Who can speak for the Church?

Lionel Deimel writes of his concern that the provisional bishop of Pittsburgh, Ken Price, has signed onto a document that opposes a federal mandate regarding universal access to contraceptives.

“I was upset to learn today that the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh—its bishop, anyway—signed on to a statement by Christian Associates of Southwest Pennsylvania (CASP) expressing opposition to the federal mandate that institutions with a religious affiliation must provide no-cost contraceptives to their female employees.

[…]Upset as I am about the CASP statement, I am that much more upset by the fact that my own bishop, Kenneth Price, was willing to lend his support to this horrible document. It is even more galling that our deposed bishop, now Archbishop of the Anglican Church of North America Robert Duncan, is so publicly associated with the statement.

I do not doubt that Duncan supported the statement with some enthusiasm, but his appearance at the news conference was largely dictated by the fact that he is the current chair of the Council of Bishops and Judicatory Executives of Christian Associates. Interestingly, although 26 judicatories of various churches are represented in CASP, the 18 signers of the statement represent only about 14 of them. Apparently, the thinking on this matter was less than uniform. Reputedly, some did not sign due to restrictions on what their representatives to CASP are allowed to do. The United Methodist Conference of Western Pennsylvania is not represented on the statement, however, because the United Methodist Church has a policy of supporting universal access to reproductive services. (Apparently, the Methodists know insincerity when they see it.)

It is not actually clear to me that Bishop Price had the right to commit the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh to the CASP statement, a matter that perhaps will need to be considered at the next diocesan convention. Certainly, he does not represent my own view in this case, and I know he does not represent the views of a number of fellow Episcopalians with whom I have discussed this matter.”

I think Lionel’s issue is not so much that his bishop apparently holds a view regarding this matter that is different than his own, but that the bishop’s signature on the document makes it appear that the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh has taken a stance it hasn’t formally taken.

Is there a way that Bishop Price could have signed onto the statement in a way that makes it clear that he’s speaking personally and not on behalf of the diocese?

This is an issue for lay and clergy leaders as well. One of my predecessors in a previous congregation created a stir that ultimately cost him his job when we wrote an op-ed piece in the local newspaper that took a stance that his congregation disagreed with. They claimed he was putting words in their mouths.

How have you seen this tension between speaking prophetically to the world and speaking corporately for the body managed? Is it a fair concern?

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Category : The Lead

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  1. Bill Ghrist

    Repeating the comment I made on Lionel’s blog:

    I expressed my displeasure with this to Bishop Price on Sunday (he was at my parish for confirmation). He says that he signed the statement as an individual, not as a representative of the Diocese or of the Episcopal Church, and that he made that clear to Don Green [Executive Director of Christian Associates of Southwest Pennsylvania]. He said that Episcopal Church polity permits him to state his own opinion publicly, but that it would require action of Diocesan Convention for him to make such a statement on behalf of the Diocese, and that he assumes that Episcopalians would understand that. Unfortunately, the news article does not make that clear. It does not actually state that this represents the position of the various denominations, but it could easily be misinterpreted that way.

    Bishop Price said that the statement was hashed out over a period of time, but he was not present for much of that discussion. He said that the original proposal by (Roman Catholic) Bishop Zubik was quite a bit more radical (calling for the elimination of the health care mandate completely).

    He says that one of the advantages of being an Episcopalian is that we are allowed to disagree with each other. I accept that, and I exercised my prerogative by expressing my disagreement with the statement.

    Bill Ghrist

  2. Nicole Porter

    I don’t see how this is any different than clergy signing and marching on behalf of making civil marriage available to homosexual couples. Just like they don’t speak for the entire church, nor does +Price and he made that clear. I don’t see the issue here.

  3. Bill Dilworth

    I think it’s a fair and important concern.

    I like the Bishop of Rhode Island, Geralyn Wolf; she’s also someone for whom I have a good deal of respect. She attends our parish when her schedule allows it, so we probably see her more often than other parishes do. Last year, however, she released a statement in the RI Catholic (which was also picked up by the Providence Journal, IIRC) that genuinely angered me, supporting the benighted stance of the RC Bishop of Providence, Thomas Tobin, on same-sex marriage.

    It wasn’t the fact that her stance differed from mine – I knew that she was opposed to gay marriage and SSBs. The real problem as far as I was concerned was that the statement was poorly reasoned, and muddied the water by confusing civil marriage with the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony. It implied , contrary to fact, that legalized same-sex marriage was a threat to religious institutions’ freedom. I found the illogic of the statement a problem, and thought that her supporting the rather belligerent RC bishop made our diocese look bad by association.

