Conservative Episcopal Bishops Respond to Inadequate Oversight Proposal

The Episcopal Church’s House of Bishops announced a revised plan to provide “pastoral oversight” for conservative parishes that reject the leadership of bishops who support gay clergy, Tuesday, March 23. The revised statement – essentially the same as the one proposed in October and soon rejected – called on conservative parishes to meet with their local bishops and get permission to be overseen by visiting bishops.

While some of the bishops present – including openly gay Gene Robinson whose consecration accelerated the demise of unity within the church – said the plan would heal the “rift,” others disagreed. The plan, in essence, changed nothing, and allowed no room for conservatives to freely seek guidance, since they must always seek “oversight” from those bishops permitted by their own local bishop.

To reveal their discontent, several conservative bishops left even before the conference in Navasota, Texas ended. Additionally, the American Anglican Council – a leading network of conservative parishes and bishops – released a statement on Wednesday, specifying why the “renewed, adequate plan” is in fact inadequate.

“The House of Bishops has proven once again their dysfunction and inability to acknowledge, much less address, the crisis of the Episcopal Church,” the short statement began. “From a format of “process”, small group discussion and multiple revisions, they have produced a plan for Episcopal oversight that is undeniably and woefully inadequate.”

““Adequate” oversight must be determined by those who are seeking it. The House of Bishops considered the effect of their plan upon the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Presiding Bishop, individual bishops and their House as a whole; but the voices of the people in desperate need of AEO were not heard,” said the Council. “The plan is designed to be viable only where it is unnecessary, that is, in the few dioceses where bishops agree to AEO. It gives no relief to orthodox beleaguered Episcopalians. It gives no recourse to those whose very constitutional rights of freedom to associate are threatened. It gives no hope for those who feel abandoned by their church.”

The group also called on the nationwide church to repentance before reconciliation, and pledged continued solidarity with those churches who stand by the orthodox teachings of the bible.

“This meeting was couched in terms of “reconciliation,” but it is impossible to achieve reconciliation without repentance. It is impossible to affect reconciliation when this Church has fragmented itself and will not address the ensuing emergency. The call of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Primates has been flagrantly ignored; the deep division in ECUSA has been ignored; the outcry from the Anglican Communion has been ignored; the condemnation of the larger Christian Church has been ignored,” the statement said.

“We will not be party to perpetuating the fantasy that “all is well” or even “shall be well.” We cannot ignore the anguish of orthodox Episcopalians. We cannot embrace unity at the cost of faithfulness. We cannot ignore the exhortation of the Primates of the worldwide Anglican Communion “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,”” it continued. “We will proceed as we must, seeking to be faithful to our Lord Jesus Christ, Holy Scripture and the apostolic faith and practice which lies at the heart of Anglicanism. We stand in solidarity with those in beleaguered dioceses, and we pledge our support of senior bishops who courageously and compassionately seek to minister to those in need of adequate episcopal oversight.”

The following is the detailed analysis of the “Inadequate Episcopal Oversight” as released by the American Anglican Council of Wednesday, March 24.

The House of Bishops Offers Non-binding Mediation in place of Adequate Episcopal Oversight

In October 2003, the Primates of the Anglican Communion called for adequate Episcopal oversight to be offered to those North American Anglicans who conscientiously dissent from the decisions of their national and diocesan synods and leaders. In response, the House of Bishops has released a document entitled “Caring for all the Churches.” This document responds to neither the Primates’ call for adequate Episcopal oversight nor the concerns of orthodox Episcopalians. Rather, it offers nothing more than the hope that non-binding mediation might be available to beleaguered congregations. This remedy is already available in those dioceses where the bishops are open to compromise. For those congregations in hostile dioceses, this document offers nothing. “Caring for all the Churches” brings no moral force to bear on those bishops who are oppressing orthodox congregations, much less subject them to real accountability.

It’s all Whereas and no Resolve. Everything in the document is, effectively, a ‘whereas’ clause. There is no ‘resolve’; there is no operative language. Indeed, the central provision offering non-binding mediation by a panel of bishops is qualified and merely an aspiration. The document states that “[i]f for serious cause in the light of our current disagreements on issues of human sexuality, the bishop and rector/congregation cannot work together, we propose the following process for Delegated Episcopal Pastoral Oversight.” ‘Serious cause’ is not defined, nor is it clear who determines or what constitutes serious cause. Moreover, a process is merely proposed. There is no moral authority, much less real accountability, brought to bear on a recalcitrant diocesan bishop who refuses to enter into that process or honor its result. In short, the Report is essentially a statement of aspirations, rather than a serious response to the Primates’ call for adequate Episcopal oversight.

Moreover, the Report, such as it is, has three key flaws. The first flaw is definitional, the second can be best described as chronological, and the third is functional.

The definitional flaw can be summarized in this manner: As usual, we are not talking about the same thing. The document purports to respond to the call for “adequate Episcopal oversight” issued by the gathered Primates in October 2003. It does nothing of the kind. It is worth restating the entire relevant sentence from the Primates’ statement of October 2003: “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.” The authors of the “Caring for all the Churches” suggest that the Primates were calling for the provision of pastoral care in a way that did not address questions of jurisdiction. This is an incorrect reading of the statement. Indeed, in order to read the Primates’ statement in this way, the document is obligated to create an idiosyncratic definition of “Episcopal Oversight” which excludes the concept of episcope. The proper view of the Primates’ statement, which takes seriously both clauses of the relevant sentence, is this: acknowledging the jurisdictional rights of bishops, the Primates call for genuine structural and jurisdictional relief to be offered to dissenting minorities by the bishops in a spirit of generosity. This much, at least, the Canadian House of Bishops Report seems to have understood correctly.

