By Andrew Gerns
In the first of seven meetings around the Diocese of Albany, the Times-Union reports a statement by Bishop William Love that is very telling. He said that the militantly conservative stance of the diocesan leadership is justified because parishes that might have broken away from the Diocese (and the Episcopal Church) have not. Albany, he says, is in contact with "all of the Anglican Communion."
What part of the Anglican Communion is Albany in contact with that the rest of the Episcopal Church is not? Presumably provinces that have otherwise crossed-borders to “rescue” congregations from the oppression and heresy that they say is the Episcopal Church today. Maybe Albany is in contact with former Episcopalians who have formed their own denomination?
One hears out of this statement the idea that there may be another tack for conservative dioceses who are opposed to the ordination of gays and lesbians and see themselves as holding the line against interpretations of the Gospel that grieve them: a strategy of non-participation.
Bishop Mark Lawrence of South Carolina says that he is considering a position of withdrawal from participation in the Episcopal Church but not from the Church itself:
In our present situation some would counsel us that it is past time to cut our moorings from The Episcopal Church and take refuge in a harbor without the pluralism and false teachings that surround us in both the secular culture and within our Church; others speak to us of the need for patience, to “let the Instruments of Unity do their work”—that now is not yet the time to act. Still others seem paralyzed; though no less distressed than us by the developments within our Church, they seem to take a posture of insular denial of what is inexorably coming upon us all. While I have no immediate solution to the challenges we face—it is certainly neither a hasty departure nor a paralyzed passivity I counsel. Either of these I believe, regardless of what godly wisdom they may be for others, would be for us a false peace and a “fatal security” which in time (and brief at that) would only betray us. Others in their given circumstances must do what they believe God has called them to do.
Lawrence along with the Standing Committee of the proposes that the Diocesan Convention consider:
… a resolution … that this diocese begin withdrawing from all bodies of governance of TEC that have assented to actions contrary to Holy Scripture; the doctrine, discipline and worship of Christ as this church has received them; the resolutions of Lambeth which have expressed the mind of the Communion; the Book of Common Prayer (p.422-423) and the Constitution & Canons of TEC (Canon 18:1.2.b) until such bodies show a willingness to repent of such actions. Let no one think this is a denial of the vows a priest or bishop makes to participate in the councils of governance. This is not a flight into isolation; nor is it an abandonment of duty, but the protest of conscience.
Instead of attempting to remove the diocese from the Episcopal Church, Lawrence proposes non-participation as a “protest” using language that combines civil disobedience (we will do this until the Episcopal Church repents) and psychology (we are creating boundaries). What it really means is a decision to isolate.
This approach undercuts somewhat the claims of ACNA to be an Anglican Province because while it aides and abets the claim that the Episcopal Church has gone down the path of heresy and revision, it also understands that in this country a diocese can only be a member of the Anglican Communion through the Episcopal Church. It also assumes that ACNA is a separate denomination that is not in and of itself a successor to the Episcopal Church… a denomination that South Carolina will not join.
This approach is rather different from the position articulated by Bishop Edward Little of Northern Indiana who writes in Christianity Today:
Nor are our divisions as clear-cut as they may seem. It is not the case, in the Episcopal Church or in any other, that you've got believers on one side and heretics (or apostates) on the other. I know many in my church who love Jesus, confess him as Lord and Savior, believe the articles of the Christian faith as summarized in the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds, and seek to follow Jesus in costly ways—and who affirm the decisions of the 2003 General Convention. As a matter of principle, when people claim to be disciples of Jesus, I will treat them as brothers and sisters in Christ, Bishop Gene Robinson among them. He is not only a colleague; I count him as a friend and fellow pilgrim. I will commit myself to him and to them, even when I am convinced that they are wrong. I will seek to manifest a godly forbearance and ask that they do the same toward me.
On the contrary, Bishop Lawrence proposes a separation-without-leaving precisely because he sees the church as dividing up between believer and heretic. He sees the need to name and isolate the heresy he sees:
This calls for a bold response.” It is not in my opinion the right action for this diocese to retreat from a thorough engagement with this destructive “new” gospel. As the prophet Ezekiel was called by the Lord to be a Watchman, to sound the alarm of judgment—to warn Israel to turn from her wickedness and live. We are called to speak forthrightly to The Episcopal Church and others, but even more specifically to the thousands of everyday Episcopalians who do not yet know the fullness of this present cultural captivity of the Church. Clearly this is not about the virtue of being “excluding”; it is about being rightly discerning about what is morally and spiritually appropriate.
