by Rev. Dr. Ephraim Radner
Wednesday, 23 January 2008
As Anglican Christians, both within and outside TEC, what are we to make of the disciplinary process against Pittsburgh’s Bishop, Robert Duncan, now initiated by the Presiding Bishop? In brief, I would urge TEC and other Anglican bishops to pray for and take action so that this process pauses indefinitely. They should do this for the sake of genuinely seeking discernment and resolution as to the ordering of our common life as Anglicans. There is nothing that legally demands that the process be carried through at this point and in the manner now laid out. There is every Christian reason to work for some other outcome.
I. First, the engagement of the process itself appears to have been inevitable, at least once the various positions regarding the actions of General Convention 2003 were laid out, adopted, and embraced by different parties in the church. That is not in dispute. And once the complainants against Bishop Duncan formally made their charges to the Review Committee, an examination and determination as to Bp. Duncan’s adherence to the Episcopal Church’s Constitution and Canons was necessarily demanded.
II. Second, the use of Title IV.9 - “abandonment of communion” - was reasonably applied in this determination, since at issue in the charges was whether Bp. Duncan was actively and deliberately working to disengage himself and his diocese from the legally organized life of the Episcopal Church, and the canon in question is aimed at a bishop who makes an “open renunciation of the Doctrine, Discipline, or Worship” of the church. “Discipline” certainly includes such legally organized life and an “open renunciation” might well be interpreted as including active, articulated, and hortatory efforts at effecting a formal disengagement, for himself and his diocese, from such a life.
III. However, third, it is an open question as to whether “the Doctrine, Discipline, or Worship of this church” are in fact being upheld and/or embodied by the current executive offices of the Episcopal Church. (Myself, I believe they are not; but that is not the point here.) The question is “open” because it has been in dispute, at least since General Convention 2003. It has been disputed in the explicit mind of a series of TEC bishops, theologians, clergy, and laity, as well as in the explicit mind of other formal leaders and members of the Anglican Communion, of which the Episcopal Church is bound, by its own Constitution, to be a “constituent member”. The dispute has been openly engaged, and has continued unabated, and in fact with growing force, despite attempts by General Convention 2006 and meetings by the TEC’s House of Bishops to answer, in certain respects, charges as to the constitutional integrity of its executive life.
IV. Fourth, and to further explicate the previous point, this dispute is not an artificial or tendentious construct insofar as it touches the “Doctrine, Discipline, and Worship of this church”. The matter of “discipline” is bound up with a host of extensive theological and practical realities that, as we know, include liturgy and liturgical form, teaching, moral behavior, and the more narrow “disciplinary” matters of how clergy and bishops are directed, admonished, and corrected. When, as has happened in now literally hundreds of cases among clergy (and some bishops), an ordained Episcopalian declares that it is no longer possible to “keep” his or her “ordination vows” given the formal teaching, decisions, and actions of the executive leadership of the Episcopal Church itself, and on grounds that have been concretely enumerated in a host of cases and with respect to a host of matters, just insofar as this, the question of whether that leadership itself has openly renounced the Doctrine, Discipline, and Worship of this church has been formally raised. Raised and asserted, furthermore, by the departure of many thousands of the faithful.
V. Fifth, the Title Review Committee that received the charges against Bishop Duncan and formally “certified” his “abandonment of communion” simply and irresponsibly ignored this serious dispute in question and its constraining implications for their decision-making. They did not even make an attempt to assess the nature of the charges brought to them and argue for their pertinence to their judgment.
VI. Sixth, there has not yet been an agreed upon method for resolving this dispute both as to what amounts to the “Doctrine, Discipline, and Worship of this church” and as to what constitutes its “open renunciation”. There has certainly been no method accepted where each party to the dispute accuses the other of such a renunciation, and the very instruments of (quite limited) disciplinary adjudication within the church are governed by the very executive leadership who is an accused party to the dispute. If “interested parties”, in the sense of those who actually stand so accused by one party or the other of such “open renunciation” were to recuse themselves from a decision in this matter, much of House of Bishops itself would need to stand aside, let alone a host of other members in leadership positions within the church. This fact makes the failure in acknowledging and analyzing our church’s dispute and of carefully arguing a case by the Title IV Review Committee particularly suspect and egregious: they have failed to engage the actual disordered life of the church whose order they are duty-bound to uphold.
