By Lauren R. Stanley
A group of 15 Episcopal bishops issued a statement last week that is without a doubt mind-boggling. It simply does not make sense.
These Communion Partner bishops, along with three Episcopal clergy who are members of the conservative Anglican Communion Institute, claim that there is, in reality, no Episcopal Church as it has existed since 1785. They claim that the Episcopal Church is nothing but a “voluntary association of equal dioceses.” They claim that dioceses are independent, and that bishops hold all of the power. They claim that the Presiding Bishop, the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, is not a metropolitan and has no authority.
In essence, what they are saying is that they do not belong to the greater community but rather are entities unto themselves, with all authority given to them.
Nothing binds us together, they claim, other than a mere desire to be bound together. No canons, no constitution, in essence, no Book of Common Prayer – nothing. In citing the history of the founding of the Episcopal Church at the end of the American Revolution, they somehow manage to twist that history to show that dioceses pre-existed the national church, and as such, somehow have no need of the national church. Dioceses, they say, “are both historically and ontologically prior to the Constitution and the General Convention.” But considering that only one of the 15 signatory bishops comes from an original diocese of the Episcopal Church (there were nine of them), it’s hard to figure out what these bishops mean. With the exception of South Carolina, all of the other dioceses came into being well after the Episcopal Church was founded, and all were founded at the direction of the Episcopal Church. So when they argue that the Episcopal Church doesn’t matter because dioceses predate it, even when most diocese do not in fact go back that far, they are doing nothing but going in circles.
Their arguments make about as much sense as the Commonwealth of Virginia saying it doesn’t really belong to the United States and thus can do whatsoever it pleases, regardless of what Congress, the administration and the Supreme Court says.
But that’s not all that boggles my mind over this statement.
What I also don’t get is that these same bishops are setting themselves up for a long, hard fall. Because if these dioceses and bishops can do whatever they want, then so can the rest of us. If this argument truly is what it seems to be – a justification for allowing individual bishops and dioceses to sign onto the yet-to-be-fully-known Anglican Covenant, regardless of what the Episcopal Church decides – then it means that those who do not want the Covenant (because we view it as non-Anglican, as still too confining, as still much too concerned with punishment and lacking in grace, as still ignoring the history of the Anglican Communion and its commitment to preaching to Gospel everywhere while at the same time honoring the exigencies of time and place), then we can reject it. Because according to the bishops’ arguments, everyone gets to do whatever they want. And no one can stop anyone else – because we are not one body, not one Church. We’re just a bunch of individual dioceses lacking any cohesion.
That’s why the arguments put forth by these bishops simply make no sense. They claim they want to remain in The Episcopal Church, which is good. But they also claim that contrary to history, contrary to their vows, contrary to the canons and constitutions, all is not as it seems, and they can change both history and the facts to fit their own desires.
What is it that they really want? I don't know. I can't tell, even after reading their statement numerous times. They quote extensively from the canons of both the Roman Catholic and Serbian Orthodox churches, and cite the governing documents of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church and the United Methodist Church, ignoring the fact that we are none of those. Each of those denominations has its own polity, which is different from ours. Their argument compares apples to oranges and says, “See?”
The statement also claims that the diocese is the “fundamental unit of The Episcopal Church,” and as such, individual dioceses can make individual decisions, regardless of what a national or provincial church decides. It seems as though, in order to get what they want, these bishops are willing to let the Episcopal Church descend into chaos.
And then, finally, there is the most telling sentence of all, the last one of the document: “We intend to exercise our episcopal authority to remain constituent members of the Anglican Communion and will continue to speak out on these issues as necessary.”
This statement isn’t about seeking a way out of a crisis, as it claims. It is, clearly, a power grab meant to ensure that these bishops not only can have their cake and eat it too, they can have and eat our cake as well.
I may not understand what these bishops are doing. But I do know this: Simply claiming that up is down and down is up doesn’t make either true. Likewise, simply claiming that dioceses are independent and not subordinate to the Episcopal Church doesn’t make either of those statements true either.
The Rev. Lauren R. Stanley is an Appointed Missionary of the Episcopal Church from the Diocese of Virginia. She is a temporarily serving in the United States.