How they took the Good news from Lyons to Louisiana

A Vote to exclude You will know by now that a very large majority of our bishops (120 out of 155 voting at their meeting in September) believe that opposition to ordaining women should no longer be tolerated, except as a private opinion; which is to say, not tolerated at all. A resolution simply receiving the proposal, the usual process with such things, was soundly defeated.

The proposal was typically Episcopalian, in that it allows one to hold the traditional view but not to act on it. Its advocates seemed to think this not only compassionate but logical. It also allowed them to deny that they were trying to drive out those who disagreed with them, and to feel very good about their respect (in some cases quite new) for the law of the Church.

It is not, however, law at all, the history of the original legislation showing it to have allowed but not required bishops to ordain women. The bishops themselves said so by a nearly unanimous vote a few months later, and they and the standing committees of the dioceses kept approving for twenty years the election of bishops who would not ordain women.

The size of the majority surprised even me, who am usually pessimistic. One reason so many voted against us, I think, is that many moderate bishops are very scared that the Church will officially approve of homosexuality, knowing the revolt among the laity that would cause. (Even today most laymen have no idea what is going on in their Church, because their priests do not want to upset them and the most radical of bishops talks like Billy Graham when he is among them.)

They have argued against the moral innovators not that they violate Scripture, but that they violate church law, and thus have to expel the traditionalists if they hope to reign in the radicals. Curbing just four bishops seems an acceptable price to pay to stop the Bishop of Newark and thus keep the money coming in, especially as they can convince themselves that they are not in fact driving the bishops out.

A predictable vote The vote against us was predictable, if not the large number against us. At least I predicted it. Even some of the bishops who joined the Synod bishops in charging another bishop with false doctrine abstained rather than vote against the expulsion of their comrades.

What is most significant is that it has ruined the great hope (always, I think, illusory) of many orthodox Episcopalians that the centre would hold, or rather that the centre would hold them. They had hoped that while accepting women’s ordination the moderates or centrists would remain orthodox on every other issue, and remaining orthodox, would fight for the rights of their more traditional brethren.

This was always to misread them, I think. Because most of the moderates are moderate only in the sense that they try to stand halfway between the Episcopal Synod and the Bishop of Newark. They are not particularly principled men, because principles are dangerous, and lead to action.

If not held in place by principle, one is moved mainly by power, and in the Episcopal Church power is held by the feminist lobby, its allies, and its fellow travellers. The average moderate bishop is a pleasant man who believes in the Bible but believes equally strongly in not being a fundamentalist. By ‘fundamentalist’ he means anyone who argues from the text of Scripture, as if it were God’s word written, and not from more abstract and pliable principles, like the currently popular ‘mission’.

The example of this in the House of Bishops is the Irenaeus Fellowship. Many felt there was a certain irony in their choosing as a patron a bishop famous for writing a long, detailed and closely reasoned book called Against Heresies, given how many of few of them were likely to have read it, or to like its modern equivalent. If you want to be liked by the hierarchs, you would do better to drool down your shirt front than to accuse someone (e.g. a heretic) of heresy.

The founding secretary of the group, Bishop Mark Dyer, for example, wrote recently in the official newspaper Episcopal Life of the blessed Trinity “where there is no subordination, no domination, no separation, no monarchy”. (Bishop Dyer, once my rector, is one of our contributions to the Anglican Consultative Council.) St. Irenaeus would not have been amused.

What the vote means The moderates’ vote means more than they know. It means that the great majority of the bishops of the Episcopal Church have declared that one may not believe something that is clearly derived from Scripture read as Anglicans, and indeed all Christians, have read it. In other words, they are not simply rejecting a position, they are rejecting the classical Christian reading of the Bible, even if they may want to hold to it in other areas for some, still, homosexuality. This can only lead to more confusion, and thus to more compromise, and in a few years to the expulsion of those who hold to the traditional moral standards.

Meanwhile . . . Meanwhile, the trial of Bishop Walter Righter for ordaining an unrepentant homosexual is scheduled for early January. Almost everyone assumes he will be acquitted, given the make-up of the court, though a few of us fear that he will be convicted (thus reassuring the conservatives) but on the narrowest possible grounds, that he simply acted in advance of a change in the Church’s teaching (thus proving no impediment at all to his fellows).

The case will establish law, but already many conservatives are preparing excuses for ignoring its results, the most popular being to claim that it does not matter what the court decides. Yet it does matter: for he is being tried for false doctrine, not for a canonical violation, and if a court of the Church acquits him, it will be because they do not believe false doctrine false.

David Mills is the director of publishing at Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry and the editor of The Evangelical Catholic. His reflections on the future of the mainline Churches in the United States, particularly the Episcopal Church, have recently been published in this country by Reform.