Three conservative bishops of the Episcopal Church are under fire from the church's national leaders and are being threatened with dismissal for seeking to pull their dioceses out of the church in protest of its leftward drift.
The attempted purge of conservative bishops Robert Duncan of Pittsburgh, Jack L. Iker of Fort Worth, and John-David Schofield of Fresno from Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori marks a new stage in the battle over church doctrine and discipline that has threatened to split the Episcopal Church since the hotly contested 2003 consecration of a non-celibate gay priest as bishop of New Hampshire.
On January 11, Bishop Jefferts Schori stated that a secret review panel had handed down an indictment against Bishop Schofield for "abandoning the Communion" of the Episcopal Church. In November delegates to his diocese's annual convention voted to pull out of the Episcopal Church and seek the oversight of an overseas archbishop from the Anglican Communion.
Bishop Schofield's support for the secession would result in a trial before the church's House of Bishops in March, Bishop Jefferts Schori said, and he was ordered to "cease from exercising" his ministry as bishop of the diocese of San Joaquin.
Four days later, Bishop Duncan was told that he had also been indicted by the secret church panel as a result of his diocese's having taken the first steps towards pulling out of the church last year, and would face trial this September. However, Bishop Duncan was not suspended from office as the Episcopal Church's three senior bishops declined to support the request for an "inhibition," or suspension from office pending trial.
Bishop Iker reported he too had received a "threatening" letter from Bishop Jefferts Schori on Jan 15, saying he would be liable for trial on "charges of violation of [his] ordination vows" for asserting that congregations or diocese could quit the Episcopal Church, but no charges were made against him.
Bishop Schofield's assistant, Canon William Gandenberger, told Christianity Today, "Bishop John-David will be performing his normal actions as bishop," and would not obey the suspension.
He "will labor on as he has been called and elected as bishop of the diocese of San Joaquin" and he and the diocese will "continue to build unity with the worldwide Anglican Communion based upon the Good News of Jesus Christ," Canon Gandenberger said.
If a majority of American bishops judge Bishop Schofield to be guilty, he will be removed from the House of Bishops. However, Southern Cone Primate Gregory Venables stated this was a moot point.
In November, the diocese of San Joaquin formally withdrew from the Episcopal Church and affiliated with the Buenos Aires-based Province of the Southern Cone of America. The plan to try Bishop Schofield was moot, the Bishop of Argentina Gregory Venables said on Jan 11 as Bishop Schofield "is not under the authority or jurisdiction of the Episcopal Church or the Presiding Bishop. He is, therefore, not answerable to their national canon law but is a member of the House of Bishops of the Southern Cone and under our authority," he said.
The San Joaquin diocese is further down the path that the Fort Worth and Pittsburgh dioceses are walking, Bishop Iker said.
"San Joaquin approved measures to separate from the Episcopal Church with a second, ratifying vote on December 8th, whereas the Pittsburgh Convention approved of their measures at the preliminary, first reading vote in November, an action which will need to be ratified at the 2008 Convention. Fort Worth is in the same position as Pittsburgh," he said.
In a statement released late Tuesday night, Bishop Duncan denied that he had been unfaithful to the tenets of the Church. "Few bishops have been more loyal to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church. I have not abandoned the Communion of this Church. I will continue to serve and minister as the bishop of the Episcopal diocese of Pittsburgh," he said.
Liberal leaders in the diocese of Pittsburgh said the indictment was a cause of "hope" for them, as well as an opportunity for "reconciliation." The review panel "gives all of us in Pittsburgh serious cause to reflect," said Dr. Joan Gundersen, president of Progressive Episcopalians of Pittsburgh. "This can be an opportunity for all of us to consider how we can change course and restore relations with one another and with the Episcopal Church."
Bishop Iker stated it was "tragic and deeply disturbing" that Bishop Schori would move against Bishop Duncan before Pittsburgh took "any final decision" to separate from the Episcopal Church.
The Episcopal Church gives "lip service" to the mantra of dialogue "to heal our divisions," he said, while "at the same time closing off any possibility of continuing conversations by aggressive, punitive actions such as this."
Though divided over the proper response to the church's leftward drift, conservative Episcopalians were united in their outrage over the latest moves by the national church leadership in New York.
The Episcopal Church's 30-year membership hemorrhage took a dramatic turn last year after seven conservative bishops quit the church: four joining the Roman Catholic Church, and three other branches of the 80 million-member Anglican Communion.
Several dozen congregations, including the largest congregations of the dioceses of Dallas, Georgia, Kansas, and Virginia have also quit the church for other Anglican groups such as the Anglican Mission in the Americas, the Convocations of Anglicans in North America, and fellowships led by American bishops appointed by the Anglican Churches of Uganda and Kenya.
However, other conservative leaders have urged Episcopalians to hold fast, as help was coming from abroad. In October Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams counseled patience saying that Anglicans who were "rushing into separatist solutions" were "weakening that basic conviction of catholic theology."
Affiliation with the national church was not the most important bond in church life, he argued. In Anglicanism, it was the "Bishop and Diocese" who were the "primary locus of ecclesial identity rather than the abstract reality of the 'national church'," Williams said.
The call for patience in the 30-year battle for the soul of the Episcopal Church does not resonate as loudly as it once did, however, as the doctrinal differences between the liberal and conservative wings of the church deepen.
For the diocese of Fort Worth, Bishop Jefferts Schori's Christmas card epitomized the two faiths co-existing within the Episcopal Church. The card sent to all of the church's bishops shows a mother and child surrounded by three wise women. No mention of Jesus appears on the card, while the card speaks of "wise women throughout time and in every culture know themselves to be seekers and seers of the divine."
This card "defies explanation" the diocesan leadership said. Bishop Jefferts Schori is an "intelligent woman, so this re-interpretation of Scripture to exclude masculine images must be intentional. This card illustrates in many ways the core problem of the General Convention Church. Scripture cannot be made to conform to us, we must conform our lives and our faith to Scripture," the diocese said.
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