Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Reorienting the Conversation Towards Hope

By now, both the Episcopal/Anglican blogosphere and the press have picked up the three Mind of the House resolutions from the House of Bishops. For a quick summary, here is Dave Walker's take:

cartoon from

Cartoon by Dave Walker. Find more cartoons you can freely re-use on your blog at We Blog Cartoons.

My initial reaction to what they have written was positive.

On reflection, I believe that what has occurred is more than just a matter of Episcopal Bishops speaking with unusual clarity. It is a change in the direction and tenor of the conversation.

First of all: did you notice that what has come from the House of Bishops is a Communication and not a Communique? Right off the bat, we are given the contrast between a process between many parties and a missive from on-high.

Second, be careful what you pray for, you just might get it. Since 2003 the conservative Provinces and groups within our own church been demanding our repentance. Well, friends, what we saw here was repentance in action. Not the sack cloth and ashes, do-you-still-love-me kind. No, this was the repentance that happens when one wakes up and realizes that we have been distracted from listening for God and following God's call to us. This kind of repentance leads to faithful resolve, hope in the face of adversity and trust in the midst of uncertainty. What we are experiencing is the kind of repentance that strengthens and builds up the Body of Christ.

I believe that the conventional wisdom that the Bishops merely said "no" to the ultimatum from Dar es Salaam (and that this must automatically lead to schism) misses the significance of what was done.

The real significance of what the Bishops have done is that they have hit the "reset" button on the conversation about the future of the Anglican Communion and the role of the Episcopal Church within it. It is a major reorientation in the nature and focus of the conversation.

Bishops have begun to write to their dioceses about what's been going on at Camp Allen, and one of the more insightful and reassuring comes from the Bishop of Central Florida, the Rt. Rev. John Howe. As Jim Naughton says, Bishop Howe is "an extremely conservative man" and, Jim was right, some of what he wrote was surprising. What he writes points to the "reset" of which I speak.

In a letter to his diocese he observes a number of things that are significant:
  • Howe reports that the Presiding Bishop, the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori did a "stunning job in leading this meeting." This was her first time actually presiding at an HOB meeting and she did it well. Howe said: "She has been absolutely even-handed, and I have had less a sense of being "managed" than I have in any meeting of the House in 18 years. When asked questions she is clear, and she allows this House to do it's business in a totally straight-forward manner."
  • He observed a strong sense of collegiality in the gathering, even if everyone did not agree with or vote for two of the three resolutions
  • The invitation for the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Primates Standing Committee was unanimous--something Howe said he has not seen in his 18 years as a Bishop. This indicates the high value the Bishops place on the relationship with the rest of the Communion but also in the sense that the only way to get through this will be through face to face meeting.
  • While everyone is saying that the Key Recommendations have received a resounding "no," there has been no official refusal as of yet. Howe thinks that the overwhelming majority Bishops will say 'no' but that won't happen until September.
  • Most Bishops believe that the proposed Pastoral Council and the form of Alternative Primatial Oversight suggested in the Key Recommendations violates our constitution and canons, but that +Katharine's original Primatial Vicar plan from last November is still possible and on the table.
    • Note his observation that in our Church, the Presiding Bishop has only three "primatial" functions: visiting dioceses, consecrating bishops and episcopal discipline. She is willing to delegate the first two but not the third.
    • Howe also points out (to his "Windsor" and "network" colleagues that the terms of the APO requests was a dead-end anyway)
  • Significantly, Howe goes a long way to tone down the rhetoric that has been flying about since the failure of Mark Lawrence and the Diocese of South Carolina to obtain the necessary consents for his election as bishop of that diocese. Sorry, guys, no conspiracy here; no slavish elevation of canons over scripture: the Standing Committees simply did not do their jobs. Bishop Salmon says the diocese has a chance to do it right this time.
So what conclusions can we draw from Bishop Howe's letter and the other news releases and reflections?

As I said, the tenor and direction of the conversation changed in significant ways.

It is good to hear that Bishop Howe came away feeling that the group was not being steered or manipulated into pre-planned conclusions. ++Katharine seems to be at home allowing process to unfold and yet does this in a way so that it does not run amok. She is by all accounts a real leader in the best sense. Allowing the House to work through issues will go a long way towards building trust and confidence in one another. If people who disagree can trust that the process has a fundamental integrity, then trust increases and lines of communication remain open. When that happens, the need for outside intervention decreases because the parties become more competent and comfortable working out their differences.

