The following letter originated from The Consultation Steering Committee, a network which includes representatives from the following organizations in The Episcopal Church: Integrity, Episcopal Urban Caucus, Episcopal Peace Fellowship, Episcopal Women's Caucus, Union of Black Episcopalians, Episcopal Ecological Network, National Episcopal AIDS Coalition, Province VIII Indigenous Ministries, Episcopal Church Publishing Company, Episcopal Network for Economic Justice, Episcopal Asiamerica Ministry Advocates, and Associated Parishes for Liturgy and Mission.
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An open letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury
Regarding requests for “alternative primatial oversight”
Dear Archbishop Williams:
We write as members of The Episcopal Church to express our deep concern about the requests for “alternative primatial oversight” that have come from eight of our dioceses since the 2006 General Convention. Such a request is unprecedented, and we believe that granting any of these requests would pose a grave danger to the Anglican Communion.
An important aspect of our Anglican identity is our comprehensiveness as a reformed and catholic church in which our unity is expressed in common prayer rather than adherence to a formal confession of faith other than the Creeds. Historically, Anglicans have been willing to live together with a wide spectrum of theological perspectives. As you remind us in your June 2006 statement “The Challenge and Hope of Being an Anglican Today,” our distinctive Anglican inheritance includes “a reformed commitment to the absolute priority of the Bible for deciding doctrine, a catholic loyalty to the sacraments and the threefold ministry of bishops, priests and deacons, and a habit of cultural sensitivity and intellectual flexibility that does not seek to close down unexpected questions too quickly.” Drawing on these three components together, we are rooted in Christ, and our focus in Christ enables us to live with diverse and even at times conflicting points of view. Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane has recently commented: “It is because Jesus Christ, second person of the Trinity made flesh, is our goal, our end, our telos, the central focus and direction of our lives, that Anglicanism has found through the ages that we can afford to live with messiness, ambiguity and anomaly at the edges.”
Those seeking “alternative primatial oversight” are in effect asking to walk away from the messiness and ambiguity of our current disputes about gays and lesbians in the church. In so doing, they give to these questions a doctrinal weight not in keeping with historic Anglican understandings. Allowing dioceses to reject the oversight of the duly selected primate of The Episcopal Church because of disagreements about this matter would open the door for others, here and elsewhere in the Anglican Communion, to reject pastoral and sacramental leadership on the basis of non-essential matters. This would lead to fragmentation of the Anglican Communion rather than deeper unity in Christ.
Some of those requesting “alternative primatial oversight” have also claimed that The Episcopal Church has not responded adequately to the Windsor Report. However, we do not view the Windsor Report as an ultimatum dictating precise forms of response by The Episcopal Church. We remind you of Archbishop Eames’ statement in the Foreword to the Report that it is not a judgment but part of a process. We understand participation in this process to include serious study of the report and prayerful consideration of its recommendations to The Episcopal Church. We believe that The Episcopal Church did so in its preparation for and actions at the General Convention, and committed by resolution to continue to do so, even as the process continues worldwide.
As with a response to any other recommendation or resolution from one of the Instruments of Communion or other international Anglican body, our response to the Windsor Report was made in light of our understanding of Scripture, the polity of The Episcopal Church, and sensitivity to the cultural contexts of this Church. We affirmed our desire to remain in the Anglican Communion, gave our support to the process of development of an Anglican Covenant, and committed ourselves to participate in the ongoing Windsor process as well as the listening process commended by the 1978, 1988, and 1998 Lambeth Conferences and the Windsor Report. We expressed regret for straining the bonds of affection in the confirmation and consecration of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire, and we urged standing committees and bishops with jurisdiction to refrain from consenting to “the consecration of any candidate to the episcopate whose manner of life presents a challenge to the wider church and will lead to further strains on communion.” The House of Bishops had already developed a plan for delegating episcopal pastoral oversight, and the Convention approved this plan. Although the convention did not adopt any resolutions about blessing same-sex relationships, no such liturgy has been authorized by any convention; instead, any decision to permit celebration of such a liturgy remains with the bishop, consistent with the provisions of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. In sum, we believe that the General Convention of The Episcopal Church has responded with great care to the Windsor Report, and at significant cost to some members of this Church. We urge you to reject claims that The Episcopal Church has not responded adequately to the Windsor Report, particularly as those claims become the basis for division rather than reconciliation. It is now time to allow others in the Anglican Communion, including the Instruments of Communion, to respond.
