With Wild Abandon
“New occasions teach new duties.” So goes the proverbial saying. It would also appear that new occasions teach new violations of duties. Of late a number of bishops and dioceses of the Episcopal Church appear to be heading in a secessionist direction. Unlike the last secession, necessitated in the minds of the dioceses in question by the secession of their respective states from the Union, or the even earlier separation, again necessitated in the minds of the founders of The Episcopal Church by the independence of the United States — in this case we are seeing what is referred to as a “realignment,” based not on geography or nationality but on notions of doctrinal or disciplinary affiliation.
We have a Canon (IV.9) in The Episcopal Church concerning abandonment of the communion of this church by a bishop. This Canon came into being as an ad hoc reaction to the departure of a bishop to the Roman Catholic Church. Over the years, the Canon has been amended to cover various other forms of departure. The crucial factor in this Canon is that it concerns renunciation, not mere violation, of the discipline, doctrine, or worship of TEC — which is covered by other canonical regulations. It is a form of saying, “Your rules no longer apply to me.” Nor is this Canon intended to address — although it might cover it — someone who has simply abandoned the faith of Christ altogether. Clearly no one is suggesting that a bishop who becomes a Roman Catholic has abdicated the doctrine of “the Church.” But such a bishop has clearly and openly renounced and thus abandoned — by action if not by express word — the discipline of “this Church” — The Episcopal Church.
The Diocese of Fort Worth is in the process of considering a resolution that includes a clause “dissociating itself from the moral, theological, and disciplinary innovations of the Episcopal Church in the United States of America.” What form this dissociation might take remains unknown, although there has been a move afoot to realign the diocese with the Church of the Southern Cone.
There is a procedure for clergy to transfer their membership to other provinces of the Anglican Communion. Many have made use of this in recent times. There is also a procedure for a priest or deacon or bishop to renounce the Ministry of The Episcopal Church. There is no procedure for a diocese to do so. It appears that the intent of the Bishop and some of the clergy of the Diocese of Fort Worth is to separate the diocese itself from the discipline and worship of The Episcopal Church. This has all of the appearance of renunciation and abandonment on their part — not of the faith of the Church, but, as the Canon says, “the Doctrine, Discipline, or Worship of this Church”; that is, The Episcopal Church. Two out of three appear to be at play in this current proposed action.
The Bishop and Clergy of Fort Worth cannot have it both ways. They are either under the discipline of TEC, or they reject it; and rejection, in this case, constitutes abandonment.
Way with Words
Meanwhile, the Diocese of Virginia is engaged in a court battle with a number of parishes who had similarly attempted to withdraw themselves from participation in the life of the diocese and The Episcopal Church — while retaining use of church properties. They have appealed to an 1860 statute governing the “division” of a church into two or more branches.
It appears to me that they have gotten hold of the wrong end of the stick — or the branch. The statute uses “division” to refer to decisions made by a church hierarchy to split itself into two or more denominations — as happened during the Civil War with a number of American churches, though, significantly, not with The Episcopal Church, which never recognized the separate establishment of a Protestant Episcopal Church in the Confederate States of America any more than the Congress recognized the legitimate establishment of the Confederate States themselves.
The dissident parishes are claiming that the word “division” can be applied to the present state of disagreement in The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. This argument, which I find it hard to believe anyone could take seriously, would, if applied consistently, lead to the total dissolution of any church in which there was any significant level of disagreement on any given topic.
I earnestly hope that the court will find in favor of the diocese and the Church. To do otherwise would mean the overthrow of what it means to be an Episcopal, rather than a congregational, church. The statute is about division of a church — not division in a church. It is about a church’s considered decision to divide; not division of opinion on any matter whatsoever.
Tobias Haller BSG