ECUSA at the Brink?

The June General Convention

The future of the United States Episcopal Church (ECUSA) and its standing within the Anglican Communion now appears set to be determined chiefly by the June General Convention’s decisions on compliant-sounding resolutions that, as presently written, would nonetheless leave ECUSA ‘pointing in the same direction.’

In early May the Diocese of California averted a second major Convention struggle – and probable schism in the Communion –by passing up the chance to elect another actively gay bishop. The election of any one of the three homosexuals would have forced the June 13-21 General Convention in Columbus, Ohio, to register a stark up or down vote on the consecration of the candidate, one that either failed the church’s pro-gay stand or handed Anglican Primates (provincial leaders) a clear-cut means of declaring that ECUSA is ‘walking apart’ from the Communion.

On the surface, the election of Andrus, 49, may seem to suggest that the diocese yielded to pressure from the Archbishop of Canterbury and others not to widen the Communion’s conflict, and thereby handed a defeat to radical liberals who want ECUSA to be honest about its stand and accept the consequences (as evidenced by their efforts to pack the California slate with homosexuals).

Remarkably, such pressure came even from Episcopal Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold – the same man who agreed with fellow Primates in 2003 that Gene Robinson’s consecration would have devastating consequences for the Communion, and then acted as Robinson’s chief consecrator, setting those consequences in train. However, such official ‘encouragement’ looks unlikely to have been determinative in California, given the level of support Andrus received (on the third and final ballot, he garnered the backing of over 72% of the clergy and 54% of laity). None of the gay nominees received more than a handful of votes.

Nevertheless, the California election seems to have put more moderate liberals in the driver’s seat for General Convention. Their vehicle for getting where they want to go looks to be the report of a special ECUSA commission which go a bit farther than some predicted in trying to meet the expectations of the 2004 Windsor Report. Recent press reports that ECUSA was preparing to step back from its pro-homosexual policies were soon declared unfounded by conservative leaders, particularly as the resolutions do not urge the moratorium on non-celibate homosexual bishops sought by the Windsor Report, only the exercise of ‘very considerable caution’ in putting them forward.

All things considered, US conservatives see little chance that the Convention will adequately meet the minimal requests made of it, and – more importantly – no chance that it will answer the call underlying them, which is for real repentance and a broad return to scriptural fidelity and orthodoxy.

No repentance

‘Anybody with any sense knows that ECUSA is not going to repent,’ said Canon Bill Atwood of the Ekklesia Society. He recalled a survey in 2000 which showed that 42 (out of some 110) Episcopal dioceses had practicing homosexual clergy serving, 32 dioceses would ordain active homosexuals, and 22 dioceses were performing same-sex blessings. Still, some conservatives are worried that General Convention, bolstered by California’s internationally-watched election, may do well in appearing accommodating, and obscuring areas in which it falls short of expectations – thereby creating the kind of post-convention confusion and muddle in which liberals thrive, and conservatives flounder.

A major player in all this, of course, is Rowan Williams. In his series of utterances, the Archbishop stated, for example, that the Communion is in danger of a ‘visible rupture’ that could take decades to heal. Responding with ‘deep unease’ to the list of nominees for Bishop of California, he also called on ECUSA to uphold a moratorium on the consecration of non-celibate homosexuals, reiterating that the mind of the Communion on sexuality matters cannot be changed by one province alone.

The issues at stake in these ‘next critical months’ in the Communion’s life are ‘too important…to allow events to overtake us,’ said a leaked letter of invitation to the April 24 consultation from Dr Williams’ head of staff, Chris Smith. ‘The wording of the invitation makes it fairly clear that Lambeth [Palace] is expecting no backtrack from ECUSA and is therefore working out how to manage the oncoming schism,’ wrote The Times of London. Bishop Griswold also revealed that he had a private meeting with Dr Williams in Canterbury to discuss measures that ECUSA proposes to defuse the current crisis. Meanwhile, however, Williams has declined an invitation to make an appearance at the eight-day General Convention, citing pre-existing obligations.

