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Flying Bishops Revisited
29 October 2000
In a recent column, I wrote, “One can speculate further and wonder whether the ultimate goal [of the Anglican Mission in America] is to accept Episcopal parishes and even dioceses into the Mission, as well as starting new parishes, until it reaches a credible size. Then the Archbishop of Canterbury and the rest of the Communion would be asked to choose the Mission as the authentic American Anglican province, over against the Episcopal Church.”
Very reliable sources immediately confirmed by private correspondence that this was not speculation, alas, but reality. Recent reports from the Dioceses of South Carolina and the Central Gulf Coast indicate that this development has been planned for some time, judging from the alleged judicial subterfuges in which parishes there have been indulging so as to secure their old buildings. Episcopalians await more landings of foreign bishops coming to confirm and even ordain. Other primates threaten to sign on with Rwanda and Singapore, even consecrate more “missionary bishops,” Singapore–style. The game’s afoot.
What should the Episcopal Church do?
One option is to ignore the Anglican Mission in America as much as possible. After all, it still sounds faintly ludicrous: Rwanda and Singapore (of all people) come to the aid of beleaguered orthodox Episcopalians by establishing a new province in the United States. Obviously, the lawsuits will continue to spring up, as they have in Morehead City, North Carolina, and Mobile, Alabama. One can hardly expect a diocese meekly to relinquish its properties to an organization dedicated to destroying the legitimacy of that diocese. But overall, a case can be made that we should devoutly ignore them. Giving too much attention to this group only encourages them, taking them more seriously than they deserve.
Oddly enough, the defections have occurred so far in dioceses that are conservative. For some in the church, the spectacle of the conservatives forming circular firing squads might be an encouraging sign, even a vindication. For others, it may seem to be a sad harbinger of more disintegration to come.
The problem with the strategy of ignoring the AMiA is that it is risky. Even though we are the principal funders of Lambeth, despite the millions we have lavished overseas, there is a new mood abroad. Just as American influence overall is waning, so is the influence of the Episcopal Church over the bulk of the Anglican Communion. The behavior of certain American bishops at Lambeth 1998 was widely noted as “the Ugly American” all over again, much more widely perhaps than people in the States are aware of. “Rescuing” the “true Anglican” Americans seems to appeal greatly to a lot of Anglicans in the Two-Thirds World. Just ignoring the AMiA might well result in the majority of the Communion’s provinces voting us out. It would be a strange turn of events—the Episcopal Church no longer a part of the Anglican Communion.
Another option is to embrace parallel jurisdictions, as long as we remain in communion with Canterbury. This would certainly be easier for all to swallow in the short term. It would be in line with the hallowed American consumer’s tradition of wanting a selection from which to choose. Some provision for selling buildings that are in contention, rather than wasting millions in court, could be worked out. So the AMiA and the Episcopal Church would be in communion with Canterbury but not each other. Presumably we would be in limited communion with the rest of the Communion as well, our clergy being welcomed only in a minority of provinces.
Wwhile this might seem like an acceptable solution, it has a number of difficulties beside those noted. The biggest problem is, why should this provision not be available anywhere else? Why not have an Anglican Mission in Canada? In New Zealand? Or conversely, why not an Episcopal Mission to Nigeria, to provide an alternate vision of Anglicanism to an “oppressed minority” there? If the crossing of jurisdictions is allowed to flourish unchecked, there will be pandemonium. Any semblance of Anglican unity would dissolve. The raison d’être of the Communion itself would be called into question. Parallel jurisdictions are normally impossible in our polity, though they can exist for good reason, as in Navajoland. But parallel adversarial jurisdictions cannot. That is the essence of denominationalism, in other words, schism.
A third option would be to revive the idea of Episcopal Visitors, or “flying bishops,” as practiced in the Church of England since 1993. This is a provision that allows parishes whose diocesan bishop supports women’s ordination to request the ministry of a bishop opposed to women’s ordination. To date, the leadership of the Episcopal Church has been loath to formalize such a system. It has been associated exclusively with the idea of resistance to the ordination of women. As a result, the last General Convention took a strong stand that the canons be enforced in the three remaining dioceses that do not allow the ministry of women. It must be said that the opponents of women’s ordination bear a good deal of the blame for the current state of affairs, after their fatuous attempt at the 1994 General Convention to have the convention vote down the enforcement of women’s ordination.
