LETTER FROM AMERICA

Sam in Maryland

 

I arrived in Washington after the cherry blossom but during the azaleas. The meadows and woodlands around the charming seventeenth century brick Church in Accokeek, Maryland could not have looked better - rich in bird life and dappled shade, like Kent in July.

Friends who have encountered him at successive Forward in Faith Assemblies will be delighted to know that Fr Sam Edwards is well settled in his four-square clapperboarded rectory, and well set to become something of an American George Herbert.

Well set, that is, unless Mrs Dixon has her way. Jane Dixon (as readers will now be aware) is suffragan Bishop of Washington, and has set her face against Fr Edwards' appointment on the grounds that he will not accept her as his bishop, and will lead the parish out of the Episcopal Church.

The second charge is ludicrous. The person most likely to persuade the vestry of Christ Church out of the Episcopal Church is Jane herself, by her high handed dealings with them. The first charge is nearly accurate. Fr Sam has accepted that Jane is the 'ecclesiastical authority', for the time being, in the Diocese of Washington; but wild horses would not drag him to an admission that she is a bishop of the Catholic Church.

 

A degree of provisionality

In this, of course, Edwards is simply following the guidelines laid down by the Eames Commission. He is accepting that to the orders of women ordained as priests and bishops there is 'a degree of provisionality' (a 'provisionality', be it noted, which does not apply to his own orders). And since 'provisionality' is plainly a notion prejudicial to the purpose and function of Holy Orders, which exist to assure the faithful of the validity of sacraments, Fr Edwards' contribution to that 'open period' is to reject Mrs Dixon's orders. This is both logical and reasonable. If no one rejected those orders, there would be no need for an 'open period of reception'!

Now the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Frank Tracey Griswold III, has described Fr Edwards as a 'schismatic'.

This, apparently, was intended as a gesture in support of Mrs Dixon. But it was rash and ill-considered. As all reasonable people can see, if there is a schismatic in this encounter, it is Mrs Dixon and not Fr Edwards. It is Mrs Dixon, and not Fr Edwards, who has received and vigorously upholds orders which are not accepted in a majority of Anglican Provinces and which have severely impaired ecumenical relations with the two great Communions of East and West (that is to say with the vast majority of Christians both living and dead). It is Mrs Dixon, moreover, and not Fr Edwards, who upholds views about human sexuality which are contrary to the decisions of the last Lambeth Conference, and the consistent tradition of the Christian centuries.

But there is more.

Fr Edwards was, of course, until his move to Maryland, a priest in good standing in the Diocese of Fort Worth. He has letters dimissory from that diocese and a glowing testimony from Jack Iker, its bishop. By her refusal to accept those letters and that recommendation Mrs Dixon is clearly impugning the integrity of that bishop and that diocese. Such letters are an expression of the collegiality which should exist between bishops. They are an expression of the koinonia which ought to exist between dioceses of the one Church. The problem is that Jack Iker no more supposes Jane Dixon to be a bishop than does Sam Edwards.

So is Jack Iker also a schismatic? It is unlikely that either the Presiding Bishop or Mrs Dixon will say as much, but as a matter of simple consistency, they must think so. And that fact lays bare the parlous condition of the Episcopal Church. For neither Jack Iker nor Sam Edwards has changed position on this or any number of other matters. It is the Episcopal Church which has changed around them. It has been high-jacked by a bunch of moral and doctrinal relativists, who then have the effrontery to call schismatics those who will not go along with their novelties.

 

Through the Looking Glass

This situation - a church which has woken up to find itself on the wrong side of the looking-glass - would be laughable were it not so tragic; and so likely to repeat itself on this side of the Atlantic. Episcopacy exists to effect and express the unity and fellowship which ought to exist in a diocese and between dioceses. The irony is that Mrs Dixon is using that understanding to eliminate opposition to an innovation which has already destroyed that fellowship and unity.

But it is hard to see what else she could do. Amour propre and a catholic understanding of the episcopate meet in her. And she will, in consequence, stop at nothing to get her way. She has already offered the parish money from diocesan funds and other sources if it will agree to expel Fr Edwards. Now that bribery has failed the matter will almost certainly come to the secular courts.

What is being played out in the sleepy backwoods of Maryland is a drama which affects us all. There, as in a burning glass, are focused all the issues which arise from the ordination of women to the episcopate.

 

Questions

Can a church which claims to be Catholic also claim to have orders which are provisional? Can an episcopal church allow its presbyters to deny the orders of some or any of its bishops? Can a church involved in ecumenical dialogue with other churches simultaneously persecute, among its own members, opinions which are held by its ecumenical partners? Can what is introduced permissively later be enforced as mandatory?

Meanwhile, and apparently unaffected by the storm which rages around him, Fr Sam Edwards pastors the quiet community of Accokeek. He does not have to resolve those questions. They are not his questions - though, seated of an evening on his wide veranda, taking a post-prandial pipe, he must wonder at the folly of those who have raised them and are now desperately in search of answers.

Geoffrey Kirk is Vicar of St Stephen's, Lewisham in the diocese of Southwark. He has recently returned from a visit to Washington and Maryland.

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