Excluding Your Enemy: A Comment on the Present State of Episcopal Church

“The very public and evangelically shameful debates of these past years have poisoned our church and our hearts. “Quisling”, “apostate”, “bigot”, and “homophobe”, as deployed in these exchanges have been terms that serve one purpose ….”

We write to bring to the attention of the Bishops, Priest, Deacons and Lay Persons of The Episcopal Church (TEC) a matter of grave concern. It is a matter that, left unaddressed in the decision-making of General Convention, now threatens the integrity and public witness of everyone who calls him or herself an Episcopalian: is our church prepared to permit in its midst clergy and lay leaders who, however much they represent a minority opinion, are committed to a traditional reading of TEC’s Prayer Book and Constitution? Or will TEC instead seek to drive such persons out, by invective, discrimination, and abuse of the disciplinary canons?

The current situation that has given rise to this question is long in the making. Over the last few decades, debates over women’s ordination first, and then over same-sex affirmation, particularly associated with Gene Robinson’s election and consecration as bishop of New Hampshire, set in motion dynamics of mutual recrimination and finally litigious confrontation. Some more conservative members of TEC left, others were determined to stay, and the lines of acrimony and litigation proliferated, abetted by new internet media.

The very public and evangelically shameful debates of these past years have poisoned our church and our hearts. “Quisling”, “apostate”, “bigot”, and “homophobe”, as deployed in these exchanges have been terms that serve one purpose. They place those to whom they refer in a realm of moral and/or religious darkness. People who by Baptism are brothers and sisters in Christ are now placed outside the circle of fellowship. These terms signal de facto excommunication. It is not surprising, therefore, that on a number of occasions the breaks in fellowship that have littered the last two decades were followed by direct calls by progressives for opponents of the sanctification of same-gender sexual relations to leave the church. At the same time those who had left called upon those who remained to do the same. The tensions over sexual ethics within TEC thus produced a curious outcome. Those who disagreed with the direction in which TEC was headed were called upon to leave both by those who agreed and those who disagreed with the course TEC seemed and still seems to be following.

It is also the case, however, that, from both left and right, calls for dissenters to leave TEC had their origin in animosity and private judgment rather than in a recognized process of ecclesial judgment. Given the poisoned atmosphere, it was inevitable perhaps that attempts to be rid of the dissenters by means of official processes would follow their vilification. And follow they did – which brings us into the present: In 2013, accusations related to Title IV of the Canons were brought against a number of Bishops and Presbyters – including some of us at ACI — because they had signed an Amicus Brief with the Texas Supreme Court arguing, on the basis of TEC’s Constitution, for a more decentralized notion of diocesan authority vis a vis the General Convention of TEC than that presented by the lawyers of the Presiding Bishop.

Because of this action the dissenting Bishops and Presbyters were accused of violating the Constitution and Canons of The Episcopal Church. The accusation remains quite troubling. Because Bishops and Presbyters, who are charged with upholding the doctrine and discipline of The Episcopal Church, opposed a reading of that doctrine and discipline held by the current lawyers of the Presiding Bishop and because they had shared these views with a court of law charged with adjudicating a dispute among Episcopalians, they were accused of violating both TEC’s doctrine and discipline and their ordination vows. The very idea was Orwellian. The accused, after all, had contributed their views to this secular legal process only in reaction to cases brought in the first instance not by them but by the Office of the Presiding Bishop.

The dissenting clergy firmly believed a legal victory by the lawyers representing the Office of the Presiding Bishop would give the Presiding Bishop and the General Convention inordinate and unconstitutional power to enforce their views of church doctrine and discipline on dissenters of any stripe. Had the Office of the Presiding Bishop prevailed, the animus expressed in the phrase “You ought to leave” would have moved from private opinion to the official judgment “you are out”, and this new power of judgment would have become the prerogative of the Presiding Bishop’s office. There is no small amount of irony in the fact that subsequently courts in Texas, Illinois and South Carolina have agreed with the constitutional arguments the dissenting Bishops and Presbyters presented. It is also ironical that progressive voices that once called for dialogue in respect to divisive issues now called for the departure of their opponents.

These events occurred just two years ago. But in the build-up to the General Convention this July, other matters provide a new basis for the dynamics of vituperative exclusion. Calls are being made, for instance, that newly elected bishops actually be asked “are you or have you ever been associated with the ACI?”; a positive response being seen as grounds for refusal of consent. More intricately, formal proposals are being pressed at the upcoming General Convention to change TEC’s canons so that same-gender marriage and not just blessings are permitted. Should these efforts succeed, the General Convention by simple say-so will have rendered the stated doctrine of marriage in the Book of Common Prayer without binding authority. Anticipating this outcome many claim that Bishops will have to permit same gender blessings and marriages in their diocese or face discipline, just as did those who suggested that TEC’s Constitution be read in a way contrary to the current Presiding Bishop’s. There is good reason to believe that this change in doctrine and practice will become mandatory in all dioceses. Indeed, as we write, the blogs are filled with invective and statements to the effect that “It’s time for those who disagree to leave.”

Invective aside, we do not believe that TEC’s constitution, in respect to doctrine and worship, permits making obligatory for a Diocesan Bishop anything other than the Book of Common Prayer. Obviously, this is an arguable position, but the argument in support is powerful. It is based on a careful reading of TEC’s constitution. Any contrary opinion must be based on the same sort of close reading if it is to claim a serious right to be heard. This dispute touches the ecclesial fate of all, and it deserves better than name-calling and threats of discipline and deposition for those who disagree. Sadly, patience for careful reading and discussion has evaporated. Threats of discipline and legal action against questioners, no matter the care and rigor of their questioning, are now mounting in frequency and these threats have behind them a history of being carried out.

Unfortunately, these important matters are being fought over and decided in an atmosphere of animosity, threat, fear, character assassination and intimidation. What astonishes us is less that these conditions have come to be and more that our leaders remain silent in their midst. They have watched this drama unfold before their eyes for some time—slander, disciplinary vendettas, attempts to bully, along with constitutional and theological indifference. If those of us who oppose the current trends were to ask, “Should we leave?” these leaders would surely answer “No, of course not! We value your witness.” But everything they permit to take place in the church belies this assurance. Though faithful and God-loving leaders of our church, they remain silent before the verbal abuse, the threats, the highly questionable canonical procedures, the exorbitant expenditures on legal action and the very obvious disregard of TEC’s constitution. Those of us who now comprise the dissenting minority wonder aloud if it is not the case that the silence of our leaders stems from an assumption that “If we do nothing, they will leave.”

Those who know us know that we are committed, well-tested members of The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. Together for almost 50 years we have tried to understand what this membership means and place it within the context of what it means to be a Christian in a fallen world and in a broken church. The issue has to do with faithfulness, perseverance and the person, calling and image of Christ. Our concerns are not about power, money, or influence, but about our common place in Christ’s church and his world. We have written articles and long books on what it means to be a member of Christ’s body. In view of the scope of Christ’s Lordship, we often wonder why we should serve a particular church that in the form of its prosecuting executive clearly does not want us as its members, let alone its servants and friends. So we ask: does our faithfulness belong here or elsewhere?

Our answer continues to be that we must remain in TEC with patient endurance until we are driven out. Alas, it appears that the season of our being driven out has begun. As individuals, our standing matters little. But a church that is in the grip of invective and political attempts to be rid of its articulate critics matters a great deal, at least in its loss of integrity. We can only pray that some of our leaders who see what is happening will speak up, now and as the General Convention unfolds, even if it means opprobrium will also fall on their heads.

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