“Caring for all Churches” studiously ensures that the terminology “adequate Episcopal oversight” do not appear together, except when the Primates statement is quoted, and instead, substitutes the term “Delegated Episcopal Pastoral Oversight”. Whether by accident or design, the Report is not the continuation of a conversation about adequate Episcopal oversight; it is another conversation entirely.

The chronological flaw also can be easily summarized: The Report is so Spring 2003. The Report and its authors are living in the past. The document that informs the report on the most fundamental level is not the Primates’ statement of October 2003, but the covenant of the House of Bishops from March 2002. It is instructive to remember the context from which that covenant was issued. A national conversation was ongoing in the Episcopal Church. As part of that conversation, the House of Bishops Theology committee issued a report in the Spring of 2003 noting the divisions in the church and recommending that the conversation continue and consensus be sought before decisive action was taken. Instead of continuing that conversation in good faith, the conversation was ended by the actions of the last General Convention. Instead of continuing the conversation until real consensus was achieved, an up or down vote was forced. In Minneapolis the good faith within the Episcopal Church, upon which that covenant was based, was shattered. To pretend otherwise is to live in the past.

Likewise, the functional flaw: Tthis proposal will only work where it is not necessary. It envisions a non-binding mediation process in which a panel of bishops, as mediators, makes recommendations to the diocesan bishop and parish. Of course, it goes without saying that this or similar forms of mediation are already available for bishops and parishes who find themselves at odds. Indeed, in those dioceses where the bishop is open to such conversations, compromises that respect the interests of the bishop and the conscience of the parish are already being reached.

However, those bishops who are unwilling to compromise with (or who actively oppress) dissenting minorities in their dioceses are subject to no additional accountability pursuant to the terms of the report. The Report is so intent on affirming the rights of bishops that it entirely ignores the generosity of spirit to which they were called by the Primates. Accordingly, the Report provides no real relief to any dissenting minorities over and above that which they do (or do not) possess already.

Protecting Rights or Showing Love? All of these concerns are insignificant compared to the most fundamental flaw of the Report: The ‘substantive’ language of the Report centers on the rights of bishops, not about mutual, self-sacrificing love. The Report makes references to love in an inchoate way; but in what passes for its concrete proposals, its authors are unable or unwilling to articulate what such love might look like. There is not so much as an exhortation to bishops to consider radical acts of love toward dissenting minorities in their dioceses.

‘Delegated Episcopal Pastoral Oversight’ vs. ‘adequate Episcopal oversight’. Consider the decision to substitute ‘delegated’ for ‘adequate’ in the term ‘Delegated Episcopal Pastoral Oversight’. Substituting ‘delegated’ for ‘adequate’ shifts the emphasis from the needs of the dissenting minority to the rights of the diocesan bishop. This substitution illustrates the destructive nature of the Report and this entire conversation. The Primates acknowledged the jurisdictional rights of provincial and diocesan bishops in their statement, but asked them to lay down those rights for a season in order to protect the consciences of others and the unity of the Church. Yet we continue to focus on the rights of bishops as hierarchs, rather than Christian charity and the unity of the Church. The Report betrays a hierarchal mindset bent on protecting the interests of powerful individuals and institutions at the expense of the powerless. Consider Paul’s willingness to set aside his rights as an Apostle for the Gospel. (I Corinthians 9:15) A similar humility is utterly absent from the substantive terms of the Report.

What would this process look like in practice? According to the terms of the document, dissenting parishes must consult with their diocesan bishop prior to requesting non-binding mediation, and must inform their diocesan bishop upon making such a request. There are several procedural and practical deficiencies in this process.

First, while a consultation certainly should be the norm, requiring a consultation with, and notification to, an openly hostile bishop may well open a parish to retaliation. Such consultation or notification would not necessarily be required in situations involving either whistler-blowers or abused persons, both of which may, in some cases, be apt analogies.

Moreover, the Report is unclear as to who is in a position to declare an impasse (i.e., that the parish has met its obligation to “meet together [with the diocesan bishop], with a consultant, if needed”) such that the parish could properly request non-binding mediation. Does impasse become another dispute to be resolved, and who will be the finder of fact who either finds that impasse has been reached or sends the parties back to the bargaining table?

Finally, assuming that a parish is able to successfully negotiate this onerous process to the end, what relief can it expect? The only remedy available is the issuance of non-binding recommendations to the bishop and parish. There is no provision that requires, or even encourages, the diocesan bishop to honor these recommendations.

Conclusion. The Primates called for the hierarchs of ECUSA to offer, willingly, generously and out of love, adequate Episcopal oversight to dissenting minorities, with all that the term entails. Rather than responding to that call in an exuberant spirit of generosity, “Caring for all the Churches” represents a grudging spirit that grasps at its rights rather than offers its love.