Ready to Walk Apart?
The Episcopal Church is at least one step closer to an historic split with the 78-million-member Anglican Communion. The national church's House of Bishops with its left-leaning majority rejected a newly proposed pastoral oversight council, calling it an "unprecedented" power play.
In a letter to the 2.1 million American Episcopalians, the bishops expressed a "strong desire" to remain within the Anglican Communion despite differences over same-sex rites and openly gay bishops.
But the bishops deeply disputed the communiqué that the Anglican Communion's top leaders (primates) issued in mid-February after they met in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The primates, many of them theological conservatives, called for the American church to receive oversight from a pastoral council and for appointment of a "primatial vicar." The council and vicar would provide a means to keep conservative congregations and dioceses within the Episcopal Church.
The bishops raised significant concerns about the primates' plan, saying, "first among these is what is arguably an unprecedented shift of power toward the primates, represented, in part, by the proposed 'pastoral scheme.'" Under the plan, a non-American primate would chair the council and the primates would name two of the five council members. Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, head of the American church, would name the other two.
The bishops said the plan violated their constitution, and they urged the church's executive council to turn it down. The Episcopal executive council meets in June and is expected to hear from an internal working group about the February communiqué. The bishops indicated they continue to address the "pastoral concerns" of conservatives through other means more acceptable to the bishops. But the national church is also backing litigation against conservative priests and parishes seeking to leave the denomination and hold onto their church buildings.
The actions of the House of Bishops, accomplished through three resolutions, took many church watchers by surprise. Jefferts Schori and others as recently as three weeks ago predicted this meeting would not result in decisive action. The primates have given the Episcopal Church until September 30 to indicate clearly that they would no longer allow any rite of blessing for same-sex couples and would prevent another openly gay man from becoming a bishop, as happened in 2003.
But instead of acting on those requests, the bishops passed three resolutions. In the resolutions, the bishops called the primates' plan "injurious to the Episcopal Church." They requested an "urgent" meeting with Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams to discuss their concerns. (Jefferts Schori admitted at a press briefing, "There is some belief in this house that other parts of the Communion do not understand us very well.")
The bishops said the plan violated their founding principles following their "liberation from colonialism and the beginning of a life independent of the Church of England."
"For the first time since our separation from the papacy in the 16th century, [the primates' plan] replaces local governance of the church by its own people with the decisions of a distant and unaccountable group of prelates," they said.
The bishops in their lengthy third resolution noted:
- Primates set "simply impossible" conditions for the Episcopal Church in order to end boundary violations in which conservative overseas primates provide oversight to certain American parishes.