Mending the Net

FOR a group lately depicted as vying to ‘replace’ the US Episcopal Church (ECUSA), the Network of Anglican Communion Dioceses and Parishes (NACDP) might seem to be taking its sweet and deliberate time.

On January 20, at Christ Episcopal Church, Plano, Texas, the Network – both a refuge and a mission base for orthodox Episcopalians, and with close ties to overseas Anglican primates – went formally into business.

The hundred-plus Episcopalians present for the closed-door deliberations signed off on a new charter that affirms old loyalties to ECUSA’s canons and constitution – but not specifically to the Episcopal Church, viewed as a structure.

Whether, and to what extent, NACDP members work within episcopal structures, the general expectation is that the Network will serve as a linkage point for orthodox Anglicans here and abroad as Anglican realignment goes forward.

The charter ties together twelve episcopal dioceses, along with the Anglo-Catholic organization, Forward in Faith-North America, (FiF-NA), and orthodox parishes in at least 40 dioceses. The parishes are grouped geographically in five convocations. FiF has its own non-geographical convocation, notwithstanding that the bishops of three Network dioceses – Fort Worth, Quincy (lll.), and San Joaquin (Calif.) – are also FiF-NA leaders.

According to the charter, the Network’s purpose is to ‘constitute a true and legitimate expression of the worldwide Anglican Communion’ – more nearly true, the charter implies, than the episcopal expression to which NACDP members, perhaps incongruously, still belong.

The Network is essentially a coalition of constituencies describing themselves as orthodox – and seeking to detach themselves from identification with the theological revisionism of Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold and the General Convention. Last year the convention notoriously approved, and Griswold participated in, the consecration of non-celibate homosexual Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire.

‘Moderator’ of the Network is Pittsburgh Bishop Robert Duncan, an Evangelical and first vice-president of the American Anglican Council. AAC leaders, prominent in the NACDP, carefully note the distinct identities of the two groups. The charter provides additionally for two executive bodies, a council and a steering committee.

Article III of the charter commits the Network to ‘the propagation of the unchanging Gospel of Jesus Christ and the fulfillment of the Great Commission to make disciples of all nations.’ Article VI invites ‘other like-minded dioceses, parishes, and congregations to apply for Network affiliation.’

Article V assures any isolated groupings the ministry of an orthodox bishop – by means kept vague at this early stage.

However, Network leaders, who say they formed their organization at the recommendation of Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, expect increasing co-operation with orthodox Anglican primates scandalized by the Robinson consecration. This, and the recently-announced fact that a group of ‘senior bishops’ is prepared to offer episcopal oversight across diocesan lines, even without permission from the local ECUSA bishop, appear to form the initial frontlines of the struggle between the Network and ECUSA’s liberal leaders. The two parties are already at odds over terms for the ‘adequate’ episcopal oversight that Anglican primates said should be provided for faithful church members in hostile circumstances.

But the newborn Network is already being favored by foreign Anglican leaders, particularly in the largely conservative global South, where Anglicanism is burgeoning. Hardly had the Plano meeting ended before Duncan and Dallas Bishop James M Stanton flew to Uganda for the consecration of new Archbishop Henry Orombi. Earlier, in a withering rebuke to ECUSA and Robinson, the Ugandan Church reminded Griswold that it was out of communion with ECUSA’s liberal leadership, and that the delegation he had been planning to send to the consecration was not welcome.

The Network at this early stage resembles in some particulars the ‘church-within-the-church’ model of the old Episcopal Synod of America (now FiF-NA). One key difference: Anglo-Catholic deference to ecclesial authority encouraged former Presiding Bishop Edmond Browning and several General Conventions to stonewall ESA’s repeated requests for a non-geographical orthodox province. A second difference: the resultant failure of the church-within-the-church approach proved the national church office’s disregard for the mounting distress of orthodox brothers and sisters. Against that history, Network leaders seem determined to act in their own interest rather than politely seek relief from the national office.

The twelve dioceses represented in Plano, representing about one-tenth of ECUSA’ present membership, were: Albany, Dallas, Fort Worth, Quincy, Central Florida, Florida, Pittsburgh, Rio Grande, San Joaquin, Springfield, South Carolina, and Western Kansas. Southwest Florida Bishop John B Lipscomb signed the original document of intent to form the network. However, Lipscomb, finding local support for the idea thinner than he had imagined, did not attend the Plano meeting.

Individual dioceses will vote at some point this year to commit themselves formally to Network membership – as happened in Fort Worth the day after the Plano meeting. The vote of the diocesan executive council was prompt and unanimous.

Plano attendees, after some conversation, disposed unanimously of a potentially divisive issue – women’s ordination. The charter’s Article VIII states simply that ‘affiliates of the Network hold differing positions regarding the ordination of women and pledge that we shall recognize and honor the positions and practices on this issue of others in the Network.’

Pittsburgh’s canon to the ordinary, the Revd Mary Hays, was especially helpful, participants said, in smoothing over divisions on the matter. ‘We have agreed’, Hays said at a closing press conference, ‘that this is an issue that divides us – I mean that we disagree about, but that will not divide us.’

It is a position that would not satisfy many Continuing Anglicans, and might even give pause to the Anglican Mission in America – which, after study, determined not to ordain women to the priesthood or episcopate. But for FiF members, who have long endeavored to uphold historic holy order in a church that had abandoned it (and has done its best to annihilate them), the Network would seem to hold the prospect for significant improvement and progress for toward the goal of unhindered orthodox life within the Anglican Communion.

An FiF delegate to the meeting, the Revd Dr John H Heidt of Dallas, said of the outcome, ‘We’re happy with it.’ On women’s ordination, as on every other issue, delegates achieved peace, not to mention unity and concord. Reported Heidt: ‘Every diocese in every convocation voted on every article of the charter. We revised it ’till we got it. We’re quite happy.’

William Murchison, The Christian Challenge (Washington, DC)