Wednesday, July 20, 2005

The Making of a Connecticut Martyr

I've been hesitant to say anything about the inhibition of Mark Hansen, rector of St. John's Church, Bristol, Connecticut, as it seemed obvious that there was more to the story than we were hearing from the initial reactions. But, since there's been nothing new reported in the last few days, it looks like we may never know what really happened.

For those who are not Episcopalian, let me see if I can briefly summarize the story that led to the rather bizarre events of last Wednesday;

Six priests in the diocese of Connecticut no longer recognize Andrew Smith as their diocesan bishop. Why? Because he participated in the consecration of Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop of the Church. They have demanded that their bishop repent, that they no longer be required to give any funds towards the work of the diocese and the right to choose their own bishop. Here's how the Episcopal News Service described the situation, and the actions by the diocese in response;

...The "Connecticut Six," as they have become known in the media, want to be released from their ordination vows of obedience to Diocesan Bishop Andrew D. Smith, with whom they disagree about Smith's support of the consecration of Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire in 2003. The six, all rectors of congregations, are also demanding suspension of selected canons governing financial obligations, ordination procedures, and clergy succession.

Attempts over the past year to reconcile differences or reach an acceptable way forward -- including Smith's proposed implementation of the Delegated Episcopal Pastoral Oversight (DEPO) plan approved by the House of Bishops last year -- have been unsuccessful.

The Standing Committee of the Diocese in March determined that the six rectors had "abandoned the communion of the [Episcopal] church" and recommended that the priests be inhibited from practicing their ministries in the diocese for six months.

The six priests claim that they are being gagged and their careers threatened because they don't support Smith's views. The bishop says that's not true.

"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."
Let's stop for a minute and think about the story so far. We are the Episcopal Church. We understand the role of bishops to be quite important. It is one of the things that sets us apart from other Protestant groups. The recognition of bishops in apostolic succession is one of the four elements of the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral that defines the parameters for all of our ecumenical discussions. Yet these six priests see themselves as not under the authority of their diocesan bishop, because they disagree with something he did.

I simply do not understand this kind of thinking. The priest functions as a representative of the bishop. The idea of the priest as a free agent is a very Protestant notion, but one that, unfortunately, shows up in almost every gathering of priests. We Yankees have never been fully comfortable with the notion of bishops. They smell too much like aristocracy.

I've served in both progressive and conservative dioceses, and at every clergy gathering, there's always a group of priests that sit and grumble about the bishop. Often, they are the cardinal rectors, who know they could do a better job. They're easy to spot. They're the ones with the permanent frown painted on their faces.

But, I digress. So, these six priests want to be released from their ordinations vows...from the Book of Common Prayer, page 532;

Bishop; Will you respect and be guided by the pastoral direction and leadership of your bishop?

Answer; I will.
...and further, they want to then be given the freedom to choose their own bishop. So much for being a person under authority. Don't like your bishop? Just order up a new one. And, you don't have to contribute towards the work of the diocese, but can still expect to have voice and vote in diocesan affairs, and be recognized as a member in good standing. We live in bizarre times.

The story continues. Note that the standing committee recommended inhibition (suspension from functioning sacerdotally for six months) back in March. But the bishop hesitated.

Personally, I think the hesitation was a mistake. We need to keep in mind the lesson Bishop Bruno learned the hard way in Los Angeles. We have foreign bishops prowling the perimeter of the Episcopal Church, seeking troubled congregations they can gobble up. Six parishes in one geographical area would have been some nice ripe plums for such unsavory predators to stumble upon. If the organization of some of the breakaway groups is any example, that would be enough to declare a new diocese, and appoint a bishop. Now, that would really be a mess, wouldn't it?

In March, Mark Hansen, rector of St. John's, Bristol and one of the "Connecticut Six," sent this message to the members of his parish;

It is with deep regret that I now share in writing what I announced in Church two weeks ago: That April 10 must be my last Sunday as your priest, at least in terms of directly providing for your pastoral care and leadership in worship. After that, I will be officially on sabbatical...
If you read the rest, you will see that this is clearly a farewell letter.

From what I understand, Fr. Hansen's reasons for leaving involved his son's medical needs, which required him to seek other employment that would fulfill those needs. That is an honorable and understandable reason for resigning. But, he made two dreadful mistakes; he allowed himself to be talked into the subterfuge of a "sabbatical," and failed to inform his bishop of his plans.

The parish was afraid that if he left the bishop would appoint a "liberal" as interim in his place. So, they wanted him to remain officially their rector, until they could find a suitable replacement. Thus, the subterfuge.

