By Mark Lawrence
May 4, 2009
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ, I've been reading through John Calvin's Commentary on the St. Paul's Pastoral Epistles during my morning Bible study (Yes, this revealed in the interest of transparency before some blogger snooping around my study at home uncovers such a dreadful volume beside my Prayer Book and Bible.)
Just today I came across this comment from the great reformer regarding Titus 3:8. "The word stress means to affirm something strongly. Paul tells Titus here to ignore everything else and teach the things that are certain and press them home, while other people are talking idly of things of little consequence. We conclude from this that a bishop should not be rash in asserting anything but only insist upon those things that he has found out to be true.
'These,' says Paul, 'affirm, because they are true and deserve to be believed.' This reminds us that it is a bishop's duty to assert and strongly affirm things that are firmly established and that build up godliness." Of course this is not always easy to observe; and it is for such reasons I suppose that Paul goes on to write in verse 9, "avoid foolish controversies...." Needless to say, sometimes the controversies come to one even when he's trying to focus on what lies before him.
Just recently fifteen bishops of our Church, of which I was one, along with several scholars from the Anglican Communion Institute, released a document entitled "Bishops' Statement on the Polity of the Episcopal Church". For those interested, this statement can be found on the Anglican Communion Institute website, www.anglicancommunioninstitute.com.
Strangely, the document which was to be released last week was obtained in an unauthorized manner, along with personal emails, and published on several websites without the permission of the bishops and scholars and just prior to the planned publication.
This Statement and the posting of the emails have created a stir in TEC blogsphere-however short-lived it may be-so I wanted you to hear from me why I signed on.
First, the document is consonant with my understanding of our Church's polity which I first encountered in Powell Mills Dawley's The Episcopal Church and its Work (the last volume in the first Church Teaching Series, see p. 115-16) while as a layperson, new to the Protestant Episcopal Church in the early 1970s, being trained to be a lay reader. Further reading in our history during seminary and while teaching courses on The Episcopal Ethos at San Joaquin School for Ministry and in Adult classes in the parish has only confirmed what Dr. Dawley wrote almost fifty years ago.
Secondly, this statement of the bishops is also in keeping with the resolution that the Standing Committee and I brought before our recent Diocesan Convention and which was subsequently passed, "Resolution 1: Proposed Anglican Covenant". It is, among other things, seeking to defend the authority of dioceses to sign onto the Anglican Covenant should other bodies in TEC choose not to.
Thirdly, it is in all of our interests not to have our polity and heritage redefined by civil courts in litigation with departing dioceses without a more thorough vetting of our Church's history and polity, as well as the larger Communion's ecclesial reflections.
The Rt. Reverend Michael G. Smith, Bishop of North Dakota, who was also a signatory on the statement, summed things up well when he wrote to his clergy, "Scholars and lawyers will parse words and debate the points made in this paper. That's well and good as it furthers the discussion around these matters.
The bottom line for me, however, is that the basic unit of the Church as traditionally understood in Anglicanism is the diocese. This is basic catholic ecclesiology and reflected in the Archbishop of Canterbury's 2007 letter to +John Howe of Central Florida: 'The organ of union with the wider Church is the Bishop and Diocese rather than the Provincial structure as such...The bishop and the Diocese [are] the primary locus of ecclesial identity rather than the abstract reality of the 'national church.'"
I would add, that this is a fundamental understanding, perhaps, too capriciously adhered to in our Episcopal heritage and polity-but stated and adhered to nonetheless; and to have it changed by a civil court with but a cursory and one sided reading strikes me as profoundly short-sighted. It cannot truly serve any of us well-regardless of where we stand on the hot-button issues of human sexuality, depositions (of bishops), or departures (of dioceses and parishes).
One further point: I was specifically referred to by name in one email. This is because I took part in a brief conversation which was referenced by Dr. Chris Seitz. More specifically, I was introduced during lunch to a priest in Colorado who was eager to keep his parish in The Episcopal Church and was exploring appropriate ways to do so. My intention was to help in whatever way appropriate-hardly a story, though some in their unbridled imaginings have tried to suggest one. If you have further questions please feel free to contact me.
Now, having taken the space in this ENewsletter to briefly address this matter of church polity and politics, I will be eager to return in future writings to those truths that St. Paul in Titus 3:8 referred to as a "trustworthy saying": "But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life." (Titus 3:4-7)
Yours in Christ,