Moreover, the Church of England is quite different from us in some respects, including the relative authority of their bishops vis–à–vis ours. It is a more stable church than ours, and can presumably tolerate bishops flying about more readily than we. Nevertheless, the concept is worth considering for a number of reasons.
In this context, this is a strategy not to deal with the opposition to women’s ordination per se, but to address the issues that the AMiA is capitalizing on. (Many members of the AMiA support the ordination of women—at least the American ones do.) If we adapted the system of the Church of England, it might look like this. A parish would vote to request from the diocesan bishop that he or she petition the Presiding Bishop to provide an Episcopal Visitor for them. The Presiding Bishop would choose from a pool a bishop who would be acceptable both to the diocesan and the parish, to serve for a period of five years. At that time, the parish would have to go through the process again. This bishop would function as their overseer, mediating with the diocese, and providing the parish with leadership. Note that this provision could apply not only to traditionalist parishes, but also to progressive ones in conservative dioceses.
First, the Visitors provision would be presented to the Primates in March as proof that the Episcopal Church can make arrangements to help those who feel estranged by the overall direction of the church. It would be implemented with an explicit agreement that bishops of other provinces no longer attempt to exercise any jurisdiction in the United States. These attempts are in any event completely antithetical to the Anglican tradition as a whole, as much church history (beginning with the Council of Nicea in 325 AD) and many resolutions from the first Lambeth Conference to the latest can attest.
Second, the question of the canonical enforcement of women’s ordination would be addressed by pointing out that the House of Bishops, at the end of the General Convention, passed a “mind of the house” resolve asking the Presiding Bishop and Executive Council to oversee its implementation. Presumably Bishop Griswold and the Council have no intention of making martyrs of the last three American dioceses that do not allow women priests. Therefore he could argue that the 1998 Lambeth resolution calling for tolerance of opponents of women’s ordination will be respected as much as possible, given the situation that the opponents have helped provoke. Continuing to offer Episcopal Visitors to parishes opposed to women’s ordination would help confirm this attitude. This should speak to the fears of many conservatives in the Episcopal Church that one day canons would be enforced against them, outlawing opposition to same–sex blessings and ordinations of people in same–sex relationships. This fear is quite possibly what has made the AMiA look so attractive to otherwise sensible people.
Third, we would offer to terminate all action in the secular and ecclesiastical courts against the clergy and parishes who have already affiliated with AMiA, provided they return to their dioceses and ask the diocese for an Episcopal Visitor. Otherwise they would be considered like any others who have left the Anglican Communion—we wish you well, please leave the keys on the altar. In the pool of available flying bishops could even be John Rodgers and Chuck Murphy, as a gesture of generosity and good will.
This arrangement could be implemented quite rapidly, as least informally, if the House of Bishops put their minds to it. While it is by nature an interim arrangement, it allows for a truce in the escalating conflict among the provinces of the Communion, addresses the ruinous notion that bishops can willy–nilly cross jurisdictional lines, and restores a semblance of peace within the Episcopal Church. It might even bring a closer sense of unity, as parishes, bishops, and the Presiding Bishop work together to mediate conflict. And it has the advantage of getting the Archbishop of Canterbury off the horns of a dilemma, which is crucial to getting the other provinces to back off. Meanwhile, the dialogue about reinforcing the structures of the Anglican Communion could continue without the sense of urgency (and temptation to unwise measures) that the present situation is exacerbating.
As for conservatives and their circular firing squads, that is another issue altogether.
Postscript: After this column was drafted, reports appeared on the Internet saying that Archbishop Carey has proposed “flying bishops” to Bishop Griswold as a way out of the present imbroglio. I have not been able to confirm these reports as of press time.
Fr Whalon welcomes comments or questions about this essay. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.