Bishops' Theology Committee offers Primates' communiqué study document

Document says bishops want response from entire Episcopal Church
May 31, 2007

The Theology Committee of the Episcopal Church's House of Bishops on June 1 released a study document aimed at helping the bishops respond to the requests made to them by the Primates of the Anglican Communion.


The 15-page "Communion Matters: A Study Document for the Episcopal Church" is available online. A color PDF version of the document is available here. A black-and-white PDF version is here.

Theology Committee chair and Alabama Bishop Henry Parsley told Episcopal News Service that the report is meant for bishops to use in conversation with the people of their dioceses in the three and a half months between now and the mid-September meeting of the House of Bishops in New Orleans. Rather than call for responses from individual Episcopalians, Parsley said the committee will in late August and early September gather input from bishops on the result of their conversations in their dioceses.

He said the committee hopes that Episcopalians will "read, mark, inwardly digest and then come talk" about the document with their bishop.

"Every diocese will have to do that in their own way," he said. "We didn't want it to be an individual thing. We wanted it to be a diocesan, corporate process overseen by the bishop."

Parsley said the corporate nature of the conversations is important, given the nature of the requests made by the Primates at the end of their February gathering in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania via a communiqué.

"The Anglican tradition is always that bishops are in the midst of the people of God and, when thinking about important matters, need to take counsel with the deacons, priests and laypersons in order to be well-informed and to listen to the Church," he said. "We felt that since the communiqué addresses the request to the House of Bishops in response to resolutions of General Convention, we couldn't just act unilaterally. We needed to take counsel with the people of the Church in responding to the communiqué."

He added that bishops need to exercise their "unique role as chief pastors and teachers ... but we exercise it best when we are in conversation with -- in counsel with -- the Church in our dioceses."

"Communion Matters" begins with a preface in which the committee writes that it offers the document "as a contribution to the discernment of this church as we seek the mind of Christ and endeavor to be faithful to our calling as members of the Anglican family in the world."

It includes three chapters of information, a set of questions for reflection and resources for more background.

The preface says that the guide aims to be a summary, not an exhaustive history.

"Constraints of space and concerns about maintaining easy readability prevent us from recounting all the important details of the conversation taking place in our church and Communion," the committee writes. "We hope that we have faithfully described the essentials."

Parsley reiterated the preface's hope. "We wanted this to be readable, brief and accessible to all of our people," he said. "In that way, it's a little simpler than some people might want, but we want it to be read and stimulate conversation."

The chapter on "Relationships within the Anglican Communion" says that the Communion matters because "in this fellowship all give and receive many gifts," "it enables us to be disciples in a global context," "we have sought it for many years," and "the maintenance of mutuality and trust with the Communion effects future mission opportunities."

The next chapter, titled "Our Special Charism as Anglican Christians," says that Anglicans have always valued the via media -- "the middle way between polarities" -- as a "faithful theological method."

The chapter describes the via media as an approach that "acknowledges paradox and believes even apparent opposites may be reconciled or transcended."

"Moreover, many within our church believe this is a good thing and a major charism (gift)," the chapter says. "In our own day, we especially need to preserve this special Anglican charism, not only for our own Communion but for all Christians."

The third chapter sets the Dar es Salaam communiqué in the context of the Communion's on-going debate about human sexuality, noting that "because the Communion has no central constitution and no form of synod or council beyond that of each province, issues of authority and conciliarity can present acute challenges for the maintenance of communion."

The chapter references the 1998 Lambeth Conference debate and the previous objections by the Primates Meeting, traces the Windsor Report process, outlines the Episcopal Church's response to the Report, summarizes how the Primates Meeting came to be and summarizes the pertinent parts of the communiqué and the House of Bishops' statements about it to date.

The House of Bishops has already responded to a portion of the communiqué. In three "Mind of the House" resolutions passed during their March meeting, the bishops said, in part, that the Primates' proposed "pastoral scheme" for dealing with disaffected Episcopal Church dioceses "would be injurious to The Episcopal Church." The bishops urged that the Executive Council "decline to participate in it."

The communiqué gave the bishops of the Episcopal Church until September 30 to "make an unequivocal common covenant that the bishops will not authorize any Rite of Blessing for same-sex unions in their dioceses or through General Convention" and "confirm that the passing of Resolution B033 of the 75th General Convention means that a candidate for episcopal orders living in a same-sex union shall not receive the necessary consent; unless some new consensus on these matters emerges across the Communion."

The third chapter states that these two requests "raise significant issues about the role of the primates in the Anglican Communion, Anglican ecclesiology, and the role of the House of Bishops in the Episcopal Church," including:

  • "Are such requests appropriately addressed by the bishops as chief pastors and teachers, or more representatively by the General Convention?"
  • "How best may theological and mission development take place in churches which are ‘autonomous in communion'?" and
  • "How can the Communion appropriately consult about important matters such as these without a centralization of authority that is unknown to Anglicanism?"

The three chapters are followed by a series of eight questions for reflection with some background on each question, and then a page of online resources for more background. When viewed on a computer in its PDF form, the clickable links on the resources page send readers to electronic versions of the documents.

"As bishops we are charged in ordination to guard the faith and unity of the Church. Being charged with this task does not mean it falls to us alone," the document concludes. "This study document is written to allow us to hear and receive the response of the whole of this province so that together we might respond faithfully as a constituent member of this great Communion."

In addition to Parsley, the members of the Theology Committee are David Alvarez of Puerto Rico; Joe Burnett of Nebraska; Robert W. Ihloff, recently retired of Maryland; Carolyn T. Irish of Utah; Paul V. Marshall of Bethlehem; Steven A. Miller of Milwaukee and Jeffrey Steenson of Rio Grande.

The Rev. Dr. Ian Douglas, an Executive Council member and professor at Episcopal Divinity School, is the committee's consulting theologian. Douglas also worked as a liaison between the Theology Committee and a subcommittee of the Executive Council's International Concerns Committee (INC), which released a six-page study guide to the draft version of the proposed Anglican Covenant.

The covenant guide calls for congregations and individuals to submit responses by June 4. Responses will be used in the creation of a response by the Executive Council at its October meeting in Detroit, Michigan.

Prior to that, at the Council's June meeting in Parsippany, New Jersey, INC will propose that Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori and House of Deputies President Bonnie Anderson appoint a Covenant Review Group to follow the covenant-development process, enable comments from the wider Episcopal Church and provide comments on behalf of the church to the Communion's Covenant Design Group.