An Open Letter to the Bishop of Edinburgh

To: The Most Rev. Richard Holloway, D.D.


You could not possibly remember it, but we met once. I had heard your wonderful address, on the social and ethical implications of the Oxford Movement (such a dry topic! And how you made it sparkle!) at St. Mary the Virgin, and several years later you preached the Mission at All Saints NYC. It was on the latter occasion that we met – I had been ordained to the Roman Priesthood a year before, and when I heard of the Mission I thought, “I’m making this Mission”. And I did, each night, and it was wonderful – the Gospel preached with power, conviction, compassion.

One evening I enticed a dear friend, a classmate, to come with me; his comment was, “I felt as though I was being nourished by every phrase he uttered.” When we met over coffee, I told you, “Bishop, it was wonderful “, for so it was. Years later, Bishop, I’m preaching Missions on my own, as I can get away from parish, and I’ve done so in Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Chicago, Philadelphia; and every Mission I have preached was framed with your splendid example in mind. I owe you a great deal.

It was with such sadness, Bishop, that I read the article in the London Times about the inhibition of Bishop Barnes.

What is happening over here in ECUSA has the quality of a nightmare about it. Good people who love their Church and who still believe her classic account of herself, who still cling to the vision of an Anglican Church with no special doctrine of her own and no desire to enact any, but seeking only to make present the Church of the Fathers, are facing the reality that their Church no longer wants them. The next General Convention (which claims powers to set forth doctrine which the Pope explicitly says he himself lacks!!) will declare that no one may hold any office in the Church if he or she commits the crime of believing what was the received doctrine of the Church until twenty-one years ago! How can this be? How can it be thought fair?

At the Oxford Movement Sesquicentennial you spoke movingly and with insight about the etymology of the word ‘apostasy’. You suggested that most of us think of apostasy as a grand act of renunciation, like Judas venturing out into the night to hang himself; but that, alas, real apostasy was seldom like that. The word itself in the Greek, you said, had the connotation of the kind of thing which happens when a boat gently slips its moorings and is gradually coaxed by the current out of the safe harbor and into the peril of the open sea. And so it is with us, we gradually slip our moorings and drift away until we cease to stand with Christ, but we do not recognize it, the Mind of the World, you said, having so gradually become our standard.

Bishop, I do not believe in the possibility of the ordination of women – the teaching of my Church tells me that it is not possible, although I have no trouble understanding why others believe that it is. But even if I personally did believe that it were possible, I would also feel that it has been a disaster, an utter disaster for your Church to have proceeded as you have, to have ordained women unilaterally without the concurrence of Rome and Constantinople – a disaster the full implications of which will be unfolding for the next several decades. You will never be able to put the genie back in the bottle, for you now claim for the legislatures of the various Anglican churches the authority which classical Anglicanism always explicitly rejected, the authority to set forth novel doctrines, and frankly the sole restraint is Robert’s Rules of Order (or whatever parliamentary handbook you use over there).

There are people who see this clearly, my Lord, and they’re hurt by it. One of my dearest friends, a fellow whom you knew as a seminarian in Boston and who is now a Priest in ECUSA, is perfectly open to the possibility of the ordination of women, deplores the way it was done here, and watches with trepidation as the fruits of it unfold, for now everything is ‘up for grabs’, as we say, needing only a nod from General Convention – and he fears for his people.

But I did not decide to write this letter to you to argue about the ordination of women. I wanted to remind you of something else – that in Anglicanism at its best “there is something of the gentleness of God”, as you said at the Sesquicentennial. Have you forgotten? You spoke of what to outsiders looks like the permissiveness of Anglicanism – impressive at first sight but apparently as formidable as a veneer carefully lacquered on cardboard – but you cast it in a different light. Anglicanism, you said, is a kindly mother, permissive perhaps, but a real mother nonetheless. When her children misbehave, she does not throw an operatic tantrum; she merely raises her eyes and wishes they had better manners!

Do you recall the text that you used? From the 103rd psalm: “The Lord is full of compassion and mercy, long-suffering, and of great goodness; He will not always be chiding (“we don’t like to be CHIDED, do we?”, you asked)…for He knoweth whereof we are made; He remembereth that we are but dust.” (And I recall you quoted Fr Stanton – you can’t always expect dust to be up to the mark!)

Bishop Holloway, you can’t always expect dust to be up to the mark. If traditionalists are hopelessly wrong and off the mark, if the Ordination of Women is of God, it will endure, and it will not require the heavy machinery of ecclesiastical law to survive. If it isn’t of God – well, you’re all still supposed to be in a process of reception, which would surely seem to indicate that one ought not to act as though the matter were settled while the whole Communion officially says it isn’t.

The logic of the situation escapes me – your office tells the press that the Scottish Episcopal Church has resolved this question and that you don’t want an outside prelate disturbing the situation. What were you doing in Wales a few months ago, if not injecting yourself into their situation?

If the Anglican Church is a permissive, and tolerant, but REAL mother, much more likely to raise her eyes to heaven and wish that her children had better manners than to throw an operatic tantrum, then I don’t see why there isn’t room within her family for even the most miserable buggers and meanest-minded sods to be treated with due regard (if only because their crime is holding the Faith which was until taught twenty-one years ago, and they’ve had upgrading problems, as we say in computerese).

I do not at all offer these thoughts in a disrespectful spirit, Bishop – I owe you such a great deal. But I am so disappointed; you had preached the Gospel with such compassion, and now, if the TIMES is correct, Bishop Barnes is welcome in Scotland as long as he doesn’t exercise his ministry, and opponents of the ordination of women are the most miserable buggers and the meanest minded sods you can imagine. Where is the gentle voice of Bishop Holloway at All Saints, exploring the painful paradoxes of belief and unbelief, offering understanding? Miserable buggers??

What a powerful voice for tolerance you as a Primate could have raised in the Anglican Communion at large, on behalf of those unconvinced by the new claims of General Conventions and General Synods to teach infallibly! What a healing corrective your voice might have been to extremists on both sides…

I know that this letter will be disturbing to you, and perhaps even offensive. I regret that, and I ask that your Lordship consider that I don’t write overseas prelates every day indeed, I don’t write prelates at all unless necessary, which they probably think is just as well…), and that this letter is motivated simply by the good you once did me in your ministry, and by loving Anglican friends so hurt by this situation. There are many such, my Lord, over here as over there, and I’m sure that if you stop to think about it, a great many people for whom your Lordship has extended himself in ministry over the years were unabashed traditionalists. Indeed, I’d bet that often that was why you were concerned for them – they were traditional believers. They still need pastoral care. Don’t abandon them, my Lord; don’t give any support to those who would tell them that their beliefs are evil, or unacceptable. Please.

Asking your Lordship’s blessing, I am Yours in Christ the Lord, Fr. Joseph F. Wilson