Bishop Meets in Climate of Reconciliation at Texas Retreat Center

March 14, 2002

Despite dire predictions of a confrontation over a range of sensitive issues in the life of the Episcopal Church, the annual spring retreat of bishops ended March 12 with general agreement that it had been one of the deepest and most honest encounters many of them had experienced.

The overall theme of the retreat was reconciliation, and the way the theme was handled was credited by many bishops for creating a much better climate for dealing with tensions over the issues. Building on their earlier study of globalization at last fall's meeting in Vermont, the bishops used their time at Camp Allen near Houston to study different areas of reconciliation as both the mission of the church and as integral to the role of a bishop.

"We started with personal dimensions of reconciliation and then considered ourselves as a community of ministers of reconciliation, bishops of the church," Griswold said in a press conversation at the end of the retreat. "We asked who we are as people reconciled to God in Christ and, out of that reconciliation, how we are caught up in a context of continued reconciliation."

"Then we moved from personal to the communal or ecclesial level of reconciliation and in that context looked at some of the concerns in the life of the church. But we also recognized that the church is called to be a reconciling force in the world so we turned our attention to global matters such as world poverty, disease, disparity between rich and poor in this country, our relationship to the larger Anglican Communion," he added. "They are all interactive. We must engage all these dimensions of reconciliation at the same time."

A House in transition

On the day set aside for the small groups to identify and discuss ecclesial concerns, a statement signed by 18 bishops, called "An Appeal for the Preservation of Godly Union," was introduced and became part of the discussion. It pleaded that the bishops "not leave this gathering without an agreement about a meaningful and workable form of sustained pastoral care" protecting the sensibilities, integrity and place of those whose "traditional orthodox faith" renders them unable to accept the innovations of the past three decades.

Griswold invited the groups to consider the statement and the issue in the context of whether the present Constitution and Canons of the church are sufficient to deal with issues such as supplemental episcopal pastoral care. The groups reported a general consensus that they were sufficient so a draft statement was framed, discussed by the Presiding Bishop's Council of Advice and presented to a plenary of the house as a "distillation" of the agreement that became the Covenant on Episcopal Pastoral Care.

Developed within a week-long theological study of reconciliation, the covenant encourages the "strongest possible pastoral relationship" between bishops and "all congregations". Griswold emphasized that use of the covenant provided a transitional process and that "any supplemental episcopal ministry depends on bishop of the diocese".

"There was no vote", Griswold said, but an "overwhelming majority" of bishops felt it not only answered concerns of a number of primates of the Anglican Communion, but was also a good description "of what we could already do," he said during the press conversation.

Griswold cited changes in the composition and style of the house as one reason the covenant emerged. Since he became presiding bishop in January 1998, 41 new bishops have been consecrated. "By that fact, it is clear that this is a body in transition," he said in an interview, adding that he senses a "new energy" in recent meetings of the bishops. "We have moved on"and the character of the house has changed tremendously. The new bishops are accustomed to a more conversational style of deliberation, rather than debate." And he is convinced that the small groups quickly established "great truthfulness that opened the way for reconciliation. The bishops faced each other with great honesty."

Reaction to Covenant

Griswold said it was important to see the covenant in context. "It's a pastoral response," he said. Arrangements can be made, he said, in places where "there is a desire for ministry beyond the diocesan bishop," with the approval of that bishop.

Many bishops doubted that they would need to invoke the Covenant in their dioceses. "We have three bishops who embody great diversity," said Suffragan Bishop Catherine Roskam of New York said. "We don't have occasion to use it." Bishop William Persell of Chicago agreed. "We have a variety of parishes with a variety of view points," he said, but "I've been welcome everywhere I've gone." He did express reservations that the document might be misused if it "were to take on a life of its own."