At least one of the dioceses requesting “alternative primatial oversight” has suggested the formation of a tenth province of The Episcopal Church. Creation of such a province could only occur through a canonical change enacted by the General Convention, and it is doubtful that the convention would approve the creation of a non-geographic province that is based on theological conviction. Beginning in the earliest centuries of the Church, dioceses have been formed geographically, and non-geographic dioceses and other structures have been considered anomalous. For example, during the nineteenth century, the overlapping American, English, and Canadian Anglican jurisdictions in Japan and China posed significant obstacles to missionary endeavors. More recently, the efforts of Anglicans representing the Diocese in Europe (Church of England), the Convocation of American Churches in Europe, the Lusitanian Church, and the Reformed Episcopal Church of Spain have shown us the benefits made possible by coordinated efforts. Allowing dioceses of The Episcopal Church to be overseen by primates from other regions would introduce the complexities and challenges of overlapping jurisdictions that historically have presented obstacles to effective mission.
Permitting “alternative primatial oversight” would be further complicated by the reality that within each of the dioceses requesting this oversight, there are individuals and congregations who would understand themselves to remain fully within The Episcopal Church under the oversight of our Presiding Bishop. We anticipate that legal challenges would ensue, requiring significant expenditures of time and money that would be better spent on other essential matters of mission.
Finally, we feel compelled to question the premise of “alternative primatial oversight.” There is no provision in the Constitution and Canons of The Episcopal Church for the Archbishop of Canterbury to exercise jurisdiction in this Province. In the Episcopal Church, the General Convention has sole authority to amend the Constitution and Canons, including the formation of dioceses and the assignment of dioceses to provinces within the Episcopal Church. We recognize that the Primates’ Meeting at Dromantine in February 2005 recommended that you appoint a panel of reference “to supervise the adequacy of pastoral provisions” made for dioceses in dispute with their provincial authorities. We remind you that in the Communiqué from that same meeting (par. 10) the Primates expressed caution regarding “any development which would seem to imply the creation of an international jurisdiction which could override our proper provincial autonomy.” Thus we urge that any work of the panel of reference respect the authority of the Presiding Bishop and the autonomy of The Episcopal Church.
We appreciate your support for the conversations convened in New York City in September 2006 among several bishops of The Episcopal Church, including the Presiding Bishop and the Presiding Bishop-elect, with Kenneth Kearon, Secretary General of the Anglican Communion. This is an important sign that leadership in the Anglican Communion recognizes that the Archbishop of Canterbury does not have jurisdiction over the internal life of The Episcopal Church. We believe that the discussions must widen to include other clergy and lay leaders, particularly the President of the House of Deputies of The Episcopal Church, since our polity calls for full participation of laity as well as clergy other than bishops in decisions affecting our common life. We ask that you encourage and support a process that includes representatives of the entire Episcopal Church in discussions and decisions about the requests for “alternative primatial oversight.”
We recognize, as you have pointed out in “The Challenge and Hope of Being an Anglican Today,” that there continue to be strains in relationships within The Episcopal Church as well as between Churches of the Anglican Communion, and that we continue to be bound together through many different informal networks as well as more formal relationships such as companion dioceses. It is our fervent prayer that we continue to grow more deeply into the unity and the truth that are Christ’s gift. We believe that granting requests for “alternative primatial oversight” would undermine our ability to receive these gifts of truth and unity, and we urge you not to authorize any such plan.
xc: The Most Reverend Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop and Primate
Ms. Bonnie Anderson, President of the House of Deputies of the General Convention
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