Letter from America

By David Mills

Hardly a Benison

SINCE the Episcopal Synod of America was founded nine years ago, the most rigorous members in applying its principles have been several ESA parishes in the Diocese of Pennsylvania. Like all the other large, wealthy, urban dioceses on the east and west coasts, the diocese (which covers Philadelphia and its suburbs) has been exceedingly liberal for some decades.

Three of these parishes have not only by withheld their giving to the diocese, but refused the bishop permission to enter them to preach, celebrate the eucharist, and confirm as he is required by canon law to do every three years. The old bishop could accept this, the new bishop, Charles Bennison, will not.

St. James the Less and the Church of the Good Shepherd are Anglo-Catholic parishes, St. John’s an Evangelical parish (the theologian Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, one time editor of Churchman, was the associate rector for many years while teaching at a conservative Presbyterian seminary nearby). Their rectors are, in order, David Ousley, David Moyer, and Philip Lyman.

Bp Bennison had ordered the two Catholic parishes to welcome him this fall and then, when they did not back down, canceled the visits at the last moment and rescheduled them for next May. He has ordered St. John’s to welcome him on 20 December. Fr Moyer and Mr Lyman have now received from him an official "pastoral direction" threatening them with deposition if they do not welcome him at his next visit, and Fr Ousley presumably will be getting one as well.

 

Their flying bishop

In response to the ESA parishes’ inability to accept his ministry, the previous bishop, an old-fashioned genteel liberal, let them have a sort of flying bishop. For this they agreed to pay to the diocese the "assessment," which is the parish’s share of the expenses of the bishop and his office, though not the "asking," which is the parish’s contribution to the diocese’s projects. (You can easily imagine what sort of projects these often were.)

Bp Bartlett in turn paid the flying bishop’s expenses, and seems to have come out, financially, behind. Liberals and "centrists" — or "corporatists" — within the diocese, and liberal bishops who did not want such an example of liberality to spread, urged him to stop doing so, but to his credit he held to his agreement till he retired.

Before the election, then-Fr Bennison met with the ESA rectors and agreed if elected to continue the arrangement. (The rectors and their laymen were a useful voting bloc to have in what looked to be a close election.) Almost all of them voted for him, though one rector and his assistant abstained from voting, because they believed (rightly, I think) that none of the candidates met the biblical requirements for a bishop.

It does say something, by the way, about the state of such dioceses that they no longer offer even one somewhat traditional Christian among the four or five candidates, as used to be the practice. Once in a while the traditional candidate would get elected, most notoriously Terence Kelshaw in the Rio Grande, which I assume was felt to be too high a cost to pay for the appearance of theological balance — it wasn’t a very convincing appearance, after all.

 

A false teacher

Bp Bennison forgot the agreement shortly after winning the election. The rectors had, he said, misunderstood him. He insisted on his canonical right to visit each parish, and they refused, believing him a false teacher to be avoided, as described in Titus 3.10-11 and many other New Testament instructions.

A conflict was inevitable, given the radical differences between the new bishop and the ESA parishes, and Bp Bennison’s insistence on acting on his principles more consistently than his predecessor. His relativism in Christian doctrine has the effect of making absolute the institutional arrangements, as it always does, there being nothing else left to use as a rule or canon.

Bennison, readers may remember from the July Letter, told one of his parishes that "[W]e wrote the Bible and we can rewrite it. We have rewritten the Bible many times." And so, for example, "Anyone who would say that there is no salvation except in Christ has completely missed the point," that "anyone" including St. Peter, speaking while filled with the Holy Spirit, but no matter.

He told one of the three rectors that Christians are not held together by theology but by "the love of Christ." This is one of those episcopal statements to which the only answer is, "Well, yes and no, but in context, mostly no." It founders on the theological question of who is this Christ whose love binds us together, Bp Bennison himself not being sure whether or not Jesus rose from the dead.

Bp Bennison also offered the theory that the origin of geographic dioceses was the need to keep together people of different views, thereby adding an appeal to tradition to his appeal to an abstraction called "the love of Christ."

In all three cases, the bishop rejected any fixed principles to which both parties can appeal. Thus the only way of settling differences is the exercise of power, which (in worldly terms) the bishop has and his dissenting parishes don’t. The test of orthodoxy is not biblical or credal but institutional: you may believe what you like, as long as you remain an obedient member of the community.

You may hold almost any peculiar beliefs, as long as you do not act on it in ways that threaten the current arrangements. That the three parishes have done, which explains why a liberal bishop is acting (unlike his liberal predecessor) so illiberally.

 

The parishes’ witness

While the three parishes’ witness has cheered many of us here, the rectors have already heard the helpful remarks of the friends of Job, who think they are being "extreme" or even blaming them for being unable to get along with the bishop.

One internationally known Evangelical leader told a layman at St. John’s that the rector and vestry were going too far in refusing the bishop’s visit: why, after all, should they sacrifice their ministry to avoid fifteen minutes of episcopal activity every three years?

For Frs Ousley, Moyer, and Lyman, and their parishes, to compromise with false teaching would by itself be to sacrifice their ministry, because in doing so they would abandon the teaching of Scripture. Job’s friends among the conservatives, in assuming that one must not give up a job or a building, accept the relativist principle that in the end might makes right.

As you will all know, clarity and conviction do not make acting on principle much easier. The rectors of the three parishes have asked me to commend them, their families, and their parishes to your prayers.

 

Mr Mills is director of publishing at Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry and the editor of The Pilgrim’s Guide: C. S. Lewis and the Art of Witness (Eerdmans). He is at work on a companion volume, Worth Doing Badly: G. K. Chesterton and the Art of Witness.

 

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