Thursday, March 1, 2007

Bishop Howard Comments On Tanzania

March 1, 2007

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

I write to you today with my reactions to the recent communiqué of the gathered primates of the Anglican Communion, issued February 19 at Dar-es-Salaam in Tanzania. Along with many other messages from our brothers and sisters around the world, I find this one worthy both of respect and contemplation. But I must also tell you that I view this communiqué with a sense of great concern. Despite what you may read in the press, I believe the prime issue confronting the church goes far deeper than a question of human sexuality. We are confronted, instead, with a more fundamental question - and a more fundamental difference of opinion - with regard to the very structure of our church, and of what it means to be in communion.

The Anglican Communion has never been, and was never intended to be, a sort of Anglicized replica of the Roman Catholic Church. We have no pope to oversee a global organization and enforce a universal edict. There exists no Magisterium, no office for the enforcement of doctrines of faith. The Archbishop of Canterbury serves as the titular head, convener and symbol of unity for a large and disparate community of independent, yet interlinked, provinces. Each of these provinces has always been free to chart its own course and live into the faith as it sees fit. In some of these provinces, something akin to Roman Catholic discipline is enforced: some of these provinces have all-powerful primates who hire and fire bishops and priests as they wish, and who dictate from above the philosophical and theological tenets by which their followers must abide. In other provinces, such as ours and the province of Canada, a much different atmosphere pervades. Our hierarchies matter, and are entrusted with real power. But the powers here of a bishop, and of a presiding bishop, are circumscribed and limited. Bishops are elected by the people, rather than appointed by central political powers. And the presiding bishop in America does not wield power over any bishop - he or she is simply elected to "preside" over the House of Bishops, to be a chief administrator, a chief ambassador and a chief consecrator. This is not to belittle the important office of presiding bishop, but to explain it, and to explain to you where the fundamental problem today lies: namely, in a misunderstanding by the international community of just what Episcopal polity looks like, and just how it functions.

I view the primates' communiqué of February 19 through three different juxtaposed and interrelated lenses of analysis. On the first, most "macro" level, I see the wider structural misunderstanding. Some of our brothers and sisters abroad, I feel, do not view communion as we do: they view the Anglican Communion as their own province writ large. To them, the communion should be a place where central authorities dictate to individual provinces, bishops and priests what is acceptable and what is not. The call has gone out for a written covenant to bind the Anglican Communion, a written constitution to enforce the "bonds of affection" which before were simply that, bonds of affection - and not legally binding, legally enforceable parameters of thought and conduct. Such a covenant, I believe, could undermine the very communion it purports to uphold: it could halt the very conversations, the very debates, the very sense of openness, questioning and thoughtfulness which have served as unique hallmarks of our spiritual affection and fellowship.

The primates have also proposed the establishment of a "primatial vicar," in essence a substitute presiding bishop for dissenting American congregations and dioceses. Such a proposal sounds good on the surface - this "vicar" primate would be responsible to a council of overseers, and to the presiding bishop herself, while providing a sort of "spiritual shelter" to those who disagree with our church's current majority opinion. But this proposal, I submit to you, stems from the same tremendous misunderstanding. As I described above, our presiding bishop lacks "primatial oversight" authority in the first place - she has no direct power to influence or command the actions of any diocese or bishop. She is not an archbishop, but is simply a presiding bishop. To substitute "oversight" where there is none is to engage in a theater of the absurd.

Even worse, the establishment of a "primatial vicar" would unlock a massive Pandora's Box. Today's dissenters claim they want additional "oversight" because of issues of human sexuality. What will tomorrow's dissenters claim? Perhaps there are other groups (indeed we can be certain there are) who will want their own "primate," or their own special "niche bishop," because of other issues - issues and conflicts we cannot even imagine today. Where will the fracturing end? When will the layers of "alternate oversight" cease to pile one upon another? The beauty of our Episcopal structure has long been this: people recognize the oversight of their bishop and their church, and their bishop and church in turn recognize individuals' right to disagree and to question. In this structure lies unity without oppression, recognizable authority without theological tyranny. The proposal for "alternate primatial oversight" constitutes, instead, a recipe for chaos in our polity and confusion - deep, lasting, and permanently scarring spiritual confusion - among our people.