Less than conciliatory

Crucial in all this is a report titled One Baptism, One Hope in God’s Call, from the Special Commission on the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. The report includes six sections covering topics arising out of the current feud, and offers eleven recommended resolutions. The resolutions could undergo revision as they are prepared for debate in Columbus by an eighteen-member special legislative committee. But among the resolutions are some deferential-sounding calls for the Convention to:

• commit to ‘interdependence’ in the Anglican Communion and to the ‘fellowship of churches that constitute’ it;

• commit to the Windsor process as it relates to communion and discerning ‘the nature and unity of the Church,’ and to the (Lambeth 1.10) listening process;

• commit to the process of developing an Anglican ‘covenant,’ recommended by the Windsor Report as a way to help ensure unity among provinces that adopt it ;

• endorse ‘effective and appropriate pastoral care for all’; demonstrate support for Anglicans around the world by supporting the Millennium Development Goals, including regular giving to support international development work;

• approve a curious canonical amendment that seems intended, in part, to ensure, after many long years, the end to discrimination against orthodox clergy and aspirants to ordination.

But while there are several significant caveats to be noted in those first motions, the rubber really meets the road in some of the few remaining ones. Over the course of two proposed resolutions, ECUSA

• would express ‘regret’ for pain caused by the actions of General Convention 2003, for contributing to the ‘strains on communion,’ and causing ‘deep offense’ to many faithful Anglicans;

• it would also apologize and repent for breaching the ‘bonds of affection’ in the Communion ‘by any failure to consult adequately with Anglican partners before taking these actions.’

But this appears to miss the mark again. According to Bishop Tom Wright of Durham, the Windsor Report’s reference to breaching the bonds of affection equates not with a failure to consult but with ‘going against the stated mind of the instruments of unity.’

Another resolution concurs with the Windsor Report request that the Convention should not authorize public rites of blessing for same-sex unions. But the same resolution allows ‘a breadth of private responses to situations of individual pastoral care for gay and lesbian’ church members; in other words, private same-sex blessings could continue, a loophole that would allow public rites to continue as well. Remaining resolutions would have the Convention reassert positions the church has already taken in support of homosexuals, with which few would argue, e.g. that they are entitled to equal protection under the law, and ‘are by baptism full members of the Body of Christ’ and ECUSA.

Consenting adults in private

ECUSA ‘should slow but not halt its push for gay bishops and blessings,’ was one conservative writer’s summation of the commission’s recommendations. Even the moderate Living Church magazine was under-whelmed. ‘At first glance, the proposed resolutions included with the report seem to be in concert’ with the Windsor recommendations, it said, ‘but instead it looks as though the commission was determined to change the words of these proposals to suit their own needs.’

That Communion leaders might say the same was the clear message of the Church of England’s Bishop of Exeter, Michael Langrish, to the March 17–22 House of Bishops (HOB) meeting at North Carolina’s Kanuga Conference Center, where the prelates were given preliminary information on the commission’s report and resolutions. Langrish basically ‘told the US bishops that the language of the special commission is not adequate,’ and ‘that if they consecrate another gay bishop or authorize same-sex relations, the Anglican Communion will break apart,’ and dialogue with Roman Catholics and Muslims will be finished, said The Times religion reporter Ruth Gledhill.

Significantly, Langrish spoke at the episcopal retreat as a representative of the Archbishop of Canterbury, which strongly suggests that the views he stated are those of Dr Williams. As well, he was among bishops invited to the private Lambeth Palace consultations in April. And he has, from past experience, some knowledge of the wider Communion, particularly the global South.

Langrish also effectively said that regrets expressed for ‘pain’ caused are insufficient. At issue, he said, was the creation of a bishop for the Church Catholic ‘who was in a relationship not liturgically sanctioned by the Church’ and without seeking the assent of the wider Church.

Concluding with a flourish, the Bishop of Exeter said, ‘So it does seem to me, as I listen to those other parts of the Communion that I know best, that any further consecration of those in a same-sex relationship, any authorization of any person to undertake same-sex blessings, any stated intention not to seriously engage with the Windsor Report, will be read very widely as a declaration not to stay with the Communion.’

Did they listen?

After the HOB meeting, Arizona Bishop Kirk Stevan Smith still seemed to think the proposed resolutions offered a way forward, because they signal ECUSA’s pledge to ‘work to conform’ to the Windsor expectations, ‘without backing away from decisions we have made.’ California’s Bishop Swing said ‘we are fighting over freedom, among other issues,’ and that there is ‘a mad dash to create a worldwide final arbiter – a Windsor Report or an archbishop or instruments of unity – which would…put an end to all of the mischief caused by freedom.’

