Saturday, April 23, 2005

How to Create a Crisis: The Connecticut Six Deliberately Ask For What Cannot Be Given

Having read carefully the actual text of the letter to Bishop Andrew Smith of Connecticut written May 27, 2004 from the clergy, wardens and vestries of Bishop Seabury Church, Groton; Christ Church, Watertown; St. Johns, Bristol; St. Paul’s, Darien; Trinity, Bristol; Christ & The Epiphany, East Haven as posted on, I can only conclude that that authors themselves precipitated the crisis they find themselves in. Looking at this material as an outsider is instructive because the text reveals some fundamental challenges to our common life that is important for all of us concerned with the mission and ministry of the Episcopal Church to understand.

I tried to put myself in their position by asking myself what if the Church put forward as teaching something that I believed in all my heart was wrong. And what if I was a Rector who was not only appalled by such a turn of events but who chaired a vestry equally appalled? What would be my response? How far would I go and at what cost? What would have to be the response of my Bishop and Diocese if I wrote a letter such as the May27, 2004 document? It is from that perspective that I looked at the demands themselves irrespective of the theological dispute itself.

For the sake of full disclosure, I should say that I support the election of Bishop Robinson and the actions of GC03. To be fair, I will to try to not let my biases show too much. Again, I have attempted to look at these questions separate from the theological dispute.

I bypass the preambles, noting the truth of what they say. If Bishop Smith were to change his mind and recant his support of Bishop Robinson and other gay clergy, then the authors of the letter would be right, there would be no need for DEPO oversight.

The significance of the six churches acting in concert is, to me, nothing less than a pressure tactic: a perfectly good one, actually. Just don’t be surprised if the Bishop does not want to play. Their requests for a big single meeting—all Vestries, Wardens and Clergy in one place at one time, with the Bishop having to submit in advance the names of those going with him—strikes me as a request designed to be unacceptable. Would such a gathering be a meeting, a lynching or a constitutional convention? It’s hard to tell. It should not surprise that the idea was refused.

Turning to their specific demands, I want to look at the implications of what the petitioners are really asking. The exact text of the letter is followed by commentary.

  • We seek immediate care and pastoral oversight of a bishop acceptable to us who
    • Affirms Holy Scripture, the ancient creeds, and the 39 Articles.
    • Upholds the 1998 Lambeth Resolution on human sexuality.
    • Neither supported the election, consecration and ministry of V.G. Robinson as bishop, nor supports the ordination of any unchaste homosexuals to ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church.

This speaks to the fundamental disagreement with their Bishop and the rest of the Diocese. One would assume that any DEPO Bishop would be sympathetic to the cause of the petitioning congregations.

  • We seek suspension without prejudice of the canons and resolutions of the Diocese of Connecticut requiring an assessment of funds in support of diocesan mission and ministry.

In this instance, the leaders of these congregations want to be relived of their obligations to the wider community of the Diocese and the Episcopal Church but retain their right to seat, voice and vote at Diocesan Convention and for the right of their representatives and clergy to take part in the councils of the Church.

  • We seek a one-year review of these DEPO Agreements in consultation with the Archbishop of Canterbury on behalf of the Primates of the Anglican Communion or their appointed designee.

The signers interpret DEPO to mean that what is being delegated flows not out of the authority of the Diocesan Bishop nor out of the structures of the Episcopal Church, but flows out of Canterbury and the combined council of the Primates of the whole Anglican Communion. According to this view, the canons of both Diocese of Connecticut and the Episcopal Church do not apply.

The weakness here is that they are asking their Bishop and Standing Committee to suspend their own rules outside of the authority of the Convention of the Diocese, and outside of General Convention. Even if this were desirable, the laws of the State of Connecticut do not disappear, either. The responsibility of the Bishop, Standing Committee, Diocesan Council and Convention is to the whole diocese, not just a few. And it is to live within both the laws of the state and the canons of this church. This does not cease simply because some might wish it so.

Even if outside Bishops, of whatever rank, were to review the agreement it would have to be within the framework of the relevant canons and civil law.

  • We seek a written agreement that guarantees that the future succession of clergy in our parishes rests in the hands of our vestries, our search committees and our DEPO Bishop.

The process for the selection of clergy already rests in a shared process between vestry and Bishop. This group is asking that the Bishop of Connecticut delegate the authority of deployment to the DEPO Bishop. In effect, they are asking the Bishop of Connecticut to hand over the ability to license clergy (and by extension the lay offices such as lay reader, Eucharistic minister, preacher and so on) to the DEPO Bishop. Again, the responsibilities delineated in the canon do not cease. Besides, this kind of agreement can go the other way. If a parish chooses to become Unitarian and only wants to have Unitarian clergy but remain in the Episcopal Church there would be nothing to stop it because this kind of rule would remove the check the canons are designed to give.

