THE MAKING OF THE PRESIDENT
IN EARLY APRIL, the appropriate committee released the list of candidates to succeed Bp Edmond Browning as Presiding Bishop. Bp Browning’s term ends with the Convention this July, at which the House of Bishops, meeting in secret, will choose one of their fellows (it will not be a woman, this time) to lead the Episcopal Church for the next nine years.
They nominated four bishops, all of whom were expected: Bishops Griswold of Chicago, Schimpfky of El Camino Real (which lies between Los Angeles and San Francisco), Rowley of Northwest Pennsylvania, and Wimberly of Lexington (Kentucky).
The candidates Bp Griswold is a leader of the American version of the “affirming catholics,” and Bp Schimpfky was before his election chairman of the standing committee of the Diocese of Newark. Both of which say as much as one needs to know. Both signed Bp Spong’s “Koinonia Statement” declaring, with just enough qualification to confuse the matter, their rejection of traditional moral teaching.
Bps Rowley and Wimberly are both “centrists,” which means cautious liberals who prefer to revise the Faith gradually, over time, and without scaring the old people. Rowley led the committee that proposed the new canon (3.8.1.) requiring acceptance of the ordination of women. All four candidates voted for the canon, when in 1995 the House of Bishops approved it by a margin of seven to one.
It is hard to predict the vote, in part because one doesn’t know how much personalities will affect the bishops. I first suspected the list had been designed to elect Wimberly, as one who would advance liberalism but had not offended conservatives. Other observers, describing him as “a failed bishop,” have reported that Griswold was the committee’s favourite, but others, citing the questions some have about Griswold, think that the list was designed to elect Schimpfky. No one I know thinks that Rowley will be elected.
The question for the orthodox bishops is what to do. The conservative instinct is to find a political solution, because not to do so would mean a rupture in their relations with the “mainstream,” the cost of which would be high even within their own dioceses. Nevertheless, to attempt a political solution would be, I think, a mistake.
The lesson of the past Twelve years ago, the committee proposed two liberals and two moderates. Neither of the moderates had a chance of being elected, and of the liberals Bp Browning was thought to be less radical and easier to deal with than the fourth candidate, Bp Walker of Washington. Reportedly, Bp Walker was ahead on the first ballot, and to keep him from being elected the conservative bishops transferred their votes to Bp Browning.
It was a foolish manoeuvre, given both Bp Browning’s complete commitment to “progressive” causes and his great subtlety in advancing them. They should have voted for the man they wanted and let the House of Bishops choose whom it would. The Church would have been much more polarized –- which is what they feared – but the division would have forced them to make painful decisions then, when they were easier to make than they are now.
Polarization would have made things much clearer, and clarity is a condition of true resistance and revival. Instead, in the fog, the poisonous fog – the fog they helped create – the orthodox have been unable to see clearly enough to move quickly or even to be sure they were moving in the right direction, and after years of groping in the fog have become enfeebled and blinded.
Even believing bishops tend to prefer confusion to clarity, because clarity endangers the peace of the institution they run. Confusion is always safer; one might escape a predator in a fog. Bishops are generally managers, rarely prophets, even when the times require prophets.
Cutting a deal I’ve heard rumours already that the conservative bishops want to “cut a deal” with Wimberly, exchanging their votes for his promise to give them some freedom. The problem is that no matter what Wimberley agrees to do, a presiding bishop’s power to retard the progress of liberalism is limited, and cannot provide the freedom from restraints conservative bishops want.
He could promise not to enforce the 3.8.1. canon, but there is no way he could stop other bishops from charging the Synod bishops for disobeying it (only ten bishops are needed to bring charges), nor stop the court from convicting them (they would be tried by the same court that acquitted Bp Righter).
It is also rumoured that they will nominate from the floor the Bishop of Southern Ohio, Herbert Thompson. Bp Thompson is black and said by supporters to be “a closet Evangelical.” (Which raises the question: why would one want an Evangelical who is hiding in the closet, if an Evangelical is one who proclaims the Evangel?)
His being black may tempt white liberals, though I think the advancement of homosexuality is now much, much more important to them than the breaking of racial barriers. Bp Thompson has voted against the homosexualist cause and therefore lost their votes. He could be elected, I suppose, if I am wrong in thinking that most “centrists” are quietly in favour of the homosexualist cause.
Were I a bishop, I think I would abstain from voting. None of the candidates will speak boldly and clearly for biblical, catholic Christianity, all will try to forbid obedience to the New Testament position on men and headship, and all will leave open for “dialogue” and “discovery” and “growth” questions which have clear biblical answers, which is as great a form of infidelity as denying the biblical answers outright.
This sort of leadership does not meet the conditions for being an elder given in the New Testament and thus one cannot rightly vote for it. That the candidates are “the best we can hope for” (as some conservatives are now pleading) does not seem to me sufficient reason to raise to headship men who are so clearly unfitted for it.
To accept “the best we can hope for,” if it is not good enough, is to make an idol of the Episcopal Church. It is to help make a fog in which the light cannot shine.
We are, I think, at or even well past the point at which lesser evils can be accepted, even if rejecting them seems to advance greater evils – in part because the participation of good men in those lesser evils is one of the main ways greater evils are advanced. Just look at where voting for Bp Browning 12 years ago has led the Church, and us.
As I wrote in February, just nine years ago, at the first General Convention Browning presided over, Bp Spong was a “lonely prophet” for claiming that homosexuality was a good thing, and now one-third of the bishops have signed their names to a statement making the same claim, and the acceptance thereof is in practice (and, through the Righter court, in law) the teaching of the Episcopal Church. At that same Convention, Browning declared that there would be “no outcasts” in his Church; now he has approved a canon that would make outcasts of those who only hold what the Episcopal Church itself held till 1976.
These are extraordinary changes in just 9 years. The effect of the conservative bishops’ attempt at damage control was simply far greater damage, not only to the Church as an institution, but to human souls.
David Mills is editor of The Evangelical Catholic, the journal of the Episcopal Synod of America, and director of publishing at Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry.