The way TEC does business - Philip Turner



The Reverend Dr. Philip Turner

The meeting of the Standing Committee of the Anglican Consultative Council (hereafter the Standing Committee) has just finished its deliberations. It was reported in The Standing Committee Daily Bulletin that Dato’ Stanley Isaacs had proposed, “The Episcopal Church (hereafter TEC) be separated from the Communion.”  This proposal was rejected because it was believed, “Separation would inhibit dialogue on this and other issues among Communion Provinces.”

This brief notice is yet another signal that the Anglican Communion stands in unparalleled danger. The way in which TEC does business poses a serious threat to the evangelical and catholic identity of our Communion.  I write to point out the nature of that threat and to call upon those responsible for its future health to take vigorous steps to halt an increasingly obvious attempt by TEC to remake the Anglican Communion over in its own image.

 For the sake of clarity, I wish to make several things clear.  First, I write as a person who has not left the Episcopal Church and does not intend to do so.  Second, I write as one who has for more than 30 years opposed the theological and ethical directions TEC has taken.  Third, I do not write to convince either group that they have taken a wrong direction.  I wish it were possible to do so. Sadly, it is not.  The progressives within TEC have already proclaimed that history is on their side and that they are acting under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Those who have left have laid claim to an unquestionable orthodoxy and become self-declared defenders of the faith.  Serious discussion with both groups has become a virtual impossibility.  My hope is that in the midst of the present ideological warfare, faithful reason will prevail, and that a way will be found both to hold TEC’s ambitions in check and maintain the evangelical and catholic identity of Anglicanism.  My hopes and prayers in respect to these matters focus particularly on the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Primates, and the leaders from the Global South who represent the largest and most vital part of the Anglican Communion.  I write with these men and women particularly in mind.

Having stated as clearly as I am able my intentions and hopes, I shall begin. Since the Standing Committee has decided that, in so far as it is concerned, TEC’s position in the Communion is to be decided through an indefinite period of dialogue, it is essential to understand just how TEC understands this process. TEC’s recent history makes one thing perfectly clear.  Dialogue, for TEC, is not a process of disciplined argument designed to clarify issues, expose false reasoning, and arrive at a truth both parties can hold. It is not even a process of critical examination that occurs before taking a disputed action.  Rather it is an aggressive form of self-promotion built around “talking points” rather than disciplined argument—talking points that are meant to beat down opposition to a disputed action already taken.  In short, the decision made by the Standing Committee is in reality a decision to allow TEC more time to gain acceptance for its actions.  It is not, in TEC’s mind, a time to subject those actions to “consequences” or to critical examination.

TEC’s recent history reveals that it now has a standard way of doing business—one that exposes its pleas for dialogue as disingenuous.  What is that way?  One makes changes in disputed aspects of the life and order of the church by breaking the rules and then calling for conversation rather than “consequences.” This standard way of doing business carries with it its own very idiosyncratic notion of dialogue--one that, by laying claim to the prophet’s mantle, will not allow the possibility that one could be wrong and one’s opponent right.  When TEC acts, TEC acts (according to TEC) in the power of the Holy Spirit; and when TEC speaks, TEC speaks (according to TEC) in the power of the Holy Spirit. To be in opposition, therefore, is to oppose both the HolySpirit and the justice it is God’s purpose to bring to the world. These are shocking conclusions but, given TEC’s recent history, they are unavoidable conclusions--conclusions that if ignored by the Instruments of Communion and the member Provinces, will lead to the demise of the Anglican Communion.

TEC’s recent history makes the truth of these charges abundantly plain.  Let us begin with the first of the more recent challenges to the Communion’s common life--the ordination of women to the priesthood.  Before I begin this tale, I wish to make it clear that I am a strong supporter of the ordination of women both to the Presbyterate and to the Episcopate.  What I do not support is the way in which TEC made this change.  The way in which it was done opened Pandora’s box, and now TEC seeks to spread the bad habits it learned though this event to the rest of the Communion.

Go back to the year 1974. The General Convention of The Episcopal Church (then ECUSA) had twice refused (by a narrow vote) to approve the ordination of women to the priesthood.  After the second refusal, three retired bishops ordained 11 female deacons as priests.  The bishops said they broke the rules as an “obedient” and “prophetic” protest against oppression and an act of solidarity with those who are oppressed.

What were the consequences of breaking the rules? There was an attempt to bring the bishops to trial, but it failed despite committee advice to the contrary.  The House of Bishops did decry the action of their colleagues and went on to pass a motion of censure; but since the bishops were all retired, the motion was of little effect.  It was of so little effect that the following year Bishop George Barrett, yet another retired bishop, ordained four more women to the priesthood.  Once again, no meaningful consequences followed.  On their part, the women involved said that they consented to this action because to wait for another General Convention was to affirm in principle the concept that discrimination against ordaining women to the priesthood may be practiced in the church until the majority changes its mind and votes.  It probably does not need saying, but in case the point is missed, very similar reasons are given by TEC for its recent breach of the moratoria in the case of Mary Glasspool’s ordination as Suffragan Bishop of Los Angeles.

The basic point, however, is that a pattern was established.  There was a prohibition by TEC’s governing body of a proposed course of action.  The action was undertaken anyway as a “prophetic witness.”  There followed assertions that those who acted against the rules ought to be free from consequences because of the righteousness of their actions.  The consequences that ensued were indeed minimal. Continuing conversation was substituted for ecclesial discipline.  A new way of effecting change had been established.  If the constitutional and canonical processes do not go your way, act anyway, deny the applicability of consequences, and then call for conversation.

The same pattern appeared again shortly after the struggle over women’s ordination when the issue of ordaining people engaged in same gender sexual relations arose.  In 1977 Bishop Paul Moore of the Episcopal Diocese of New York ordained a professed and sexually active lesbian to the priesthood.  In response, the bishops did no more than express “disapproval.”  The next General Convention passed a resolution saying, “It is not appropriate for this Church to ordain a practicing homosexual or any person who is engaged in heterosexual relations outside marriage.”

It appeared that the General Convention had spoken definitively on this matter, but some 20 bishops dissented, citing wording in the resolution that might be taken to meanthat the resolution was only “recommendary” and not “prescriptive.”  Recommendation was most certainly not the intent of the General Convention!  Nonetheless, the 20 bishops found an unintended loophole, claimed the prophet’s mantle and stated that they would not implement the resolution in their dioceses.

In 1989, 1990, and 1991 the dioceses of Washington DC and Newark ordained men involved in same gender relations.  The justification for these actions was that new experience and knowledge make the ordination of gay people a “justice issue” that must be furthered by a “prophetic” episcopate.  This time, one of the offending bishops, Walter Righter of Newark, was brought to trial; but he was acquitted--not on grounds that the action of General Convention was “recommendary” rather than “prescriptive,” but on grounds that his action was not contrary to the “core doctrine” of the Episcopal Church.

It was now well established!  Within TEC prohibited actions (of a progressive sort at any rate) are not to be subject to meaningful consequences.  Within TEC, just as women’s ordination was losing its status as a matter of reception and becoming a requirement, the question of ordaining persons engaged in same gender sexual relations was becoming what the ordination of women once had been--a matter of “local option” (open to local choice by each diocese).  The consecration of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire, despite universal opposition by the Instruments of Communion (including resolution 1:10 of the Lambeth Conference of Bishops), had now become for TEC (according to the way it understands its relation to the rest of the Communion) also a matter of local option.  Apparently, it had also become a matter of sufficient weight to render inoperative Resolution B020 of the 1991 General Convention, which stated clearly that the potentially divisive issues concerning human sexuality “should not be resolved by the Episcopal Church on its own.”  This resolution had never been repealed or changed.  It was simply ignored.  The well-established pattern persisted. If the rules don’t suit a political agenda, break the rules, seek to avoid meaningful consequences and then ask to talk about the matter.

Thus, against the actions of its own General Convention and against the wishes of all the Instruments of Communion, TEC went ahead with the consecration. Of course, the question of the hour was whether or not this time the action would, in the words of the present Archbishop of Canterbury, have “consequences.” The progressive leadership of TEC pleaded in a number of ways for the right of TEC to take this action and for its consequent immunity from consequences.  This plea was not completely successful, however. TEC was reduced to observer status at the Nottingham meeting of the ACC—a precedent not since repeated.

