censured, shoved out of the House, and eventually he went off into the desert of Judea to die.
What his ghost accuses the House of Bishops of is not necessarily the way he died, but rather the way the House decided not to deal with him head-on. Not to be caring about him, when he so obviously needed help. And as he steadfastly refused such help, the House decided not to discipline him, apparently because he threatened to unmask Jesus as a revolutionary zealot on the pages of the New York Times if the bishops tried.
In any event, since the Pike affair, the House of Bishops has engaged in a great deal of avoidance behavior. The issues that Pike sought to raise have not gone away, indeed they have come upon all of us: the role of women and gays in the church, sexual morality, the adequacy of doctrinal formulations like the Creeds, and so on. In response, the Episcopal Church as a whole has invested heavily in its legislative processes as a means of dealing with these and other issues.
There is nothing wrong with our constitution and canons—this bishop will fight for them to the end. However, using the legislative process exclusively to try to meet challenges that require collective learning and changes of attitude is a recipe for creating deep divisions and not undertaking the hard work of adapting as a group to new realities.
Furthermore, we are talking about the General Convention. Our system of government looks like the American secular politics we are so familiar with, but in fact, it differs significantly. The Constitution of the United States calls for a strong central government, while the Episcopal Church Constitution explicitly prevents one. We are a confederation of dioceses, essentially the same structure since Bishop William White designed our polity in the 18th century.
As a result, legislation is rarely binding upon all the dioceses. General Convention's resolutions are non-binding, unless they change the constitution or canons, including revising the Prayer Book. Using the General Convention to effect change in the church is an ungainly process at best, not only because the balance of the Houses of Deputies and Bishops is not offset by a strong president and independent judiciary, but also because of the problems inherent to a body of nearly one thousand voting members.
And when it comes about, change by legislation creates a division between winners and losers. As a result, following a trend in secular politics, lots of interest groups have formed to influence the Convention in one direction or another. As the decisions of Convention have evolved, so have these groups, clustering together along the political spectrum.
These clusters of groups at either end of the spectrum curiously resemble each other. Their rhetorical style is similar, inventing lexicons of invective like "heterosexist" and "homoerotic." They organize fundraisers to pay for campaigns to lobby Convention. Each, sadly, has invited the other to leave the church. Now since Lambeth 1998, both are involved in a struggle to persuade the larger Communion that theirs has the right to be considered the "real" American Anglican province. Our side must win and the other side must lose, even if we must involve the whole world. In style, at least, they are so similar ...
All voting bodies, including the ecumenical councils, create winners and losers. And there is a time for such decisions. But what has been missing for a long time in the Episcopal Church—and I for convenience date it to the bishops' censure of James Pike at a meeting in Wheeling in 1966—is a process for deciding when such votes are necessary, and for putting the church back together following them. And where this lack is most clearly felt is in the House of Bishops. Unlike the Deputies to Convention, who have to be re-elected in order to return to their House, the bishops are in their House for life and meet much more often. So the consequences are felt much more directly.
By trying to avoid the inevitable conflicts that rapid change has forced upon us, we bishops have by and large helped it increase to unmanageable proportions. When Bishops John Spong and John McNaughton nearly came to blows during the 1991 Convention in Phoenix, bringing it virtually to a halt, an annual spring retreat for the bishops was inaugurated for conflict management. And yet, despite earnest attempts at a process to effect reconciliation, the maneuvering of the two groups has continued to make conflict avoidance the easiest way out.
But unmanaged conflict has to come out somewhere, and so it has appeared in the larger church. While a diocese-by-diocese gradualist approach to the acceptance of women's orders, same-sex unions and ordination of partnered gays has prevailed, there have been abortive attempts to stem the tide from the other end. A proposed resolution to Convention 1994 that would outlaw the opposition (designed to voted down and so legitimize dissent) was turned into a committee to investigate how the remaining dioceses who do not ordain women were to comply. Someone made the attempt to trademark the name "PECUSA, Inc.", and so control the name of the church. An assistant bishop who had ordained a gay man to the diaconate was brought up on charges (instead of the diocesan responsible) which the court threw out because there is not and never has been an explicit canon or rubric forbidding such ordinations. These of course only fueled the conflict further.
Then at Lambeth 1998 the conflict spilled over into the Anglican Communion. Serious lobbying for the moral authority of the Conference and eventually the Communion to outflank or confirm the American political process began in earnest. Finally General Convention 2003 made a decision (to consecrate the Bishop of New Hampshire) and passed a resolution (not to authorize the creation of rites of same-sex blessings). There ensued the Windsor Report, the Primates Communiqué ... and now the Covenant.
Time will tell whether the Covenant marks a beginning of a new style of our leadership as a House, or simply staves off the inevitable schism for a little while. But as the fruit of a spontaneous collaboration of bishops from across the spectrum, it has a freshness to it that I deeply hope is a harbinger of an alternative to the spiral which has a death-grip on us all.
The day after the confrontation between the two bishops, someone reported the encounter anonymously to the media, apparently to fuel some more flames of discord and enmity (nothing new about that behavior, unfortunately). If it had not been made public, I would not permit myself to allude to it at all. But what happened after was also something fresh. We collectively decided that we must talk openly about the conflicts among us, and then did so. The two bishops stayed and talked. Nobody was making debating points. Something new might have started.
The term "irreconcilable differences" is still floating among us, even though, as the Presiding Bishop pointed out, there is a real faithlessness about it. Nevertheless, the accumulation of decades of unmanaged conflict and point-counterpoint has brought us to the point of total rupture. Poised as we were to bring about a formal schism in the Episcopal Church and as a result, in the Anglican Communion as a whole, the House of Bishops decided to hesitate. Together. And on this small, fragile beginning, we began to talk honestly to one another.
It would take years of hard work and lots of good will to develop better conflict management in the House of Bishops and thus finally allow the shade of Bishop Pike to go home. Maybe we have made a little start. Schism must be avoided. It is nothing less than chopping up the Body of Christ, giving the lie to the Gospel we preach, disobeying Jesus' commandment that we love each other as he has loved us, and diminishing the Church far more severely than other ways to deal with conflict and even heresy.
If a schism happens, there will lots more ghosts at future meetings of the House of Bishops. Let us pray that the Spirit will convince us to take another path.
Bishop Whalon welcomes comments or questions about this article. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.