LETTER FROM AMERICA

ECCENTRIC CENTRISM

AS YOU will know, at its tenth anniversary meeting in early June, the Episcopal Synod of America become Forward in Faith/North America, adopting an Agreed Statement on Communion modelled on yours. The resolution to do so passed unanimously.

FiF's John Broadhurst and Reform's David Holloway both attended the meeting, Mr Holloway serving as chaplain.

The Agreed Statement

The Statement, more directly concerned than yours with doctrinal heresy, notes (I am abridging) that "Sacramental communion rests upon the unity of the faithful in a common confession of the Gospel of Christ and a common life in Christ by the Spirit. When elements contrary to that confession and life are introduced, tolerated, or ignored [by the bishop], whether by positive action or through negligence, sacramental communion is impaired."

Heresy is bad enough, but ordaining women adds "an additional element of doubt." The diocese is not only "an administrative territorial unit" but "a communion based on doctrinal agreement and sacramental assurance in union with Christ," and therefore "Every eucharist celebrated in obedience to Christ's command is also celebrated in communion with the bishop, provided the bishop is himself faithful to the apostles' teaching and fellowship."

That being so, "It follows that if a bishop permits the continuance in the diocesan college of presbyters that he is to govern and lead for the sake of the flock of Christ those whose teaching or life is contrary to the standards of Scripture, or if he introduces into his college of presbyters those whose orders are in doubt, this communion and the covenant it mediates are fractured."

A priest, or layman, who holds to the received doctrine and order "cannot in conscience have sacramental communion with that person or that bishop because the false teaching has broken the spiritual communion in Christ; he is obliged to seek communion with a bishop that he can obey with integrity and the communion of a college of priests in which he can wholeheartedly serve Christ and his people."

The Statement concludes by saying that "though our doubts about women's ordination . . . entail a degree of separation, they do not oblige us to any other conclusions about the general teaching or other sacramental acts of all those who ordain women or receive their ministry. With the vast majority of the bishops of the Anglican Communion, we accept the desirability of maintaining 'the highest degree of communion possible'."

In other words, the Statement winds up in the same place as yours, but by a slightly different argument. It is, among other changes, the first time this group has made the ordination of women a matter of communion.

Rochester and Connecticut

While the former ESA was looking to England and Australia for allies, two episcopal elections, in the liberal diocese of Rochester and the "centrist" diocese of Connecticut, suggested that whatever authority the last Lambeth Conference had among Episcopalians has faded almost completely.

Even the secular press paid some attention to the election in Rochester, on the theme that if elected the leading candidate would be the "first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church." One raises one's eyebrows a bit, over the question of how open is open, but history, of a sort, might be made.

The diocese narrowly elected the suffragan bishop of Newark, Jack McKelvey, over the openly homosexual candidate, Gene Robinson. Canon Robinson led among both the clergy and laity on the first two ballots, then lost the lead among the laity on the third while getting enough clerical votes to win. McKelvey got enough lay votes to win on the fourth ballot, and on the fifth five clerics changed their vote from Robinson to him, and history was not made.

In Connecticut, the diocese quickly elected the suffragan bishop, Andrew Smith. The State's major newspaper reported that he favors the ordination of homosexual people, about which his remarks were the standard ones, for example that "One of the blessings of the church is there is a wide difference of opinion on many issues," and that faced with Lambeth Conference's vote on the matter, "We have to engage in explorations and discussions on how we address that."

Dubious centrism

The diocese has, for reasons that seem dubious to me, been thought "centrist." This word seems to mean that it is quietly and locally liberal but judiciously mainstream in its public affairs. At a General Convention eight years ago, when the now accepted moral innovation was (or seemed to be) approved by very few bishops, the present bishop's predecessor stood at the microphone and held his hands apart.

Holding up one hand, he said (I am quoting from memory, but accurately as to content and general wording), "Homosexuality is one truth." Holding up the other, he said, "Heterosexuality is another truth." Sweeping his hands together, intertwining his fingers before his chest, he announced gravely that "We have to find a truth that transcends and combines both these truths."

I was sitting in the press gallery, and the reporter next to me leaned over and asked, "What the hell does that mean?" It means, I said, that the bishop is being profound. A furrowed brow and nodding head was the expected response. This, it seems to me, is "centrism" in practice. It is, as a friend puts it, all fog and flatulence.

The only relatively conservative priest on the official list placed a distant third. Fr Martyn Minns, the rector of a charismatic parish outside Washington, D.C., had among virtues led an extraordinary ministry to the homeless of New York City in his previous parish. He was as attractive a man as the conservatives could have offered the diocese, and nevertheless fell 110 clerical and 130 lay votes behind Bp Smith on the second and final ballot.

Unless I very badly miss my guess, both elections will be approved and, perhaps with a few exceptions, approved by conservative bishops and diocesan standing committees as well as the others.

Episcopal pluralism

Thus we see that the Episcopal Church is in doctrine and morality effectively pluralist. Its laws and canons on doctrine, marriage, and sexuality have the same power as the Blue Laws, still on the books in several states, outlawing drinking beer on Sundays or taking the Lord's Name in vain.

And as far as I can tell, the dominate type of conservative accepts this, is now at home in a Church from which he would have run screaming ten years ago, or twenty.

David Mills is director of publishing at Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry and editor of The Pilgrim's Guide: C. S. Lewis and the Art of Witness (Eerdmans). Forward in Faith/North America's "Agreed Statement on Communion" can be found at <www.episcopalsynod.org >.

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