Realizing the disruptive potential of TEC’s action (along with other divisive issues facing the Communion) the Archbishop of Canterbury, along with the other Instruments of Communion, espoused the proposal of the Windsor Report for an Anglican Covenant, the basic premise of which is communion rooted and grounded in “mutual subjection within the body of Christ.”  Further, pursuant to that report, a number of moratoria were agreed upon by the Instruments of Communion, including cessation of gay blessings and ordinations along with border crossings as engaged in by several provinces from the Global South.  TEC agreed to these moratoria and for a short time, but only a short time, claimed to live by its commitment.

The proposed Covenant went through a number of drafts, but a final draft was placed before the Anglican Consultative Council at its Jamaica meeting in 2009.  The proposal was for the Council to receive and consider the proposed covenant and then send it on to the Provinces for ratification.  The first three sections of the proposed Covenant sailed though, but not the fourth--the one in which “consequences” were addressed.  TEC took strong exception to this fourth section precisely because of its concern for consequences.  In its opposition TECmade clear that it had decided to export its domestic way of doing business by introducing the “break the rules, claim immunity and then ask for conversation” syndrome into the operating procedures of the Communion as a whole.

Nevertheless, if the export was to gain acceptance, it required appropriate packaging. Thus, long before the Jamaica meetingTEC began to champion a novel view of communion--one that focuses on mutual aid and fellowship but does not (in contrast to the ecumenical dialogues of the Communion) demand much in the way of common belief and practice.  Its leadership also leveled the charge that the fourth section of the proposed covenant in effect set up a central authority within the Communion that was contrary to Anglican tradition in that it impinged upon the autonomy of the Provinces. It is not difficult to see that both the view of communion espoused by TEC and its objections to what it claimed (falsely) were the polity implications of Section Four served the purpose of exempting TEC from the meaningful consequences that might be expected to follow from its renunciation of its own commitments and its disregard for the accepted teaching of the Communion.

During the course of the Jamaica meeting the extent to which TEC is willing to go both to impose its will and to avoid consequences became patently obvious in ways that (sadly) damaged the credibility of both the Archbishop of Canterbury and the ACC.  TEC began a campaign against Section Four well before the Jamaica meeting. Though a “Resolutions Committee” had been charged with the preparation of resolutions to be considered, the Standing Committee of the ACC took precipitous actionIt drew up its own resolution--one that sought to delay the ratification process by asking only that the Provinces report on progress by 2014.  What is more, this resolution represented something of a compromise. TEC’s Presiding Bishop had previously pushed for a more drastic measure--one that would remove Section Four altogether and delay any duty to consider the Covenant until 2015.  There was, however, strong resistance even to the compromise resolution by representatives of the Global South, and it was never introduced as drafted by the Standing Committee.

When time came for the actual meeting, the Resolutions Committee (which had among its members a significant number of Covenant opponents) produced not one but two resolutions, Resolution A and Resolution B.  The first put forward, Resolution A, was apparently the one favored by the Resolutions Committee.  It contained much of what the Presiding Bishop wantedIt waspartially designed by and strongly supported by TEC’s representatives. Itmoved, among other things, that Section Four be removed from the draft for further consideration.  In the ensuing debate TEC did all within its power to see that Resolution A passed. Nevertheless, Archbishop Williams spoke against the resolution and the sentiment of the Council seemed largely in agreement with the Archbishop. When they realized that Resolution A was apt to fail, the opponents of Section Four began to propose amendments (one on top of the other) that would incorporate what they wanted from Resolution A into Resolution B that was to be considered next.

Resolution B, among other things, asked the Sec. Gen. of the ACC to send the draft proposal, which included Section Four, to the member Churches of the ACC for consideration and decision on acceptance or adoption.  The purpose ofthe opponentsin incorporating elements of Resolution A in Resolution B was to re-establish what had been lost with the defeat of A, namely, the removal of Section Four from immediate consideration.

The whole process was and remains very difficult to follow, but its clear purpose was to remove any notion of consequences from the covenant under review.  The means of achieving this end was not clear debate over well-understood issues but deliberately confusing and irregular parliamentary maneuvering designed to scuttle Section Four.  Indeed, in the eyes of many observers, there was something unsavory about what went on. In the end, however, the purposes of those who proposed the amendments were not achieved. The upshot of all the confusion and irregularity was that the matter was referred to a drafting committee that rejigged Section Four in a way that left it essentially as before. A final covenant draft with this version of Section Four was then sent to the Provinces for consideration and decision.

