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The Hard Work of Reconciliation
The House of Bishops has finished its work for this session, another chapter in the ongoing story of “waging reconciliation,” the theme for our work together since September 11. This chapter, alas, is a sad one.
This time reconciliation was not about the world, or our nation, but our own church. The Primates of the Anglican Communion at their meeting in October last had asked us to provide “adequate episcopal oversight” for people within the Episcopal Church dissenting from the actions of General Convention. We came together to consider how to offer some help and comfort to those who are in painful disagreement with the decisions of the 74th General Convention about the election of the Bishop of New Hampshire and blessings of same-sex unions, or to those who are in favor but minister in dioceses opposed to those decisions. In fact, we were building on a decision reached at our meeting in March 2002, in which the bishops reversed a long-standing opposition to providing “episcopal visitors” to parishes in conflict with their diocesan bishop. These “visitors” are bishops delegated by the diocesan bishop to perform regular episcopal acts in such parishes with an aim to achieving an eventual reconciliation between bishop and congregation.
Besides developing a plan for this “oversight,” we were to consider how to respond to confirmations performed by five dissenting retired bishops and one active bishop from the Church of Brazil in the Diocese of Ohio on March 14. The diocesan bishop, Clark Grew, found out that 104 of his parishioners had received these ministrations when he watched the evening news that day. And finally we were to consider the case for deposing from the office of bishop the Rt. Rev. Neptali Larrea Moreno of Ecuador Central.
We came up with a generous plan for delegated oversight, “Caring for All the Churches.” As Bishop Grew urged forbearance with the five retired bishops who had acted illegally and secretively within his diocese, we issued a call for those bishops to meet immediately with the Presiding Bishop’s Council of Advice and warned that any further violation of the canons governing diocesan boundaries (in effect since the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D.) would result in disciplinary action against the offending bishop. We agreed that the Presiding Bishop should in fact depose Bishop Larrea Moreno for abandoning the communion of this Church, as he had attempted to remove his diocese from the Episcopal Church. This last action was not directly related to the other two, but it served as an ironic punctuation of our warning to our own bishops. The Most Rev. Orlando Santos de Oliveira, Primate of the Episcopal Anglican Church of Brazil, wrote a letter to the Presiding Bishop in which he apologized deeply for his bishop’s actions in Ohio, declaring that the bishop in question would face disciplinary proceedings in that Church.
The saddest part of these difficult decisions was that a number of bishops boycotted the meeting, or barely attended at all, choosing to stay somewhere away from Camp Allen. Some attended daily Eucharists but ostentatiously refused to receive communion. As these were some of those alienated by General Convention’s actions, the work of reconciliation that should have happened was severely impaired. You cannot reconcile with someone who will not speak to you. Bishop Bob Duncan of the Diocese of Pittsburgh did make a brief appearance in which he declared that the draft plan for delegated episcopal oversight would be acceptable to him if it used the term “oversight” and not “pastoral care,” as the original draft had read. The bishops made this change partly because of his assertion, but at the final vote Bishop Duncan was absent. He was also absent for the discussion of the Ohio confirmations, asking his assistant bishop Henry Scriven to read a note saying it would be too painful for him to attend that session and asking for forgiveness in advance.
Several other bishops who voted against the actions of Convention were present, however, and spoke forcefully and articulately for their position. As with Bishop Duncan, the House listened to them and incorporated some of their concerns in the final version of “Caring for All the Churches.”
Even before the release of the final text, statements appeared on the Internet from various groups condemning our plan as inadequate. This implies of course that their strategy was to reject whatever the House came up with. For what was demanded was something the House of Bishops cannot give: jurisdiction over dissenting parishes. In other words, unhappy rectors and their parishes were to be transferred out of their dioceses and away from their bishop’s authority into other dioceses with other, more acceptable bishops. The reason for this is the supposed “taint” or “impurity” of bishops who voted for approving the election of the Bishop of New Hampshire, and especially those who participated in his consecration. (This ignores of course the ancient teaching, re-stated in the Twenty-sixth Article of Religion, that the validity of a sacrament does not depend on the moral qualities of the one administering it.)
But that would not be reconciliation, it would be schism. Furthermore, no bishop has the power to delegate jurisdiction. In any walk of life, authority can be delegated but not responsibility. This is quite true for diocesan bishops as well. In order to accomplish what some are demanding would require a vote of the General Convention, confirmed by a second succeeding Convention.
To demand the impossible and then denounce the result as inadequate is the antithesis of reconciliation. One can only hope that when these people rush off to various Primates to complain that they have been mistreated, that they will be directed to return home and work things out in a manner befitting disciples of Jesus Christ, not political organizers.
The plan for reconciliation between bishop and parish is simple, really. Either the parish or the diocesan bishop can initiate a conversation, and if the need seems evident, the diocesan can arrange for a mutually acceptable bishop to receive authority to perform episcopal acts (“oversight”) for a limited time and serve as a mediator and reconciler between parish and bishop. The parish must remain in communion with its diocese during this time. A process for appeal to the provincial bishop is available if one party deems it necessary, though the verdict of the appeal is recommendatory, not mandatory. The responsibility of the diocesan—where the buck stops—cannot be delegated or set aside by other bishops.
The question remains, will this be helpful? Will people use it for good? Are Episcopalians, especially bishops sworn to serve “night and day in the ministry of reconciliation” (BCP 521), willing to come together? First of all, the people who want a stronger plan for alternative oversight should begin working on presenting a resolution to the next General Convention. Using our democratic processstaying in the game, as it wereis also a gesture of reconciliation. But there is harder work ahead than that.
For all the talk of who has denied Christ or broken communion or canon law, the most elemental—and most difficult—is the requirement to love one another as he has loved us (John 15:12). So first we must be reconciled with God through Christ (II Cor.5: 20b). And if we remain hard-hearted against one another, then clearly we are not reconciled with God. “For those who say they love God, but continue to hate their brothers and sisters are liars; they who do not love their brothers or sisters whom they can see cannot possibly love the God they have not seen” (I John 4:20). And that must entail being reconciled one to another, which starts with an offer of forgiveness (“Be generous to one another, tender hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgives you.” Eph.4:32). The Scriptures are filled from one end to the other with injunctions to love God and consequently love others. As this writer has repeated over and over, schism is the low road, the easy road that beckons temptingly and faithlessly, but it requires that as we turn our back on each other, we also betray the heart of the Gospel. God will bless none of us if we shirk the hard work of reconciliation.
Bishop Whalon welcomes comments or questions about this article. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.