From the perspective of the Network and the AAC this is bad news. Their success depends on the relationships in the House of Bishops (and in the Church at large) to be as contentious, opaque and untrustworthy as possible. Their case, that they are the true carriers of Anglicanism, is strengthened when the Episcopal Church is dysfunctional and co-dependent. The clearer and the healthier we are, the less traction these groups have. These organizations are build in response to despair and anger; they cannot live on hope.

The lesson here is clear: The Church will not prevail in our mission of drawing the whole world to God in Christ by being cleverer by half. We will prevail as we focus on mission, become better differentiated, and call those who would distract us to account for their actions.

So while Bishop Howe does not mention this in his gracious letter, I cannot help but notice that in their Communication to the Church, the Bishops named names. The Network and AAC were directly criticized and this was a good thing. The Bishops also listed point by point the ways in which our efforts in the Windsor process which was acceptable to the Communion at some points was later ignored, rebuffed or repackaged by the Primates at Dar es Salaam and at other times. The tactic till now has been to change the terms of the conversation and then pretend it has always been that way. This won't play any more because the Bishops have given notice that they are keeping score.

We know of at least two bishops who voted against two of the three resolutions (Howe and MacPherson), but these documents could not have been produced if the blatant head counting that went on before Dar es Salaam to exaggerate the degree of division (Remember the 25% figure...) was even close to accurate. I suspected that these numbers were bogus and I think the exercise backfired big time. Certainly Duncan's Pastoral Letter also hurt his own cause, as well. Many of the moderate to conservative Bishops went to the Camp Allen meetings last year in a legitimate attempt to steer a way through the competing claims of the extremes only to find their good names were hi-jacked and then used against the Church they sought to hold together. This is a group that is not given to public whining, but that has to have been embarrassing. And I suspect is a lesson that won't soon be forgotten.

When I look at the number of dioceses that declined to even vote yea or nay on Mark Lawrence, and then look at the fact that such a clear set of resolutions was able to come through the House of Bishops with so little committee-speak, and add in the gracious and reassuring observations of one of our more conservative Bishops, I can only come to one conclusion. The actions of the Network, the Moderator, and even CANA has done more harm to their own cause than good. Their apparent success in Tanzania (which was, by their own admission the snatching of victory from the jaws of defeat because without the Key Recomendations they were almost shut-out of all their goals) has produced a backlash and a surprising unity among the Bishops of the Episcopal Church.

My sense is that the Bishops are going to hold groups accountable for their "doomsday" language, in a way that keeps the crisis-anxiety in the laps of those who wish to generate crisis. They are also inviting the rest of the Church to do the same.

I am glad that the House of Bishops asked the Executive Council to act with them, rather than the Bishops acting alone. If they had acted alone, or chose to wait till September and acted alone at that time, then that would have in a strange way reinforced the idea that the House of Bishops could act without reference to the laity and clergy. If Executive Council and the House of Bishops act together, then we will reinforce how we work in the Episcopal Church.

It is also a very good thing, that the House unanimously invited the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Primates Standing Committee to come to the Episcopal Church to meet with the Bishops directly for prayer and consultation. No more tea leaves, no more white smoke, or signals from the Kremlin. Guesswork will not do here, but face to face engagement might lead the way to a creative solution that does not require a curial, disciplinary approach to our crisis.

Finally, I said before that these Mind of the House resolutions and their letter to the Church represent a re-orientation of the conversation. The conversation is no longer about how we will respond to people who are unhappy with us and who will never, ever be happy with us no matter how much we accommodate to their wishes. As long as we tried to manage other people's anxiety we dug ourselves into a deeper, more untenable hole.

The conversation is now about keeping the main thing the main thing. The main thing is mission in Jesus' name to a hurting world. The main thing is living out how we believe God is calling the Church to be the Church.

There is the sometimes sad, sometimes painful, but always liberating truth that not everyone will want to engage the world in Jesus' name the way we are called to engage the Gospel. They are invited to come along, and they will not hold us hostage if they do not.

Could it be that this round of ecclesiastical terrorism is coming to an end? We can only hope--and this week proved that our hope is not in vain.

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