From a procedural point of view, Jamaica was a debacle, but it does serve to make clear TEC’s attempt to export to the rest of the Communion its way of doing business.  TEC’s leadership does not agree with Lambeth 1:10 and it refuses to accept the unanimous opinion of the Instruments of Communion that blessing gay unions and ordaining people involved in same gender sexual relations are practices contrary to Holy Scripture.  In short, they reject what the Archbishop has termed “established Anglican teaching.”  This rejection led to the consecration of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire.  After this event, in response to heavy pressure from the rest of the Communion, TEC agreed to a moratorium on this practice but pressed to remove from the Covenant any possibility that they would suffer consequences for breaking this agreement. Recently, TEC has in factabandoned the moratorium to which it had agreed and consecrated a partnered lesbian as Suffragan Bishop of the Diocese of Los Angeles.  Its General Convention hasalso called for the preparation of liturgies for the blessing of gay unions.  When questioned about these actions, one TEC bishop responded that things had changed and The Episcopal Church had “moved on.”  Now, having renounced their agreement, TEC’s leaders are appealing for dialogue, and the ACC has received a significant grant from an American source to promote the Continuing Indaba Project.

It is this observation that brings me back to the starting point of this essay.  The Standing Committee has apparently acceded to TEC’s way of doing business.  Though TEC has taken actions contrary to established Anglican teaching and against the counsel of all four Instruments of Communion, no “consequences” appear to follow.  A bishop of The Episcopal Church, who allows for gay blessings in his diocese has been seated on the Standing Committee, though ineligible for other reasons as well. The Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church also remains a member.  Further, that very same Standing Committee has determined that TEC’s status in the communion must be determined not by its adherence to established Anglican teaching but by an indefinite period of dialogue.  “Consequences,” they opine, must be avoided because that would stifle dialogue on a number of important communion issues.

Further, as reported in the Standing Committee Bulletin of Day 3, when Dato’ Stanley Isaacs proposed that TEC’s place on the Standing Committee and in the ACC be withdrawn when matters of faith and order are under discussion, Archbishop Philip Aspinall (an opponent of Section Four) stated falsely that the Standing Committee did not have power to exclude in this way.  Nevertheless, contrary to Archbishop Aspinall’s assertion, under the new articles the Standing Committee had just adopted, the committee is given power “to regulate their meetings as they see fit.”  The Standing Committee, that, under the old articles, had denied a seat to a Uganda representative at the Jamaica meeting of the ACC, is also given power under the new articles to removepeople from membership without cause by a two-thirds vote.

This short history makes plain that the Jamaica meeting of the ACC and the most recent meeting of the Standing Committee have given full support to the TEC way of doing business, and they have done so by means of highly questionable procedures.  Sad to say, most members of TEC with whom I speak see little problem.  They simply do not understand the objections to their way of doing business. As they see it, they have taken an action that is right and now they want to explain what they have done.  Further, they believe it right to deploy the political means necessary to achieve their ends.  Most people I know who oppose TEC’s actions see things rather differently.  As they see it, TEC has broken the rules and as a result there must be consequences if any degree of order is to be maintained within the Communion.  Once proper procedures have been followed, the consequences have fallen into place, and order restored then the conversation can move forward in a proper manner.

Here one comes face to face with a great divide.  The divide poses this question.  Does the Anglican Communion really want its common life to be shaped by TEC’s way of doing business--reject the rules, break the rules, demand immunity from meaningful consequences, and then demand dialogue?  Is this way of being together what we really want?

I pray not!  William Golding, in his Lord of the Flies, has one of his characters cry out in the face of a lawless grab for power, “The rules, the rules, all we have are the rules.”  Taken at face value, this statement is far too simplistic. Rules are made and rules are changed as times and sensibilities change.  But if we are to live together in some degree of peace and harmony (let alone love and justice) there have to be rules, fallible and imperfect though they may be.  However, in both its internal life and its external relations TEC is asking for freedom from the rules it doesn’t like and immunity from any consequences that might follow from breaking those rules.  