    She made the statement in her capacity as Bishop of Rhode Island. She is that, of course, and I didn’t think at the time that there was a problem in her speaking in that capacity. Looking back, I think that she ought to have made it clear that she was speaking for herself, and not expressing the mind of the Diocese of Rhode Island.


  4. Bill Dilworth

    Nicole, one problem with the CASP statement is that the Diocese of Pittsburgh is a “judicatory member” of CASP, an ecumenical organization, and Bishop Price serves on its board. The statement itself specifically says that CASP “includes 26 church bodies (Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant) representing 2,000 local congregations and 1,000,000 Christians in the following counties…” It’s not really clear at all that Bishop Price was signing as an individual, and from where I sit makes it look as if the Diocese of Pittsburgh itself backs the statement.

  5. Nicole Porter

    Hopefully he would make an official statement to his diocese reassuring them that he is speaking only for himself.

  6. John D

    It wouldn’t much matter how much respect I hold for Bishops Wolf or Price as fellow Christians if their public witness weren’t so deplorable. Really, Bp. Price, contraception shouldn’t be covered by insurance if the boss doesn’t like the idea?And Bp. Wolf stands with the Roman hierarchy in discrimination against same-sex partners who aspire to Holy Matrimony, or even, what? I’m happy I live in Georgia, where the politicians are bigots but the bishops guide a progressive, loving church that supports the full inclusion of all G-d’s people and wouldn’t dream of worrying about family planning.

    John Donnelly (added by ~ed.)

  7. Nicole Porter

    Bishop Wolf stands with most Christians worldwide. Opening the sacrament of matrimony to homosexual couples is a minority view, not necessarily in TEC but in Christendom as a whole.

  8. tgflux

    Our standard from Christ, Nicole, is “what you do for the least of my brethren“—not “Christendom as a whole” (for 2000 years, sadly, a very goat-y bunch).

    JC Fisher

    P.S. Just to be preemptory: if you respond re “least of these”, say, “Ugandan”, I’ll respond “Gay Ugandan”. Capice?

  9. Bill Dilworth

    What was significant about Bp Wolf’s statement wasn’t so much what she believes about Holy Matrimony, but the apparent confusion between it and civil marriage. They are not the same thing, at least in this country. A legal marriage is not necessarily a sacramental one.

  10. Bishops should, of course, be able to speak out on any issue as long as it is clear that they are speaking as a bishop of TEC but not necessarily speaking for the diocese or the church at large. (If a bishop does this often enough in ways that offend members of the diocese, his or her doing so will eventually increase tension in the diocese, however.)

    The real problem with the statement signed by Bishop Price is that his endorsement can easily be mistaken for a diocesan endorsement. No one doubted, for example, that the local Roman Catholic bishop, David Zubik, the instigator of the statement, was representing his diocese and his church by attaching his name to it. A reader has no way of knowing that Bishop Price’s endorsement is of a different kind.

  11. www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1290683760

    Bishops are ordained, among other things, to “share in the leadership of the Church throughout the world” and “boldly proclaim and interpret the Gospel of Christ, enlightening the minds and stirring up the conscience of” the “people.” I would expect that from time to time this consecrated duty will lead them to say and do things that may not be popular or the majority opinion of the people of their dioceses. It especially annoys me, of course, when bishops disagree with me. Nonetheless, I would be concerned about any expectation that a bishop limit his or her public ministry to that of a functionary of the majority stance of a diocese. To use the General Convention vocabulary, we elect our bishops to be “deputies,” not “delegates.” For sure, as per Bill above, it is of course appropriate to tell your bishop that you disagree with him or her. To engage in a dialogue. Perhaps he or she will learn something, and perhaps you will too. But our bishops speak not as “private individuals” nor as “delegates of the current opinion of the diocese,” but to the best of their ability in the inheritance of “patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and martyrs, and those of every generation who have looked to God in hope.”

    Bruce Robison

    Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

  12. Speaking as a bishop, this is not an easy issue and one with which I struggled regularly. We are “corporate people” and therefore have to be very careful what we sign unless there is official TEC policy behind it (actions of GC, etc.) or diocesan convention action of some kind. Otherwise, it is probably best to sign things with, say, “C. Christopher Epting” rather than “The Rt. Rev. C. Christopher Epting, Assisting Bishop of Chicago!”

  13. Bill Dilworth

    Bruce, I suppose that my concern over the “private individual vs public spokesman” role in the case of Bp Wolf’s statement is that the RC interpretation of episcopal polity is better known by the non-Anglican public – certainly here in Rhode Island, where RCs are the largest religious group. An RC bishop (or an Eastern Orthodox one, for that matter) making an announcement is understood to be settling the issue to a certain extent – there’s no possibility that a diocesan convention of clergy and lay people could take a different stance. Episcopal bishops do have a different relationship with their dioceses and the congregations and people within them than RC bishops do, and I think it’s proper that our bishops make that clear in their public acts – especially when those acts are in union with the RCC.