Conservative Central Florida Bishop John Howe noted that some of his colleagues at the meeting immediately sought to clarify that the resolutions were not ‘forbidding’ sexually active gay bishops. He added that, while ‘many…bishops would not vote to authorize same-sex blessings at this moment…they will not forbid them… And we all know they are being performed all over this country. Not to forbid is to authorize. If General Convention fails to adopt a stance of genuine compliance with the Windsor recommendations (which I am certain it will not do), I don’t see how the Archbishop has any alternative but to declare that the majority of ECUSA has decided to ‘walk apart’ from the Anglican Communion.’

Primates and conservatives

One well-placed conservative leader says there are varying views among the conservative majority of Primates on the resolutions as they stand, and that some could by swayed by the perception of compliance that ECUSA wishes to give, or are looking for any excuse to get past the conflict. His lack of confidence about solidarity among the Primates extends to Archbishop Williams, whose actions he believes have supported the liberals – as shown, for example, by the dilatory Panel of Reference, charged with helping embattled faithful clergy and laity, which the Archbishop appointed and put under the leadership of a primate hostile to orthodox views. Williams has ‘killed’ the Panel, and thereby encouraged liberal bishops to continue oppressing the faithful, by allowing his staff to filter information to it.

Further, he said there is a ‘big fight’ underway over whether or not the Primates should meet within a few months after General Convention, rather than wait until their scheduled meeting in February. The Archbishop of the Southern Cone (of South America), Gregory Venables, also contended that Dr Williams and some other officials do not wish the Primates to meet early, an idea he thought ridiculous. ‘If one of my children fell down a hole I wouldn’t say I’ll deal with it next Tuesday,’ he remarked.

Venables sees a post-convention muddle as likely. Everyone will want to ‘pretend that things will be all right… Nobody wants to face the truth, but we have to,’ he said. The only hope, the only means of ‘shining a light into the cellar,’ is for the Primates to step in, he said.

How soon the Primates can shine such a light will be critical to conservatives in ECUSA, and especially to the movement led by the Anglican Communion Network. It seeks a united, biblical, orthodox American Anglicanism, one that, ideally and ultimately, would be expressed in an institutionally-distinct, Communion-recognized body.

In a recent commentary, Fort Worth Bishop Jack Iker contended that either leaving or staying in ECUSA could incur serious costs and consequences that should be considered. Indeed, at this writing, Network bishops were still not agreed on a unified, post-convention strategy, though there were plans for them to meet with the Bishop of Durham, N.T. Wright, at Nashotah House Seminary on May 17, to try to decide among different proposals. Among apparent possibilities is that, if ECUSA is deemed out of the Communion, the Network may not spearhead a separation from ECUSA as part of the push toward a separate province, as many expected. Rather, some or all of the ten ACN-aligned Episcopal dioceses could sit tight, taking the position that they have not gone anywhere, but ECUSA has.

Staying put

Some conservatives have already scored the ‘stay put’ approach as a strategy for slow but sure death, a loss of credibility and integrity, and a plan that – though conservatives agree that ECUSA’s injustice in this area should be redressed – is still too wedded to property and money. One bishop among the ACN-linked Common Cause Partners told TCC he gets the impression that most Network bishops are ‘trying to hold on until retirement and protect their dioceses and then it will be up to somebody else.’ Several conservative leaders TCC consulted maintained that people are ‘fed up with waiting,’ and that if the Network does not move en masse soon, or has no plan for joint movement, such movement will happen in pieces.

The exact flow of people and parishes leaving ECUSA after June remains to be seen, though some predict ‘chaos and haemorrhaging.’ While most are likely to seek oversight from a foreign Communion bishop, some could opt for one of the leading orthodox Anglican bodies outside ECUSA: the Anglican Mission in America, Reformed Episcopal Church, Anglican Church in America, Anglican Province of America, Anglican Province of Christ the King, or the Anglican Catholic Church.

One can appreciate, then, the great weight that Network bishops feel. Whatever they decide will have a big impact on the future of the conservative movement. Equally so, however, it is crunch time for ECUSA leaders, from whom many in the Communion are seeking signs of real transformation and reformation, both of which look to be in decidedly short supply in Columbus.

This analysis by its editor,

Auburn Traycik, appeared in a

recent edition of Washington based journal The Christian Challenge.