That’s the Way they do its II

What follows is the story or the elimination of the rector of a great Anglo-Catholic parish, and its deliverance by the wardens and a majority of the vestry – though not apparently most of the parishioners – into the hands of one of the most aggressively radical dioceses in the Anglican Federation.

All Saints’, Ashmont is located in the south part of the city of Boston at the end of one of the subway lines. It is surrounded by neighbourhoods of various races and incomes, and draws its parishioners from a wide area. The building is a beautiful neo-gothic structure and they have just finished installing a very expensive concert organ. The Sunday attendance is relatively large for the Episcopal Church, and its endowment generous. The one ESA parish in the diocese, All Saints’ had been well taught both about the Bible and the state of the Episcopal Church, and the conflict between them. Their representatives had been regularly hissed and booed at diocesan conventions for speaking in favour of New Testament Christianity, and the previous bishop – the one who shot himself before the exposure of his many adulteries – had used the law of the diocese to overturn their choice of a rector.

Insisting on his power

As an orthodox parish in a radical diocese All Saints’ had always had a tense relation with the diocese, but the previous bishop had only occasionally insisted on his prerogatives. Last winter the new bishop, Thomas Shaw, told them that he would be visiting them in February, which they understood, certainly rightly, as an insistence on his legal power as bishop.

Bp. Shaw, a Cowley Father, had recently signed Bishop John Spong’s “Statement of Koinonia” rejecting the biblical teaching on sexual morality. (It wasn’t put like that of course but that was what it did.) This the parish could not pretend to accept, by letting him act as their bishop without protest. With the unanimous support of the vestry (or PCC) Fr Bradford asked Bp. Shaw not to come to preach or celebrate. If he insisted on celebrating, the parish planned a low mass, at which the rector would explain why they were in “impaired communion” with the bishop and ask the people not to communicate. This was actually a fairly eirenic, even liberal proposal, but in the end Bp. Shaw, while he never responded to the rector and the vestry’s requests to talk with them, did talk with various parish dissidents. The effect, perfectly predictable to any experienced pastor, was to divide the parish and create unrest. He later announced that he would be coming again in September, and bringing the Standing Committee. It was by then clear that the committee on “women’s ordination” would propose the enforcement of obedience on the issue, and no one doubted that the majority of the bishops would approve. (As indeed they did.)

But this time…

This time most of the vestry objected to the rector’s proposal. They seemed to fear the power of the diocese and the possibility that they would be declared difficult and turned into a mission, staffed by priests assigned by the bishop. The situation had not changed at all but the cost of resistance had risen. They asked Fr Bradford to arrange the parish’s usual high mass. He did so, but wrote the parish asking them not to communicate, saying that if they received communion from him they would be at least giving the appearance of consent to heresy. Bp. Shaw came with forty people. In his sermon, he shared his childhood as an Anglo-Catholic but avoided saying what he believed – why for example he signed the “Statment of Koinonia.” Meeting with the vestry after mass, he declined to discuss the theological questions at all. Fr Bradford explained what the issues were and said he was not going to compromise them. Even this was apparently too aggressively orthodox for many on the vestry who got angry at Fr Bradford for being “rude” to the bishop, who seemed like a good Catholic after all. They then met without the knowledge of the rector or the two vestry members who supported him and voted to ask the bishop to invoke a diocesan canon (canon 21) dissolving the pastoral relationship. The meeting was illegal because the rector must preside at all vestry meetings and all the members invited. Neither were the terms of the canon itself – not to mention Fr Bradford’s contract – observed, as both required serious attempts to reconcile any differences. Despite the illegality of the meeting and the vestry’s failure to meet the terms of the canon or the rector’s contract the bishop accepted their request to dismiss Fr Bradford.

As usual, rumours began to be passed around about the rector’s alleged problems. Some said he was too distant and cold, others that he was too rigid. Other parishioners defended him pointing out how much time he spent with parishioners in need. One priest, not a member of the parish, thought many members of All Saints’ missed the warmer personality of Fr Bradford’s predecessor which had become their idea of proper pastoral care. Some of the complaints may have been good ones, or course. No priest is perfect. But an observer could hear them with more sympathy had they been properly raised with the rector. From all reports, it was Fr Bradford’s resistance to the bishop that created the opposition, and then other complaints emerged as they always will.

