Sunday, March 09, 2008

Bp. Peter Beckwith's Confused Message to "the Church"

The Rt. Rev. Peter H. Beckwith is the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Springfield, which is comprised of 41 congregations in southeastern Illinois. Bishop Beckwith also serves as the Vice President of the American Anglican Council. In other words, he is part of that elite group within the House of Bishops that is convinced that the Episcopal Church is going to hell in a handbasket. In case you imagine that is pure speculation on my part, consider the following segment of Bp. Beckwith's Pastoral Letter which he issued within days of the conclusion of General Convention 2006:

...Arguably, this is the lowest ebb of our beloved but beleaguered Church since perhaps the Civil War in not the American Revolution. However, I believe the future for faithful, orthodox Anglicans currently in ECUSA hasn't been brighter for a long time. I believe a new structure will emerge in the USA which will be in full communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury and the other thirty-seven Anglican Provinces, and of which you and I would be proud to be members. I am committed to doing eveything in my power to assist in that Godly effort...
When the Bishop mentioned "our beloved but beleaguered Church," did you know which "Church" he was referring to? Did you think maybe it was the Church Catholic? The Orthodox Church? The Anglican Communion? Of course not, as he also mentioned the Civil War and the American Revolution, as well as later identifying "the Church" as "ECUSA."

Yet, it appears that Bp. Beckwith is quite troubled when anyone else uses such a generic term to describe The Episcopal Church. For instance, consider this segment of his message to the Diocese from last month:

...As the service proceeded, I was particularly struck by the first question the bishop poses to the ordinand at The Presentation: “Will you be loyal to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of Christ as this Church has received them?” The answer was in the affirmative, of course, as it should have been. But, for me at the time, Robert’s answer wasn’t the only thing on my mind. Sharing the “stage” of my consciousness was an inquiry as to the disconnect that seems so obvious and pertinent in The Episcopal Church today. Part of that was my awareness that on almost a daily basis, numerous “inhibitions” and “depositions” come to my office declaring over a bishop’s signature the termination of diaconal, priestly and, now, episcopal ministries. The stated cause of many of those “inhibitions” and “depositions” are for the “abandonment of the communion of this church.” But because most of those being inhibited and deposed have transferred to another Anglican Province, the question must be asked, “To what does the ‘the communion of this church’ refer?” It would appear a goodly number of those in episcopal leadership positions in our Church believe “the communion of this church” is no more than The Episcopal Church, itself, rather than the wider Anglican Communion. Now I must ask, “Are they failing to understand that this particular canon addressing ‘abandonment’ was added in the nineteenth century to address the specific situation of clergy leaving the Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States of America for other denominations, notably the Reformed Episcopal Church and the Roman Catholic Church?” Or: “Are they just ignoring that reality?” Certainly a case can be made that The Episcopal Church today “makes it up as they go along” and often appears firmly entrenched in a mode in which they can declare things mean what they say they mean whether it be Holy Scripture or Canon Law...
The springboard for the Bishop's reflection was the Presentation of the ordinand in the ordination rite for a priest, which can be found on page 526 in the BCP:

The Bishops says to the ordinand
Will you be loyal to the doctrine, discipline and worship of Christ as this Church has received them?
Now note the last line of the response by the ordinand to this question, also found on page 526:

...I do solemnly engage to conform to the doctrine, discipline and worship of The Episcopal Church.
It seems quite clear that in the instance to which Bp. Beckwith is referring, "this Church" is indeed intended to mean"The Episcopal Church." It is rather confusing that the Bishop would use this example to launch into a reflection on why that clear meaning is mistaken, apparently not only in the ordination rite, but in the Constitutions and Canons of "this Church" as well.

We find this in the Preamble of the Constitution:

...The Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America, otherwise known as The Episcopal Church (which name is hereby recognized as also designating the Church)...
Within the Constitutions and Canons, all references to "The Episcopal Church" will be designated as simply "the Church."

Now consider the wording of Title IV, Canon 9, which seems to be the matter that has Bp. Beckwith upset:

CANON 9: Of Abandonment of the Communion of This Church by a Bishop
Sec. 1. If a Bishop abandons the communion of this Church (i) by an open renunciation of the Doctrine, Discipline, or Worship of this Church...
We can stop there, as that is the only part of that Canon that is relevant to the cases now being considered. Is anyone, other than apparently Bp. Beckwith, confused about which ecclesiastical body "this Church" is referring to in the above Canon?

When a Bishop abandons "this Church," and tries to grab a bunch of congregations on his way out the door, it is quite clear that he has openly renounced the discipline of The Episcopal Church. Such Bishops will be deposed.

Bp. Beckwith is to be commended for his personal discipline of using occasions for ordinations as an opportunity to reaffirm the sacramental vows he has taken. However, next time I would recommend that the Bishop reaffirm all of page 526 of the BCP, including the vows he has taken "to conform to the doctrine, discipline and worship of The Episcopal Church."


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