Monday, July 25, 2005

Bishops; A Blessing or a Bane?

Back in the early '90s, I was invited to participate in a gathering of local ELCA pastors, who were meeting to discuss the proposal that the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America enter into full communion. This group had one question for me; "In your opinion, is having bishops a blessing or a bane?"

It was a good question. I'm not sure I did it justice. Because the honest answer is; it depends.

I served on staff with a Presbyterian pastor at one time. We disagreed on an issue. I took it to the diocesan bishop, who made a judgment on the matter and wrote us a letter informing us of his decision. When I received the letter, I informed my associate that the issue no longer existed. This confused her. No committee? No long meetings? This is one of the blessings of having bishops. The buck stops with them. They are given the authority to make a judgment on many matters, which is quite helpful when a timely resolution of the issue is an important factor.

Some people, especially Americans, are not very comfortable with one person holding this much authority. It certainly could allow a tyrant to emerge. My experience, from serving in places where the bishop did use a rather heavy hand, is that creative ways are found to soften the impact of this particular leadership style. In extreme cases, the bishop is removed.

But we need to talk about how we remove a bishop. The idea that you do it through the use of the canons and courts is really not too realistic. Regardless of what one thinks of Bishop Pike, he was a superb lawyer. He anticipated that one day he might be tried for heresy. In the years leading up to this, he subtly sponsored various canonical changes. When the time came for his trial, the Church suddenly realized that it was nearly impossible to remove a bishop on charges of heresy. So, if your bishop has stepped over the line in his/her use of authority, don't waste your time and money on attorneys and courts. The chances are very slim that you will be successful, even in a secular court, as they give much weight to the existing constitution and canons of a religious organization as the standard by which all parties had previously agreed to function.

Does that mean there is nothing one can do if your bishop needs to be removed? No. It is done. But it is not pleasant. The easiest way is to pressure the bishop to take an early retirement, not only for the good of the diocese, but for his/her own personal well being. This usually includes a very generous "severance package" for lack of a better term. This is a distasteful method, as the history will go down as the bishop was "paid off," but it is more graceful than other methods, especially if the difficulties are rooted in the bishop's physical or mental state, which are beyond his/her control.

What has caused me to reflect on this "blessing or bane" question is the heavy stream of verbiage that is being created in regards to the situation in Connecticut. It appears that Bp. Smith has used a heavy hand. In response, I hear many stating that the way forward is to remove the bishop. I don't see how that's going to happen, for the reasons I've already stated.

Some have suggested that the Archbishop of Canterbury's new Panel of Reference be asked to referee this matter. At this point, the diocese of Connecticut has not felt that such an action would be appropriate, as they view this as a local situation.

There's another reason why I would imagine that many members of ECUSA would be uncomfortable with bringing the Panel in on our domestic difficulties; a reason that is not stated often, as it doesn't sound very PC. The reality is that we consider all statements, resolutions, etc. from any source outside of General Convention to be advisory only. They have no final authority. We could debate if that is a good or bad thing in and of itself, but that would be a somewhat tangential discussion. What I'm suggesting, in order to move forward in learning from the events in Connecticut, is that we simply accept as the reality the fact that ECUSA does not feel bound to do any more than respectfully listen to the pronouncements coming from the Anglican Communion. Thus, I doubt that the Panel would be very helpful in this case.

Keeping that idea in mind, let's consider what I believe to be the primary issue in Connecticut; "Delegated Episcopal Pastoral Oversight" (DEPO) vs. "Adequate Episcopal Oversight" (AEO), which are actually two very different things.

The diocese of Connecticut uses the model presented by ECUSA's House of Bishops. Note that reconciliation is the goal. Divorce is not even considered an option. Using this model as a template, the diocese of Connecticut developed their own method for implementing DEPO.

Bishop Smith offered this option to the six dissenting parishes in Connecticut. They rejected it.

The letter they wrote regarding their rejection of DEPO spells out the only conditions under which they would enter into such an agreement;

1. The bishop must repent from his action of participating in the consecration of Gene Robinson.

2. All meetings must be with all six parishes.

3. Suspension of canons requiring an assessment of funds in support of the diocese.

4. A one year review by the ABC on behalf of the Primates.

5. The selction of future clergy will be decided by the parish and the bishop they choose, with the diocese playing no role.

6. The diocese will also have no role regarding candidates for holy orders.

This is not DEPO, as envisioned by the House of Bishops. This is "Adequate Episcopal Oversight," which grants the same authority to the alternative bishop as that held by the diocesan bishop. This would, for all intents and purposes, create the rather unique situation of having more than one diocesan bishop in a particular geographical area.

Regardless of what you think of Bp. Smith, it would seem obvious to most folks that such demands really put him between a rock and a hard place. His response could have anticipated;

We can disagree about many things, but we cannot disagree about the role of the bishop in his diocese. I cannot break my own vows as bishop, suspend the constitution and canons, and relinquish my authority because we don't agree on a given issue.
The standing committee of the diocese of Connecticut recommended the inhibition of all six priests under Title IV, Canon 10. There's some confusion about this canon, so I'll offer the relevant section for future reference;

...if it shall determine by a vote of three-fourths of All
the Members that the Priest or Deacon has abandoned the Communion of this Church by an open renunciation of the Doctrine, Discipline, or Worship of this Church, or by a formal admission into any religious body not in communion with this Church, or in any other way, it shall be the duty of the Standing Committee of the Diocese to transmit in writing to the Bishop of such Diocese... If the Bishop affirms the determination, the Bishop shall then inhibit the Priest or Deacon from officiating in the Diocese for six months...
The letter from the six priests, by itself, would seem to me to be rather strong evidence that they had indeed engaged in a renunciation of the discipline of the Episcopal Church. I grant that the point is arguable. But it is an argument worth engaging, it seems to me, as I think this is the crux of the matter in Connecticut. I further believe that careful consideration of these events might be helpful to us all in regards to developing a better mutual understanding of the role of bishops in our common life.

We have either heard or experienced horror stories of bishops behaving badly. Hopefully, we have also experienced bishops as profound expressions of grace. It seems to me that we cannot simply dismiss the office, because we don't like, or disagree with the person holding it at the moment, can we?

In regards to honoring the office of bishop; regardless of our opinion of the person holding the office, we have to keep in mind that Donatism, the idea that the effectiveness of the sacrament is dependent on the moral character of the priest or bishop, was rejected by the Church in the fourth century. It is also worth noting that Donatism is also rejected in the 39 Articles, which, although they are placed as "historical documents" only within the American BCP, are included in the list of criteria by which the six Connecticut priests will judge the worthiness of a bishop; a rather ironic twist, it seems to me.

Let's also recall the words of St. Ignatius of Antioch;

Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.
What are your thoughts? Is the bishop a blessing or a bane?


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