Some were concerned that the covenant would not be used enough. "My fear . . .is that we will not use it in as many situations as it might be helpful in," said Bishop Robert Duncan of Pittsburgh, a member of the American Anglican Council and one of the 18 bishops who signed the "Appeal for the Preservation of Godly Union." As one who believes in the need for such a response, Duncan was pleased with the interpretation of existing church law. Citing the formation of "continuing churches" that have left the Episcopal Church in the last 30 years, he said, "There are tremendous pressures in our church that could lead us to more division." He said that the covenant, "when not interpreted in the extreme, one way or another, offers a better way forward than the last three decades have shown."

Allen Bartlett, retired bishop of Pennsylvania, said the covenant was nothing new, but rather "one tool among many," one that provides a "temporary arrangement." He pointed out that the ultimate goal is full restoration of the relationship with a congregation. Bartlett was one of the bishops who made an arrangement when he was diocesan bishop with several traditionalist parishes for visitations by other bishops.

As news from the retreat moved through the church, early responses from conservatives were positive. The American Anglican Council, for example, said that the Covenant "represents a significant act of grace at a time when grace is most needed in the church." The March 14 statement also expressed gratitude to Griswold "for providing the time necessary during the House of Bishops meeting for constructive discussion of Sustained Pastoral Care," and they commended the bishops "for committing themselves to the path of reconciliation and unity."

Griswold's leadership was cited by several bishops. Robert Ihloff of Maryland said that the presiding bishop "put things in a theological perspective, consistently leading us spiritually and theologically to think out our issues on a Scriptural basis."

Retreat moves bishops to new place

Reaction to the retreat was overwhelmingly positive among bishops across the spectrum. Roskam described it as important for "our formation as bishops, our formation as community. We do it because we are the spiritual leaders of the church and we can"t expect the efforts of the church to move forward if we were not moving forward as reconcilers ourselves."

Bishop Coadjutor Duncan Gray III of Mississippi called it a "soul-satisfying" meeting, "because we were engaged in the reconciling work of the church and we were doing mission and being transformed as we did it."

Bishops considered how, as spiritual leaders, they give shape to the life of the church as it responds to the "confusion and sense of vulnerability" that followed events of September 11, said Bishop Arthur Walmsley, retired bishop of Connecticut, who helped the bishops implement the concerns expressed in their "Waging Reconciliation" statement at last fall's meeting in Vermont.. He said they also considered the Church's link to partners throughout the Anglican Communion and through them, to the larger issues of poverty, hunger, disease and the gap between rich and poor.

Several guest bishops helped make that connection more tangible. Desmond Tutu, former Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, joined Bishop Iraj Mottahedeh, President-Bishop of the Episcopal Church in Jerusalem and the Middle East, and Archbishop Peter Akinola, primate of the Church in Nigeria, and a group of consultants on some of the international issues "enriched our discussions and our lives," Persell said.

Griswold said that the presence of representatives from other churches and other contexts was very helpful, "a special gift because they serve as reminders of the larger fellowship and they present the Gospel from a variety of contexts." In reporting to the Church Center staff following the retreat, he related a story of how Akinola dealt with several diocese caught in conflict. "He visited them, removing the signs of his episcopal authority, prostrating himself on the ground and asking them to accept his ministry of reconciliation."

During the press conversation, bishops expressed deep appreciation for what had happened. "There is a commitment to understand and respond to the fact that we are people of privilege living in a time of extreme challenge, that global poverty and the situations of our sisters and brothers around the world is critical for us is a continuing agenda," said Walmsley, who called this one of "the most remarkable meetings" he'd attended in 22 years in the House of Bishops.

Bishop Claude E. Payne of Texas said he saw the bishops' discussions as an example that the Episcopal Church is adapting to cultural change. By seizing the opportunity for mission, he said, the church is reforming, using reconciliation to reach out to all people.

Bishop Theodore Daniels of the Virgin Islands feels less isolated after time with colleagues. He said that the retreat was "energizing," adding that "this particular meeting gave me hope as a leader of the church that we can set the tone. One can deal with issues that are not necessarily easy. We don"t always have answers and we can say "not yet" on things."

Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori of Nevada, one of the newer bishops at the retreat, said that it was "an experience of the body of Christ in a different way than I or any of us can experience in our own diocese. We gather, we deliberate, we disagree in love and we grow to love our neighbors who may disagree with us from time to time."

Some bishops, looking to future meetings, expressed some eagerness and even impatience to move on to even larger issues. Bishop Chester Talton of Los Angeles, who chairs the planning committee, said that one of the most positive and important changes is that the meetings were beginning to focus on world issues.

The bishops shaped another covenant at their meeting, committing themselves to a list of specific issues as "next steps in reconciliation." Included are a reduction in global poverty, hunger and disease; addressing the gap between rich and poor in the United States; candid dialogue among Abrahamic faiths; efforts to empower partnerships among the provinces and dioceses within the Anglican Communion.

Griswold greeted the commitment of the bishops to global issues. "Our reconciliation as a community of faith is not for ourselves but for the sake of the world. It was therefore important that having reflected upon our life as a church we turned our attention to the global issues that effect us all, remembering that Christ came not to save the church but the world," he said. "I think it is fair to say that the real energy came to the fore in our global discussions. Many bishops eagerly welcomed the opportunity to move on to matters that have significance beyond our self-preoccupation."

A Covenant on Episcopal Pastoral Care

We believe that the present Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church are sufficient for dealing with questions of episcopal oversight, supplemental Episcopal pastoral care, and disputes that may arise between the bishop and a congregation We encourage that their provisions be used wisely and in the spirit of charity.

The provision of supplemental Episcopal pastoral care shall be under the direction of the bishop of the diocese, who shall invite the visitor and remain in pastoral contact with the congregation. This is to be understood as a temporary arrangement, the ultimate goal of which is the full restoration of the relationship between the congregation and their bishop.

Possible next steps in Reconciliation

The Reduction of Global Poverty, Hunger and Disease

Recognizing that those who are capable of relieving poverty are often also agents in its causation, explore a process for developing a conversation on the systemic causes of poverty and the ways bishops might lead the church toward its reduction.

The Office of the Presiding Bishop

Provide bishops with information about initiatives already underway, particularly through Episcopal Relief and Development and the Episcopal Church's Office of Government Relations, so that bishops might encourage their dioceses to become involved in one or more of those initiatives.

Episcopal Relief and Development and OGR

The Growing Gap Between Rich and Poor Within the United States

Call together a task force of representatives of dioceses with credit union experience (Atlanta, Los Angeles, Mississippi) to assist interested dioceses in establishing diocesan Credit Unions, and explore the possibility of a national credit union

The Office of the Presiding Bishop

Explore the possibility of the House of Bishops locating the Spring 2004 meeting in Washington, D.C. as an opportunity for public policy conversations with legislators.

House of Bishops Planning Committee

Provide information related to the extension of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families to all dioceses for action, and actively advocate for its extension.

Office of Government Relations

Development of Candid Dialogue Among Abrahamic Faiths

Bishops to begin or continue interfaith relationships, and within the frame of those relationships, work collaboratively for peace and justice.

Articulate a theology of the Missio Dei in a way that includes the mission of Jews, Muslims and others.

Office of Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations

Pursue the development of an outline/guidelines for interfaith worship.

Office of Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations

Empowering of Partnerships of Provinces/Dioceses within the Anglican Communion

Bishops to encourage ongoing international interchange between dioceses, parishes and individuals, and to serve as resources to one another about the possibilities and benefits of such experiences.

Explore forms of support and involvement for Anglican Congress 2008.

Anglican and Global Relations

Explore pension concerns of now-autonomous provinces that were formerly part of ECUSA.

Anglican and Global Relations

Church Pension Group

Web Resources:

Interfaith Education Initiative " and;

World Conference on Religions for Peace "

United Religions Initiative "

To reach all offices at the Episcopal Church Center and the Washington Office of Government Relations -

--James Solheim is director of Episcopal News Service. Carol Barnwell is director of communications for the Diocese of Texas.

The Most Reverend Frank T. Griswold
XXV Presiding Bishop and Primate
The Episcopal Church, USA

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