The idea that Lawrence is proposing (and I believe Love of Albany will also attempt) is to maintain just enough membership links to be considered apart of the Episcopal Church but no more.
The choice of non-participation recognizes that outright secession would not work: it would result in expensive and lengthy court battles, with the likely loss of their physical assets.
At the same time, it is still based on an understanding of the diocese as a more or less independent entity. To choose non-participation is to say, in effect, to the rest of us “I have no need of you.”
South Carolina and other Dioceses considering this course must tread carefully. To steer this course, their diocesan conventions must avoid passing provocative legislation claiming to renounce or interfere with the authority of General Convention or the Presiding Bishop. Their bishops must avoid saying words or doing actions that makes it appear as if they have renounced their orders in the Episcopal Church, such as preventing the visit of the PB to their diocese, unilaterally claiming another Primate as their own nor formally aligning with a foreign province in a way that creates a new denomination.
A non-participating diocese may develop partner relationships with other Anglican dioceses in the Communion (as many participating dioceses have done) and even sign on to some kind of Anglican Covenant, if one ever materializes, with or without the rest of the Episcopal Church. The fact that a lone signature on such a document may not mean anything either legally or globally is irrelevant, because it would symbolize where the non-participating diocese "stands."
If these dioceses choose the tack of non-participation without leaving then there may be little 815 or anyone else—including the moderates and progressives in their own dioceses—can do about this.
This approach does not mean that there would an absence of provocative actions or words. A bishop of a "non-participating" diocese might show up at an ACNA function, for example. But in itself, this means nothing. A Bishop showing up at an ACNA function may be no more significant than an Episcopal bishop showing up at a Lutheran or Roman Catholic or some ecumenical function. Bishops, clergy and lay-leaders may say harmful or hurtful things about the Episcopal Church in the press. This approach would not lessen the division nor promote dialogue, but it falls short of outright schism.
A non-participating diocese would not pay their "asking" nor give money to any Episcopal organization like ERD or ECW that they believed concurs with decisions of General Convention they don’t like. They would not send representatives to these groups nor participate in the committees of General Convention. This would be disappointing, but since The Episcopal Church has never linked participation to paying a fair share of the "asking" nor is participation on the councils of the church a prerequisite to anything, these actions would not by themselves constitute renunciation.
It would take a lot of fortitude to maintain a non-participating status. The leadership in such a diocese would have to be careful not to get to cocky or impulsive on the one hand, and to deal with a loneliness and self-imposed isolation on the other.
They would also choose to isolate themselves from the rest of the Episcopal Church that they have chosen not to leave: they would lose connection with moderate and moderate-t- conservative dioceses that remain participatory. They would attract to themselves clergy who are passionate for what could become a narrower and narrower view of the Gospel and they would squelch the voices and inquiry of laity who have a broader view of church and mission than their leaders. Doctrinal enforcement would become an issue that could further dampen a dynamic common life and mission. They might network with other non-participating dioceses but before long this would be like phone calls between silos. It would be hard to avoid become self-absorbed and parochial in such an environment.
This approach is not new. Three of the dioceses that attempted to leave for a new denomination with all their property and assets to another province—Fort Worth, San Joaquin and Quincy—also took a non-participating stance after the ordination of women. The Episcopal Church allowed this under a “conscience clause” but after three decades of non-participation, the leadership could no longer contain themselves nor hold the line and attempted to bolt. In Pittsburgh, non-participation led to a kind of myopia that assumed that their perspective was more widely held than it turned out to be. The lessons of these non-participating dioceses ought to provide a sobering example to South Carolina, Albany and others considering staying but not participating.
But as long as the Bishops shows up where they are (minimally) supposed to, and as long as their Standing Committees do the barest canonical essentials of their jobs, as long as the Diocese send deputies to General Convention, and as long as no Bishop, diocesan convention or parish says "I am no longer Episcopalian", then there is no reason to consider the bishop or diocese as having left the Episcopal Church.
Absent maybe, but not departed.