Related to these problems of structural misunderstanding, I believe it is unhelpful for ultimatums with deadlines to be issued to our church from abroad. I find these sorts of orders and deadlines to be counterproductive to the spiritual discussions, and necessarily complex discernment processes, of our church. We must live spiritual lives together, day by day, hour by hour, here in the Episcopal Church; for a heavy hand to be lifted over us from across the seas, for a spiritual stop-watch to be activated, can produce no long-term good - only a long-term extension of bitterness, only a sense of "winners" and "losers" as the cosmic game-clock runs out. Thus it is with grave concern that I note the primates' demand of the Episcopal Church to conform to various stipulations by September 30, 2007.

Through a second lens of analysis, I would like to address the primates' proposals themselves. I have already discussed the proposal for "alternate primatial oversight." As for the proposal that the Episcopal Church agree to stop consecrating bishops living in same-sex relationships, and the proposal that we not allow the blessing of same-sex unions, I agree. I agree with these proposals and I have stated many times and in many forums that we will continue to live by them here in the Diocese of Florida. We as a church at our General Convention last summer agreed to show great restraint in consecrating bishops in same-sex partnerships, and we did not pass any resolutions condoning same-sex unions. I believe the General Convention dealt with these issues forthrightly and solemnly. In its handling of these pastorally sensitive issues, I believe the General Convention spoke with the heart and mind of our church, leaving room for various opinions to co-exist while still expressing a sense of solidarity with our partners abroad. But I believe it would be inappropriate for the House of Bishops now, under a sort of threat, and under an artificial deadline, to usurp the voice of General Convention. To do so would be to undermine the structure of our church, to say that international deadlines matter more than the voice of our own people-a voice expressed, with difficulty and compromise on all sides, only six months ago. I am also concerned with certain language in the communiqué which states that, when the Episcopal Church has met its Windsor Report obligations in a manner acceptable to the majority of primates, then bishops from abroad will cease crossing jurisdictional boundaries and undermining dioceses in America. These cross-boundary incursions were singled out for censure in the Windsor Report; it is not right to tell the Episcopal Church that "once you stop violating certain tenets of the Windsor Report, then we will cease our illegal acts." It is time for us all to step back and respect the boundaries of custom, tradition and mutual affection - not to mention canonical due process - which bind us.

Through the third and final lens of analysis, I would like to engage the possibility that our House of Bishops may actually adopt-in the very language called for by the communiqué-binding prohibitions with regard to bishops living in same-sex relationships and the blessing of same-sex unions. If these proposals were adopted, then it seems to me that the call for an "alternate primatial oversight" mechanism would be rendered moot. Why would anyone need an alternate structure of oversight if the Episcopal Church agreed to adopt the very language today's dissenters say that they so desperately long for? I think the answer is that various factions within the church simply want to disrupt our structure, and to carve out spheres of personal influence for themselves, far more than they actually desire a shift in Episcopal theology.

Let me conclude by saying that I respect the primates, and I respect their intentions. I also intend to remain forever a member of the Anglican Communion. But I have a very different idea of communion than that which is expressed in this communiqué. The great thing we in the Anglican Communion have to offer the world is a fellowship: a partnership that opens avenues of understanding, rather than an enforcement body which, in procrustean fashion, bends everyone at every time to a universal litmus test of faithfulness. In speaking of the Episcopal Church's reaction at Convention to the issue of same-sex blessings, the primates state that "It is the ambiguous stance of The Episcopal Church which causes concern among us." But we Episcopalians have never been afraid to live with ambiguity-with mystery, with the notion that the full truth and beauty of God can never be fully known or mastered by man alone. Our church and our Communion have long been marked by this sense of humility before the Lord. We are frail creatures; we indeed live in a state of ambiguity; we live on bended knee before a God whose power we so desperately crave for our completion. We cannot know all. We cannot ever speak with one mind. But in Jesus Christ, and in his Resurrection, we find that truth which binds us unto Eternity. Our path to the Cross is complex; it is fraught; it is dangerous; it is certainly ambiguous - not a straight and easy course, but a lifetime journey through the profound and winding mysteries of a God who sent his only son to be sacrificed for a world of sinners. The Episcopal Church bears a wonderful witness and provides a wonderful - even miraculous - space for this journey. I love this church, and I believe deeply that the best way for it to participate and bear witness in the world is to maintain its character, its structure, and to maintain its cornerstones of openness, love and mutual understanding.

Please pray for me as I enter discussion with my fellow bishops at our meeting at Camp Allen in March, and please pray for the future health and strength of both the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion here and across the globe.



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