This is TEC’s way of doing business! However, if the Anglican Communion adopts or allows this way of doing things to continue, it cannot survive as an authentic expression of evangelical and catholic Christianity.  It can only shatter into pieces like a dropped vase.  TEC’s attempt to export its way of doing business must be taken as a dire threat to Anglican identity or that identity will not survive in any recognizable form.  That’s the bad news!  The good news is that TEC’s aggressive stance in support of its own convictions has posed a crucial question to a Communion that wishes to avoid centralized forms of authority.  How is a church that is a member of a communion of churches that does not have a centralized authority able to dissent in a way that does not undermine communion but actually strengthens it?  The answer found in the lives of the saints is to take one’s stand and at the same time accept the consequences of that stand, no matter how unjust they may appear.  In this way, by taking a stand, one lives according the truth as one sees it.  In this way also, by accepting the consequences, one expresses loyalty to and support of the body of which he or she is a member and for which Christ gave his life.  In this way, one makes plain that one takes the stand one has for the benefit rather than harm the body as a whole.

The question buried in the proposed covenant is how a communion of churches that does not have centralized authority can contain dissent without destroying itself.  This is a discussion that has barely begun.  If Jamaica and the recent meeting of the Standing Committee are any indication, that conversation, even at its inception, is not going very well. Given the floundering that has gone on and the irregularities that abound it is a good idea to ask how well we believe TEC’s way of doing business serves the health of our communion, and whether its way of dissent is a godly way or one more designed for conquest.

That conquest is indeed the goal of TEC’s plea for freedom from consequences is manifest in the changed way it treats those who still oppose the ordination of women.  The ordination of women, unlike the ordination of persons involved in same gender relations or the blessing of these unions, is not a matter the Anglican Communion considers established teaching. The ordination of women is a matter for “reception”—a matter that is not prohibited but is to be tested by the Communion over time.  In the eyes of the Communion the ordination of women is an open matter in the way the issues concerning homosexual behavior are not.  However, TEC, whose original approval of women’s ordination left the matter as one of “local option,” has, as a matter of practice, over time made approval of women’s ordination a de facto test for the approval of newly elected bishops. As a matter of practice, within TEC, the ordination of women is no longer a matter of “reception.”  It is a matter of “justice,” and as such cannot rightly be opposed.

It is this change in practice that stands behind the withdrawal of several dioceses from TEC.  These dioceses have not as yet “received” this practice, and, given TEC’s change in practice, feel that there is no way a bishop who shares their views will be approved for ordination when their present bishops retire. The only way they see to retain their ability to receive or refuse to receive this practice is withdrawal from the General Convention of the Episcopal Church.

The point is that the cycle of breaking the rules, demanding immunity from consequences and then calling for conversation has ended not in dialogue but in enforcement, in this case through the misuse of canons and finally in appeal to the secular courts.  Once the practice of ordaining women (which began as an un-canonical act) became for TEC a matter of justice rather than one of reception, it became inevitable that the practice would become one to be enforced.

I note this precedent for one reason.  The ordination of persons involved in “monogamous and faithful” same gender relations is now also considered by TEC’s leadership to be a matter of “justice.”  Given this fact, it is inevitable that it seek to bring about circumstances in which these views can be enforced both within TEC and within the Communion as a whole.  At the moment, TEC claims these “rights” to bless and ordain persons Anglican teaching says are not qualified for these sacramental acts on the basis of local option or provincial autonomy.  Nevertheless, the logic of their view of mission as establishing justice (the millennium goals) will inevitably push toward a mandate for Communion wide acceptance and enforcement.  Dialogue for TEC is but a temporary strategy.  It is not an established way to establish truth.  The truth in TEC’s mind has already been established by action of the General Convention.  The job now is to establish universal acceptance of what TEC has done. I have simply set forth the methods that will be employed to achieve this end.

In short, TEC’s way of doing business is a prelude to making the Communion over in its own image.  My prayer is that the leaders of our Communion, particularly the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Primates and the leaders of the Global South will recognize what is going on and take the steps necessary to sustain Anglicanism as a communion of churches. If the warning is ignored, the Anglican Communion will become a federation held together only by a rapidly fading historical memory and unstable and (sometimes) conflicting commitments to good works. My hope and prayer is that this warning will be heeded. When it comes to TEC’s way of doing business, let the buyer beware!

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