I almost got involved in a situation like this once. I was serving as interim for a parish in the South. They were very conservative, and rather evangelical. Being a son of the House, and a former evangelical, I simply did what many interims do, and played chameleon. These were good folks at heart, whose previous clergy had led them in a certain direction. So, I avoided the hot button issues, did the interim work that I was charged to do, and preached up a storm. They loved it, so much that at one point, when I was considering leaving the assignment early, one of the lay leaders came to see me, and begged me not to go, as "we don't want the devil getting in here." I tried not to laugh out loud, although I was tempted to do my best Mick Jagger imitation and break out with, "Pleased to meet you, won't you guess my name?" The point of this tangential bit is that this is a strategy used by conservative congregations in which the trust relationship with the diocese has broken down; they do whatever they can to hold on to their "orthodox" clergy. They believe the horror stories about "those liberals," and imagine them all to be devils in vestments. Thus, St. John's "arrangement" for Fr. Hansen to "officially" be on sabbatical, when in fact, he had left the parish. As I said; bizarre times.

A third party faxed the bishop the above message. This is how he found out what was going on at St. John's. Can you imagine leaving a parish and not contacting your bishop? After all, in the end, it is the bishop's congregation, and Fr. Hansen is his representative. To this day, Bishop Smith tells us he does not know Fr. Hansen's new address.

I walked away from a parish once, for personal reasons. My first phone call was to the bishop. My second one was to the Senior Warden. I can assure you, if I had not made those phone calls, I would not be a priest today. Abandonment of a cure is taken very, very seriously, as it should be.

But let's get back to St. John's. There's one more piece to the puzzle, beyond the fictitious "sabbatical." St. John's borrowed $100,000 from the diocese to build their church. They still owe $77,000. Their last payment on this loan was in December of 2003. Yet, when the bishop contacted them asking where their rector was, he received a one paragraph response, stating that Fr. Hansen was on sabbatical.

Put yourself in this bishop's shoes. A priest who does not accept your authority is missing, a congregation has stopped contributing towards the work of the diocese and paying on a loan given to them in good faith, and foreign bishops are prowling about licking their chops. What would you have done?

Well, here is what Bishop Smith did;

A letter formally inhibiting the Rev. Mark H. Hansen, St. John's rector, was delivered by Bishop Smith to St. John's Episcopal Church in Bristol. The Bishop was accompanied by the diocesan Canon for Stewardship and Administration, John ("Jack") W. Spaeth III, the Rev. Susan J. McCone, and Mr. Ed Seibert, who will provide administrative assistance. Fr. Hansen was not at the church or rectory; the bishop has not been notified of an alternate address.
An eyewitness account spells out how ugly and terribly sad the scene was;

...The bishop had planned his timing well. There was only an AA meeting and the church secretary in the building when Drew Smith showed up with Chancellor, computer hackers, and a "priest-in-charge." The entourage made demands of the church secretary, admonishing her with canon law. She responded that she was just a secretary, not an Episcopalian, and didn't know anything about canon law. Several times during the day she was in tears. The hackers set to work on the computer, took down the churchÂ’s website, and brought in a locksmith to change the locks. A few more parishioners showed up, and we stood in the parking lot.

The parish's lawyer showed up, and asked for papers. The Diocesan Chancellor handed him papers from the Bishop and Standing Committee saying that Fr. Mark Hansen was inhibited for abandoning communion, and could not step foot on church grounds, exercise any form of liturgical ministry, or have contact with church members for six months. We stood in the parking lot.

The media showed up, and tried to get interviews. I told them I did not have anything to say. One of the older couples in the church talked to them, and, I think, were interviewed by every newspaper, and television station in the area. The warden, the lawyer, and the rest of us stood in the parking lot. Cell phones kept ringing; I drove off for coffee. One of the members of the parish who makes crafts to help raise money went into the building and asked if she could have her materials, which she donates. We took them out in boxes. The Sr. Warden fetched his alb, which is his own. Bishop Smith and his spokesperson seemed to be giving interviews to the press inside the church's worship space. The two women who were there complained that they felt violated. The men did what men do. We toughed it out. But mostly we stood in the parking lot - for several hours...
The bishop shows up, and changed the locks! Unbelievable.

Is this what it's come to? If so, I'm not sure I have the stomache for these kinds of battles anymore. I have little sympathy for Fr. Hansen, other than recognizing his need to put his family first. He made so many mistakes, and dragged his entire congregation down with him. I do think it is high time that we call the extreme conservatives on their disregard for the authority of our bishops, their subterfuge, and their downright rudeness. But, changing the locks? Bishop Smith has created martyrs, where previously these folks, or at least their rector, were only foolish fanatics.

But, no foreign bishop will scoop up St. John's. And it sounds like there is a "faithful remnant" that accepts the authority of the bishop. So, hopefully, the life of this parish will eventually move on.

What would I have done? I don't know. Like I said, I smell more to this story, like maybe a "Godly admonition" from the bishop that was ignored.

Regarding the other five Connecticut priests; the bishop has agreed not to make his annual visitation to their parishes. Another move that I can't quite figure out. You send one strong message, and follow it up with backpedaling? Remember David Moyer, Bishop Smith. Bishop Bennison waited ten years, and caught the wrath of every conservative on the globe anyway over that one. These five are getting great press, and can now wear the mantle of martyrs proudly. If you are going to lead, now is not the time to blink. The standing committee gave you the green light. Inhibit, but please, leave the locksmith behind next time.

J.

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