VII. Seventh, there are difficult and maddeningly slow formal attempts unfolding, yet unfolding nonetheless, within the Anglican Communion as a whole to begin to identify a means of getting through this adjudicatory impasse. It involves a host of synods, including the Lambeth Conference, and a proposed “covenant”, among other things. Since no one has offered an agreeable alternative to these unfolding attempts, they remain the primary means, indeed the only means available to all parties in the dispute to move forward. They are, furthermore, in keeping with the long traditions of catholic order and deserve a presumptive respect. Yet because they are both slow, still imperfectly defined, and legally of untested strength, the ultimate usefulness of these unfolding attempts must depend on a host of other Christian realities that - most would agree - actually define the Church of Jesus Christ far more essentially, primarily, and profoundly than do simply the Constitution and Canons of this or that province or diocese (indeed, that latter are, in a Christian sense, legitimate only to the degree that they embody these prior realities). These realities touch upon the gifts and fruit of the Holy Spirit and the powers thereof that permit a clear following of the Lord Jesus Christ’s own straightforward calling to specific forms of relational behavior. They touch upon matters of humility, patience, longsuffering, honesty and transparency, self-control, and much more. That is, both the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion of which it is still a part and which it has, rightly or wrongly, so disturbed through its executive actions, have been thrown upon a complete dependence upon these gifts and fruit, in a way that must transcend, even while respecting for the sake of the world’s order, particular rules and regulations.
VIII. Eighth, and proceeding directly from the above, it is a vocational imperative incumbent upon the executive leadership of TEC as well as upon those questioning its legitimacy, to defer to the burden and grace of these gifts and fruit during this time. This is a large part of what it means to be a “Christian leader”. This must mean setting aside the legal - including canonical - strategies and manipulations designed to create new formal relationships of what used to be called “dominion” - “lordship” over property, goods, and persons. Ad hoc arrangements are inevitable during a “truce” - and the tradition of a “truce of God” (treuga Dei) for the sake a temporal space for resolution has real, if historically ineffective, roots in the Christian Church. But ad hoc arrangements should not trespass into areas of final legal and structural determinations. The poison of property’s enslaving demand, transferred to new areas of personal “dominion”, has long ruined most reform movements among Christians, and, whatever need there may appear to be to lay the legal groundwork for property “claims” through structural and formal disciplinary actions taken immediately and ruthlessly, such a pursuit of this need as we are now seeing is an affront to the Holy Spirit’s own restraining, and thereby ordering and fruitful mission.
XI. Finally, and in view of the above, I would urge the bishops of TEC, when the matter of Bp. Duncan’s status and discipline is raised before them, as now it must be, to vote to table it indefinitely. That is within their power; and it is demanded, I believe, by the evangelical needs of this church and her people. The bishops might then use the disciplinary energies and resources of our church, instead, to pursue and submit in patience to the task and outcome of our larger Church’s resolution of our dispute. Having fulfilled her canonical duties in forwarding the Review Committee’s decision, however ill-formed, to the House of Bishops, the Presiding Bishop herself should now use her persuasive and parliamentary powers to accomplish just such a vote to table the matter.
TEC is embroiled in a territory of adjudication precisely to the degree that her official leadership has pressed forward to “do a new thing” for which there is no disciplinary direction apart from what, in the past and within current Anglican Communion teaching and direction, has clearly forbidden this very thing they have done. As the Anglican Communion Institute has consistently argued, TEC’s leadership cannot do this and then say they are in a position to judge anything, except by an intrinsically novel, and therefore communally questionable, standard.