  14. Chris H.

    If this bishop can’t sign his name to what he believes, then no liberal bishop should be a part of gay pride parades or perform gay marriages until the BCP has been changed and it’s officially and completely the will of the church to support it,because by doing so they are making statements that some in the church disagree with. Nor should TEC give money to organizations that support abortion, etc. until it’s the official stand of the church. Sorry, but liberal bishops make these kinds of statements and when conservatives complain, liberals ignore them, so now the shoe’s on the other foot. There aren’t that many conservative bishops left to worry about anyway.

    Chris Harwood

  15. Bill Dilworth

    Chris, since GC has made several statements in support of gay people, while recognizing the fact that Christians disagree on the issue, it doesn’t really make sense that bishops would be prohibited from being part of gay pride parades. See http://www.episcopalarchives.org/cgi-bin/acts/acts_search.pl

    Similarly, GC has gone on record as being in favor of women’s right to choose, so it would seem entirely appropriate that ECUSA participate in the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (which is what I assume you mean): http://www.episcopalarchives.org/cgi-bin/acts/acts_resolution.pl?resolution=1994-A054

  16. Really, we’re rehashing access to contraception? Really? That said, Bp. Price, like any of us, is free to express his opinion and take a position as long as he is willing to bear the consequences. That is the price of free speech in an open market.

    There is only one reason to deny people access to contraceptives and that is to impose a moral position upon another. The parallel demand that women provide proof of some other medical need for contraception before it is covered is as heinous as requiring men to prove they are using Viagra to lower cholesterol. (Oh wise insurers, here is another way to deny paying for something!!!! Let those with ears hear).

    I continue to be amused at the Canutian efforts to stop the tide from coming in through proclamation or legislation. The tide will wash away those who make such efforts.

    What we should object too is the entire profit driven foundation of the healing arts, particularly in the insurance field. The rising cost of health care is in part due to the rising expectation of shareholders for more dividends from other people’s illness. Those who oppose some universal system or a mandate leave us with a system that has to treat “freeloaders”, those who won’t get coverage, or the poor, who can’t afford it, in the most expensive venue there is, the emergency room. We already have a one payer universal system because hospitals pass the costs of treating the uninsured to us all. And unless we want to just let people die when they can’t pay for medical care, then we need to get smart about seeing that everyone is covered.

  17. Nicole Porter

    JC, I don’t think that “the least of these” passage means what you are trying to make it mean. Further more, I don’t speak in code, please write plainly.

  18. Chris H.

    Bill, I remember back when a resolution passed requiring all the diocese to get female clergy or have plans to by a certain GC, the conservatives got mad and the libersls said “They’re just resolutions, nothing’s official till it’s in the BCP.” Then change the BCP and send out the memo like the Church of Sweden did telling all the conservatives to shut up or get out. Most importantly, stop pretending this is a big tent church. If liberals are the only ones allowed to speak, make it official. If not, allow the conservatives the same rights to say and do things that others disagree with. As for funding partisan groups, my libertarian father is probably correct that churches giving to partisan grouops on either side shoudn’t be allowed if they want to keep tax free status. Individuals yes, institutions, no.

    Chris Harwood

  19. Bill Dilworth


    First of all, no one here seems to be arguing that conservative bishops cannot express their own views and opinions. The issue is their presenting those views and opinions as if they bound the diocese to a certain course of action or a certain opinion.

    “”They’re just resolutions, nothing’s official till it’s in the BCP.” ”

    There seems to be some disagreement on the HoD list concerning just how binding resolutions are. You and I, however, seem to be speaking about two different uses of resolutions. When I point out that GC has gone on record as supporting gay people, or the right of women to make their own reproductive choices, there doesn’t seem to be any question of binding authority; how could there be? Rather, in these examples GC is expressing the mind of the Church.

    Other resolutions result in changes to the Constitution, Canons, or BCP. For example, in 1997 GC passed a resolution that changed the Canons so that the discernment process and the admission of candidates for ordination applied to both men and women. (By the way, I don’t know when your “liberal” sources made the quote you cite, but they were surely wrong about only the BCP being “official.”)

    As far as partisan groups are concerned, I agree. Churches should not give to partisan groups – that is, religious bodies ought not to contribute money to political parties or the organizations run by them. The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice is not a partisan group; as their website states, “The Religious Coalition is a non-profit, non-partisan education and advocacy organization…”

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