The parish’s real support

A parish meeting was held at which Fr Bradford and his opponents spoke. At the end Fr Bradford left the room while they voted on the question “Do you support my pastoral ministry here?” The parish voted two to one in his favour. Several people from outside the parish came to vote against him, including a young man from the Episcopal Divinity School, perhaps the most radical institution in the Episcopal Church,One of the two loyal vestrymen estimated that the parish “rank and file” voted for the rector three to on, a very good result given the months of agitation. The diocese, in the meantime, set up the required hearing before the Standing Committee. The bishop had sent two “neutral” observers to All Saints’, who then reported to committee, obviously finding against the rector At the meeting both Fr Bradford and his opponents spoke, the latter trying to discredit the parish meeting that proved they did not represent the parish. One pleaded that “We want a loving relationship with our bishop,” which required, under the circumstances, a peculiar definition of love. In due course, and predictably, Bishop Shaw dismissed Fr Bradford and took control of All Saints’ Church. (He is to act “in consultation” with the wardens.) They now have a priest-in-charge who favours the ordination or women, have been forbidden to elect a new vestry or even hold their annual parish meeting and must bear the financial costs of Fr Bradford’s firing. In the meantime various parishioners have been telling others that the diocese will respect their tradition and that things can go on as they always have. (The American response to this is to offer to sell them some ocean front property in Kansas). Even if the bishop were to let them call the man they want as next rector – and there is no telling how long they will be forced to wait before they can again control their own parish – they will never again be able to call a traditional Anglo-Catholic as rector because no priest would be foolish enough to trust them.

The implications

All Saints’ travails have three implications, that are as relevant to the Church of England as to the Episcopal Church. First liberalism is no longer the party of tolerance and diversity. Ronald Haines, the Bishop of Washington (D.C.), has been even more brutal in demanding conformity on women’s ordination while expecting for himself freedom to violate the Episcopal Church’s teaching on homosexuality. Some will be more clever, and solve a political problem by treating it – perhaps even creating it – as a pastoral problem. Having once briefly travelled in those circles – I once attended mass and various meetings at the Cowley Fathers’ monastery in Cambridge(Mass.) – I think their respect for diversity was always tactical rather than principled. They asked for diversity on those innovations for which they had not yet achieved approval, but their language about their goals and about their opponents was totalitarian. They tended to see themselves as the vanguard of enlightenment and creatures of darkness. The optimistic would have been wiser to have judged them by their theology, not by their formal statements in favour of diversity, but those who did so were regularly denounced by their opponents as hysterical or unkind. Even fifteen years ago in these circles people opposed to women’s ordination were spoken of either as inflexible people who could not change (this if they liked them) or supporters of “patriarchy” and oppressors of women. No one ever suggested in these meetings that the position could be defended honestly, or that traditional Anglicans could truly care about women.

Unmet needs

Second, orthodox parishes will be increasingly vulnerable to such divisions and open to exploitation by a liberal or radical bishop. In America, even Episcopal parishes are “gathered communities” which people expect to “meet their needs.” This is not necessarily bad, mind you: one might drive some way to an Anglo-Catholic parish because one is most edified and encouraged in the Faith by the artistic splendour of its worship. But it is a dangerous fact because some people will always feel their needs are not being met and people who feel their needs are not being met get very angry. Once even a small group objects, division and conflict are inevitable even in the healthiest parishes. The bishop then can easily find fault with the rector for being “narrow” or “insensitive” or decide, if it suits him and the vestry does not stand behind the rector, that the pastoral relationship has broken down and cannot be healed. This problem is not only personal. Among parishioners’ unmet needs can be “a loving relationship with our bishop,” because even some very traditional, even reactionary, people want very much to be good Episcopalians. Further, the most conservative parishes inevitably have a few liberal members, who tend to be elected to the vestry as a harmless minority, but then take the opportunity to demand their way

Third, orthodox parishes faced with a vigorous opposition will find it unexpectedly hard to resist a radical diocese, even if they are forced to choose between their rector and their bishop, especially as the category “bishop” will include their building and endowment if he does not relent. Most of us can speak courageously because we do not realize how much resistance may cost us. I think this true of most orthodox Episcopalians. We have never quite understood how intolerant our liberal party can be and what resisting them might cost. Resisting a bishop requires more theological conviction and discernment than many good people possess, especially if the bishop speaks in fairly traditional ways – as does Bishop Shaw but not Bishop Haines. The only protection is the ability to say “That sounds good bishop, but ‘thus saith the Lord…’ “; and the courage not to back down when threatened.

For the fact is: Bp. Shaw is a heretic. He stands in opposition to the faith of Scripture and the Catholic Church. Yet even in orthodox circles that term, a perfectly objective description is not used. But until it is used, and its implications raised, the orthodox resistance will rail every time it is truly challenged.

Turning on our own

Several times when the talk at some meeting turned to the defects of priests who had left the Episcopal Church, Fr Bradford stopped the rest of us with the comment that a losing army always turns on its own. He meant that it was easier and safer to shoot one’s friends than one’s conquerors. It was always a good word, a needed word, and, as it turned out, a prophetic word.

David Mills is the Director of Publishing at Trinity Episcopal school for Ministry and the editor of The Evangelical Catholic. Collapsing Churches: A Sociological Analysis. His reflections on the future of the mainline Churches in the United States, has been published in this country by Reform. His Email address is