John D Alexander describes his experience as the only rector of a Catholic parish in a diocese with a woman bishop and gives a warning against setting too much store by a supposed Code of Practice

It should probably come as no surprise when the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island is paraded as an example of how traditionalists can get along happily under women bishops without benefit of legal protection. As the only Catholic incumbent in the diocese at this time, however, I may be able to offer some observations to help put such claims in perspective.

The Rt Revd Geralyn Wolf has indeed been accommodating to those who cannot recognize her episcopal ministry. In my eight years here, she and I have developed an excellent working relationship marked by mutual respect and personal warmth. But it would be a grave mistake on that account to take Rhode Island as a precedent for anywhere else.

History of the debate

A bit of background is in order. Of the dioceses sixty parishes, two are Anglo-Catholic: St Stephens in Providence (where I serve as Rector); and St Johns in Newport. When in 1996 the diocese elected Geralyn Wolf the first female diocesan bishop in The Episcopal Church, the then rectors of both parishes met with her to seek arrangements for alternative episcopal oversight.

Bishop Wolf proved remarkably willing to cooperate. Although she could not relinquish any ecclesiastical jurisdiction, she would refrain from imposing her visitations on either parish, and proposed instead to invite mutually acceptable bishops from other dioceses to visit, celebrate and confirm in her place.

St Stephens was divided, however, on the issue of women’s ordination. When my predecessor, Fr David Stokes, took this proposal to his vestry, the majority insisted that Bishop Wolf be invited to visit and preside at the Eucharist. Fr Stokes had little choice but to acquiesce. Nonetheless, he got along extraordinarily well with Bishop Wolf until his departure in 1999 for the Roman Catholic Church. They remain good friends.

Meanwhile, at St John’s, the vestry supported the then rector, Fr Jonathan Ostman, in his bid for alternative oversight. Bishop Wolf then invited the Rt Revd Keith Ackerman of Quincy, Illinois, to provide episcopal care to the parish. Although this arrangement seems to have worked well, some parishioners appeared not to understand that they remained integrally within the Diocese of Rhode Island, and that Bishop Acker-man was not really their bishop, but only an occasional guest whose permission to visit could be revoked at any time. Fr Ostman offered his reflections on this arrangement in the April 2005 issue of New Directions.

Fr Ostman subsequently resigned as rector of St John’s in 2006 for reasons unrelated to women in the episcopate. At the time of writing, St John’s remains without a rector and is being served by a succession of supply clergy. In due course, the vestry plans to call another rector holding the Catholic view of apostolic order. But under Episcopal Church canon law the diocesan bishop has the right to veto the vestry’s election. In other words, St John’s ability even to get another Catholic rector is entirely dependent upon the continued personal good will of Geralyn Wolf and her successors.

Mutual respect

When I arrived at St Stephen’s in 2000, I made it clear that I could offer Bishop Wolf all due loyalty and obedience as my ecclesiastical superior – as a sort of mitered abbess – even if I could not recognize the sacerdotal and sacramental dimension of her ministry. I suspect, though, that even on these terms my respect for her authority has surpassed that of many of the liberal clergy of the diocese.

At the same time, I have made some accommodations that many FiF UK clergy would find intolerable. Upon my arrival, the precedent of Bishop Wolf making visitations was already well established. So, once every two years I sit in choir while a woman clad in episcopal regalia celebrates Mass at the altar of my church. For her part, she has been generous in granting me permission on a case-by-case basis to invite in other bishops in the odd years between her visitations.

Bishop Wolf has also been respectful of my inability to receive Communion during her visitations. She could have been difficult about it. When the vestry initially called me as Rector, the then diocesan deployment officer advised her not to allow me into the diocese unless I would receive Communion from her. To her credit, she ignored the advice. But the deployment officer represented a mindset that is widespread if not prevalent in The Episcopal Church. Future Bishops of Rhode Island may well not be so respectful of Catholic consciences.

Dangerous assumptions

The picture of Rhode Island demonstrating that safeguards in law are unnecessary for the Catholic minority under women bishops is thus fundamentally mistaken. True, Geralyn Wolf and a dwindling handful of Anglo-Catholic clergy have been more or less successful in getting along on the basis of good will, mutual respect and Christian charity. But it would be foolish to assume that similar behaviour will always prevail in other times and other places.

One pivotal factor in our situation has been Geralyn Wolf’s instinctive sympathy for Catholic sensibilities. During her seminary days, for example, she lived with the Sisters of St Margaret in Cambridge, Massachusetts – at a time when the American branch of SSM was much more traditional than it is now. She thus finds it easy to get along with her Catholic clergy, with whom she shares something of a common language. Other women bishops lacking this basic attunement may well be tempted to dismiss Catholic non-recognition of their episcopal ministries as misogyny and respond accordingly.

More broadly, law cannot be written on the assumption that people with fundamental differences will always want to find ways to work together while agreeing to disagree. The more realistic assumption is that bishops and others in positions of power will face overwhelming temptations to persecute dissident minorities, who will in turn often appear to invite such persecution by frankly obstreperous and intransigent behaviour. The protection of law exists precisely for those occasions when Christian charity is in short supply on all sides. And on this account legal safeguards above and beyond unenforceable codes of practice are necessary for those minorities most likely to suffer from abuses of power by those in authority.