After two and a half days of intensive conversation and prayer, the Episcopal Church’s House of Bishops has released a plan for dealing with conflict between bishops and congregations entitled “Caring For All The Churches: A Response of the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church to an expressed need of the Church.”
The three-page document, crafted during the March 19-25 retreat of the bishops at Camp Allen, Texas, stresses what Bishop Charles Jenkins of Louisiana, president of the Presiding Bishop’s Council of Advice, called “generous accommodation” to “those in the church who find themselves in distress because of the actions of the 74th General Convention.”
It outlines a plan for what is called “Delegated Episcopal Pastoral Oversight.” The process begins with a bishop and congregation meeting together “with a consultant, if needed, to find ways to work together.” If that is not successful, the next step is to implement a plan for delegated oversight. Congregational leadership “may seek from their diocesan bishop, (or the diocesan bishop may suggest) a conference regarding the appropriateness and conditions for Delegated Episcopal Pastoral Oversight” and “the bishop may appoint another bishop to provide pastoral oversight” for the congregation. If conflict remains, “there may then be an appeal to the bishop who is president or vice-president of the ECUSA province in which the congregation is geographically located, for help in seeking a resolution.” But such an appeal cannot take place without notification of the diocesan bishop.
The provincial bishop involved may request two other bishops “representative of the divergent views in this church” to consult and recommend a course of action. Any visiting bishop “shall be a member in good standing in this Church,” and all plans for oversight should be “for the purpose of reconciliation” and “for a stated period of time with regular reviews.” Regular reports to the Presiding Bishop, the Council of Advice and the House of Bishops are expected.
Costly work of reconciliation
Presiding Bishop Frank T. Griswold issued a statement praising the bishops for their work:
“I could not possibly be more proud of our bishops, who with great care and deliberation sought to articulate our shared ministry of reconciliation in ways that are generous toward those who feel themselves in some sense alienated from our common life.
The honesty and generosity of spirit that have prevailed throughout this meeting make it clear that we as bishops, regardless of our several points of view, are deeply committed to the costly work of reconciliation, not only within the church but for the sake of the world.
We are moving beyond winning and losing. Together we are coming to a new place of mutual discovery and trust.”
“This is more of a plea for reconciliation, for mutual respect, for dignity, for making room for one another,” said Jenkins by phone from Camp Allen. “It is not a change in our polity, or in the constitution and canons of the church, but a recognition of our brokenness. It is bishops taking the lead in seeking reconciliation.”
Finding a way forward
The difficult issue, Jenkins said, was whether the document would use the term “oversight” or “pastoral care” to describe the relationship between a dissenting congregation and the visiting bishop. In the end, the decision was to use the term “oversight,” defined carefully in the document to exclude the conferring of jurisdiction on anyone but the diocesan bishop:
“In our Episcopal Church polity, ‘oversight’ does not confer ‘jurisdiction.’ We are aware of current examples of the delegation of pastoral oversight in the gracious accommodations which have occurred in some dioceses.
As we together commit to a process for Delegated Episcopal Pastoral Oversight, we also recognize the constitutional and canonical authority of bishops and the integrity of diocesan boundaries. We are in accord with the statement of the primates: ‘Whilst we affirm the teaching of successive Lambeth Conferences that bishops must respect the autonomy and territorial integrity of dioceses and provinces other than their own, we call on the provinces concerned to make adequate provision for episcopal oversight of dissenting minorities within their own area of pastoral care in consultation with the Archbishop of Canterbury on behalf of the Primates.’”
“By the use of the word ‘oversight’ we are working within the constitution and canons and this would be a welcome sign,” Jenkins said.
But the plan itself “has no canonical or constitutional standing,” Jenkins emphasized. “It is finding a way forward.”
According to Jenkins, the plan asks congregations and bishops to sit down together despite what he called “failures and abuses of trust in the past,” and to make themselves vulnerable to one another, respect one another, make room for one another, and to find a way forward in the midst of disagreement.
“It came at some price for many,” he added. “It’s going to cause a lot of work for some people, and in some places it will obviously be misunderstood. But we’re not going to eliminate, as [Britain’s Chief Rabbi] Jonathan Sachs says, ‘the dignity of difference.’”
The bishop of New York, Mark Sisk, who chairs the planning committee of the House of Bishops, said that the atmosphere was a good one and that people had worked hard to produce a process that was fair. “The bishops are very serious about their responsibilities as pastors and there is a real desire to reach out to the folks in our Church who feel displaced,” he said. “It was also important to say something that would be helpful to the Anglican Communion.”
Sisk added that, although the vote was not unanimous, an overwhelming majority of the bishops voted in favor of adopting the plan.
Continuing the theme of global reconciliation, the bishops are welcoming three primates from other provinces of the Anglican Communion to join them in prayer and Bible study, and to look at how communion is manifest in relationships in mission.
The three visitors-- the Most Rev. Martin Barahona, Primate of Central America; the Most Rev. Joseph B. Marona, Archbishop of the Sudan; and the Most Rev. Sir Ellison Pogo, Bishop of Central Melanesia and Archbishop of Melanesia--come from very different parts of the world, each with their own share of socio-political anxieties. They will help to facilitate the bishops’ study of global reconciliation.