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Plans for network of dissenters prepares to take next step

Posted on: December 23, 2003 3:17 PM
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by James Solheim

[ACNS source: Episcopal News Service] A network of parishes and dioceses that dissent from decisions by last summer's General Convention to endorse the consecration of an openly gay bishop coadjutor in New Hampshire and acknowledge that some dioceses are blessing same-gender relationships is poised to take the next steps toward creating a formal relationship.

In a December 15 Advent letter, Bishop Robert Duncan of Pittsburgh, moderator of the new network, said that "a group of orthodox bishops, who stood against the decisions of General Convention, has agreed to form a Network of Anglican Communion Dioceses-dioceses which, through their stand against General Convention's decisions regarding the consecration of Gene Robinson and the development of rites for same-sex unions, remain in communion with the rest of the worldwide Anglican Communion."

Duncan also said that Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams "has encouraged the formation of such a network in private dialogue with members of the orthodox caucus. The network is being formed, in good faith, within the constitution of ECUSA."

Presiding Bishop Frank T. Griswold, however, said that Williams has made it clear that he has no intention of interfering with reconciliation attempts as the church seeks to work out matters of "extended episcopal ministry" within its own provincial borders, and dissenters should not expect "direct intervention" by anyone outside the Episcopal Church in the United States-including the archbishop of Canterbury, Griswold wrote in a December 5 letter to the Church's House of Bishops.

Draft circulating among bishops

Griswold has sent a draft of guidelines for providing "Supplemental Episcopal Pastoral Care" to the bishops of the church, outlining a plan for dissidents who find it difficult to accept the leadership of their diocesan bishops. In an October 31 cover letter to the five-page draft, Griswold said that it built on work done when the bishops met at Camp Allen in Texas in March 2002. The current draft "is the work of the Committee for Pastoral Development of the House of Bishops and my Council of Advice," he wrote. "It is presented to you for your consideration, and where appropriate, immediate use, to deal with situations that might arise in your diocese."

"It is my hope that this plan will meet the needs of the present moment and also answer the concerns that have been expressed regarding episcopal pastoral care for those whose consciences are seriously strained by formal actions of our church," he wrote. The bishops "will have an opportunity to take counsel together and to make modifications and adjustments based on our experience," he said.

The plan calls on bishops "to provide for pastoral care of those who are in distress," especially in situations where there are differences between the diocesan bishop and some congregations. "At all times, however, we must recognize the constitutional and canonical authority of bishops and geographic integrity of diocesan boundaries," it added.

No direct intervention from Lambeth

Griswold pointed out that the draft was also sent to Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. "I have been in consultation with the Archbishop, and in a conversation earlier this week he made it clear that the responsibility for working out a form of extended episcopal ministry lies within our province," he said. "Indeed, the consultation envisaged in the statement of the primates following our October meeting is precisely that and does not involve some kind of direct intervention on his part." Calls for such direct intervention, either by Williams or the primates, have been made by various conservative groups within the Episcopal Church.

The American Anglican Council (AAC), chief sponsor of the network, has dismissed the plan as inadequate. Duncan said that the network was "essential to prevent the orthodox minority from being marginalized," calling it "a family table-a gathering place-for those who stand in solidarity regarding the repudiation of the anti-Scriptural decisions of General Convention."

The network has now posted its theological charter on a new web site . The Preface says that the statement of "confession and calling" is necessary because of the "threat to the historic Faith and Order" of the church posed by the consecration in New Hampshire and the decision by the Diocese of New Westminster in the Anglican Church of Canada to bless same-gender
relationships.)

Duncan and several other bishops met privately with Williams after the Primates' Meeting in mid-October and met again in London November 20 to draft a Memorandum of Agreement that outlined the process for establishing the network. Joining Duncan were Bishop Edward Salmon of South Carolina, Bishop James Stanton of Dallas, Bishop Jack L. Iker of Ft. Worth, and four Anglican primates. When the memorandum was circulated, nine other bishops signed on, selecting Duncan as moderator and convenor of the network.

Confusion over involvement

The actual number of dioceses involved in the network at this point has stirred some controversy and confusion. Duncan told the New York Times that 13 had joined the network. The claim has stirred confusion, however, since only a handful have formally acted to affiliate. (According to subsequent news reports only Pittsburgh, South Carolina and Ft. Worth have taken official action.)

The original list of 13 identified by Duncan and published in the New York Times, brought some strong reactions from bishops who said that the decision had not been made yet by their dioceses. The list included Albany, Pittsburgh, San Joaquin (California), South Carolina, Florida, Central Florida, Southwest Florida, Dallas, Ft. Worth, Quincy, Springfield (Illinois), Western Kansas and Rio Grande.

Among those objecting to being included on the list is Bishop John Howe of Central Florida, who said in a letter that the newspaper account "has gotten the cart way, way ahead of the horse."

Howe said that when he and the other bishops met with the archbishop of Canterbury on October 17, "he encouraged us to form what he called 'a network of confessing dioceses and Parishes' specifically to help address the call the primates had made the day before to provide for 'adequate Episcopal oversight.' He seemed to be saying that he would be personally involved with such a network, and when the 13 bishops signed a Memorandum of Intent last month to create such a network we did so as individuals, not presuming to speak for our dioceses."

Howe added, "In recent weeks, the Archbishop has made it clear that he believes any provision for Episcopal oversight must be worked out within ECUSA itself, and that he will not be personally involved." Howe said that several bishops who signed the memorandum "have expressed reservations and questions about how and even whether the network should proceed. The perception of many is that it appears to be laying the foundation for a kind of 'shadow province,' the very thing I have repeatedly said I do not wish to be part of. Bishop John Lipscomb of SW Florida and I have both been very clear that we have no intention of leaving ECUSA, or of attempting in any way to move our dioceses out of ECUSA."

A statement on Lipscomb's diocesan Web site said that "while he and Duncan served on a panel that drafted a theology statement for a network of confessing dioceses and parishes, he has not agreed to officially join any structure that would create further division in the Episcopal Church."

Divisive network?

At its monthly meeting, Central Florida's board as a whole was reluctant to sign on to the network and no motion to sign on was presented, according to Joe Thoma, the diocesan communications officer. He reported that the board did vote to send Howe to the network's January meeting in Plano "to find out more about what the network hopes to accomplish, and to report back at our diocesan convention at the end of January."

According to Thoma, four board members voted against sending anyone, saying that "it would give the impression that the Diocese of Central Florida is joining the network, and that the network seems divisive regardless of its or its members' stated intentions at this point." Howe said he had not planned to attend the January Plano meeting, but he will honor the will of the diocesan board and make the trip."

January launch in Texas

The real direction and strategy of the network will be more obvious after the scheduled charter meeting in Plano, a suburb of Dallas, January 19-20. That "formal launch" of the network, according to a press release from the American Anglican Council, "will include one diocesan bishop as well as two clergy and two lay leaders from each of the 13 dioceses that have already joined the Network." A charter will be drafted and serve as the incorporating document for the network.

According to the AAC, the network bishops will "participate in providing adequate Episcopal oversight to congregations within the ECUSA who request it. Parishes from 37 dioceses have already requested oversight through the AAC's oversight application process," according to a December 17 news release.

ACC president David C. Anderson said that the network is "a crucial component of Anglican realignment in North America. It will serve as a lifeboat for orthodox dioceses and parishes who feel abandoned and betrayed by ECUSA, as well as for those faithful Episcopalians enduring harassment and intimidation by their rectors, bishops, or both."


James Solheim is director of Episcopal News Service