  • We seek a written agreement that all decisions regarding future candidates for ordained ministry from these parishes rest in the hands of our rectors, discernment committees, vestries and our DEPO Bishop.

See above. Again, the fitness of a person for ordination does not solely rest in theology, but in other factors. Would the six parishes carry the burden of being sure the person is psychologically ready for ordination, and solely take on the responsibility of the person should they commit sexual abuse, misuse of parish funds or commits a crime and absolve the diocese and the national church of those liabilities. In our tradition, a person is ordained for the whole church via the Diocese, not for oneself or ones congregation.

  • We seek a written assurance that you and the Diocese of Connecticut will not foster a ministerial environment that is hostile to our parish’s mission and ministries.

On the first reading they seem to be asking their Bishop to continue to include them in the councils of the Church without prejudice or barrier. The definition of a hostile environment is in this case a slippery one. Does it mean that the Bishop would have to be responsible for the choices of other clergy in their ordinary dealings with these priests? For example, if other clergy choose not to fellowship with them or not to entrust their neighboring parishes to their care while they are on vacation or if a parishioner lands in a hospital close to them, or if their colleagues do not elect them to positions within the diocese, then this agreement might indicate that this is the Bishops responsibility, and not a natural consequence of their own choices.

I believe that any fair reading of this document supports what Bishop Smith when he that the clergy, wardens and vestries of these six congregations are in fact asking things of their Bishop and Standing Committee things that they cannot grant without a unilateral suspension of the Constitution and Canons of the Diocese and the Episcopal Church, and probably the laws of incorporation of the State of Connecticut. These folks are choosing to try to not so much change the system as to make the system accommodate them.

It may be nice in theory that we add a level of canonical and legal authority to our church that makes us beholden to the Archbishop of Canterbury and all the Primates, but until the Constitution of the Episcopal Church is changed, it just ain’t so. Their role can be nothing more than an invited and consultative one. To invoke an authority that does not exist is akin to saying “I can beat my spouse because God told me to.” God may or may not have said that, but the laws of the state will have something to say about the consequences of choosing to follow that belief.

Here is for me the heart of the matter: the six congregations are asking to take unto themselves the rights of a Diocese—to select clergy and candidates for ordinations, to establish their own common life and ministry—without any of the obligations. They are, in effect, asking the rest of the church to insure their buildings, support their pensions, cover their liabilities, and to support and underwrite all of the other details that go into running on a daily basis the life of this church.

Even in the area of their professional relationships, they want rights without obligations. Respect is demanded but none given.

There are other less direct, but equally important costs that we all share in our common life. Are these six parishes willing and able to indemnify the diocese for the legal liabilities of what happens in these six parishes? Dioceses are held responsible for the actions of their clergy and congregations no matter whether the priest of a parish likes the Bishop or not.

Based on this document alone the clergy, the wardens and the vestries of these congregations have by their own words placed themselves outside and above the common life of their diocese. They want a common life that gives them freedom with no responsibility, while still expecting the remaining parishes to pick up the tab. If I were a member of the standing committee, whose stewardship is for all the churches in the diocese, then I would feel I would have no choice but to act as they did. Given this reading, I am pleased they acted with restraint.

One might chalk the intent of this document up to runaway congregationalism, which is as alive in Connecticut as anyplace else. But I think there is more at work here. The progressive nature of the demands means that one can’t give on one item without giving into them all. The inflexibility of their demands makes flexible application of the canon impossible. They have drawn very clear lines which gives little room to negotiate. The only real flexibility is the timetable within which the canons may be applied.

This dispute only made the news a few weeks ago, but the letter itself is almost a year old. The demands are undoubtedly older than that. Putting this out in the media first was a choice of the petitioners, and the published material is spun to leave out pertinent details.

The content of their demands fit into the previously publicized strategy of legal activism designed to distract and wear down diocesan leadership until they get their way, to create new layers of authority which by-passes existing processes, and to create parallel jurisdictions that can make the appeal to those outside the Episcopal Church that they represent the actual Anglican Communion.

The nature of their requests shows that the petitioners want nothing less that complete freedom from any accountability that is not of their own design. This is not really accountability at all.

By their own words, they have created the crisis they face. It is inappropriate for these congregations to expect obligations shared by every other congregation to be suspended because they decide the rules do not apply to them. The alternative for these congregational leaders is to stand with their consciences and expect consequences in faith. If they want to make salt against the wishes of the Empire, then go to the sea and make salt. The unjustness of the law should become apparent in its enforcement. The point of Gandhi’s protest was to eventually end British Rule in India. The assumption was that they not only wanted independence but that they were up to it. If these folks want the draw unto themselves the rights of being a Diocese, then they need to accept the obligations. If, as they claim, they truly want to remain part of the Church through the Diocese they are in, then that will require submission to a common life that will sometimes be uncomfortable and challenging.

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