Anglican Communion

Anglican Communion

Update on Issues in the Episcopal Church Anglican Communion

By Don Brownlee

The 81st triennial General Convention of The Episcopal Church is a few weeks away. Delegates will gather in Louisville, Kentucky from June 23-28. High on the agenda: Electing a successor to Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, whose nine-year term expires in November.

The committee tasked with proposing candidates for Presiding Bishop put forth four names: Bishops J. Scott Barker of Nebraska, Daniel G.P. Gutiérrez of Pennsylvania, Robert Wright of Atlanta and Sean Rowe of Northwestern Pennsylvania. A fifth candidate, Bp. DeDe Duncan-Probe of the diocese of Central New York, was added though a petition process

Bp. Barker  60, has led the diocese of Nebraska since 2011. He is a native of the state, and served ten years as a priest there and another ten in New York before being called as bishop.

Asked to discuss a biblical image or metaphor that resonates with him at this moment in the life of the Church, he said, “I keep coming back to what I think is probably the central metaphor of the entire Christian endeavor, which is the idea of carrying the cross of Jesus. I’m drawn to the image of the cross, first of all, because it centers Jesus in this conversation and this moment. Before we can talk about taking up our cross, we have to talk about the cross.”

Bp. Gutierrez, 59, is native of New Mexico, and was ordained to the priesthood in 2008 in the Albuquerque-based Diocese of the Rio Grande and served there as canon to the ordinary, chief operating officer and chief of staff before there. He was elected bishop of Pennsylvania in 2016.

His biblical image or metaphor: “It has to be the woman at the well. Jesus is always teaching us. We know the Samaritans and Jews despise one another. The apostles warn Jesus not to go through Samaria. Yet Jesus goes, and he goes alone. He then intentionally waits by the well, Jesus, and shatters the rules by speaking to an outcast Samaritan woman because He is love. He knows everything about her…He does not demand for her to first run to the synagogue, get clean, fix her problems or sinful behaviors, and then come see him. He meets her where she is in life… This nameless outcast is the first person to whom Jesus reveals his messiahship.”

Bp. Rowe is the youngest of the nominees at 49. Originally from western Pennsylvania, he was ordained there in 2000 and served in congregational ministry until his election as bishop in 2007.He also serves as bishop provisional of the diocese of Western New York through a partnership between the two dioceses.

As his biblical metaphor, he chose the recounting in Luke 24 of Cleophas and his companion, who upon hearing the news of the Resurrection promptly leave Jerusalem: “They heard something unsettling from people who can’t possibly be trustworthy, and…they’re out of there…Not only do they not believe that Jesus has risen, but it’s not really possible that the news that changes everything could come from women. Now it’s easy to mock them until you think about all the ways that we Episcopalians do the same thing. We find ourselves headed in the wrong way on the road to Emmaus when we can’t hear the truth from voices that are marginalized. When we can’t hear the truth from unlikely sources, from people on the edge, from the people who think we really don’t have any business delivering any truth to us.”

Bp. Wright, 60, was ordained to the priesthood in New York in 1999. He has served as bishop since 2012; prior to that he served ten years as rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Atlanta.

He chose the story of Jerimiah and the potter. Jerimiah is sent to by God to the potter’s house where he sees “The clay is being reworked because the Bible says it was marred, that is the clay had some hindrances. It needed some refinement to please the potter, and that is true of the church right now. We are unfinished. We have some hindrances, but the potter doesn’t condemn or discard the clay. The potter keeps working with the clay. …We should remember that. We are forever in God’s able hands. The potter isn’t done with the clay and the potter isn’t done with the church…At this critical inflection point in the life of the church, I think we need the presiding bishop in partnership with a whole host of others to remind us of at least three things. First, we’re the clay and not the potter. Secondly, that God hasn’t forsaken us, and the church isn’t really dying. The church is being refashioned into forms that please God and do the word God wants us to do. And thirdly, God is right now extending an invitation for us to be remade as individuals and as a church, into malleable clay, which is more than historic bricks could ever be.”

Bp. DeDe Duncan-Probe of the diocese of Central New York, 61, was ordained to the priesthood in 2004. Before being consecrated as bishop she served at St. John’s in McLean and Holy Comforter in Vienna, and as rector of St. Peter’s in the Woods in Burke Station. She is co-chair of the Task Force on Communion Across Differences discussed below. She likewise chose to discuss the Samaritan woman at the well from John 4 and 5. “When we read this passage in the Greek we can hear her curiosity, her questions to Jesus, her searching heart, and her desire to know and to understand. And then when she understands, she leaves her alabaster jar and goes to her village to proclaim that she has met a man who has told her everything. You don’t think he could be the Messiah, do you? And people come to believe based on her testimony alone, her authentic curiosity, her searching, her understanding that God has met her in a place she never expected. Like the woman, I think, we too are seeking to know God. We’re seeking refreshment and we’re seeking the opportunity to be known and to proclaim that God loves us and is calling us and empowering us. In the Episcopal Church we’re in a time when I think we are ready for new vision and new encounters with the risen Jesus. I think we too are hungry for justice, for dignity, to listen to one another to have deep and profound relationships that transform us. When a woman goes to her village and shares that she has met a man who has told her everything, people come to faith based on her testimony alone. Imagine that. They come to believe that she has met the Messiah because of how she has been transformed. We too, I think, are seeking a transformation of hope and peace and incarnation. We’re seeking to discern God’s next call for us. And I think God will show up in the least expected places.”

Bps. Rowe and Wright are graduates of Virginia Theological Seminary, and Bp. Duncan-Probe served as an adjunct faculty member there prior to her election as bishop.

The House of Bishops will elect one of these five as our new presiding bishop; the House of Deputies must then confirm the election. Profiles of the candidates and their video statements are on the Nominating Committee’s website.

The convention will also consider a number of policy resolutions and process, canonical and constitutional changes. Some deal with clergy and episcopal discipline, some with issues within the Church, and others with hot-button socio-political issues on the national and worldwide stage. As of this writing several hundred have been introduced; many will be revised or rejected by the various committees considering them. The resolutions introduced thus far include:

  • Give second and final approval to a constitutional amendment stating that the Book of Common Prayer “is understood to be those liturgical forms and other texts authorized by the General Convention in accordance with this article and the Canons of this Church.” This was initially controversial when discussed at the last General Convention, as it was seen as a back-door way of allowing revision of the marriage rite. The practical implication is that various liturgies approved by the General Convention, such as those blessing same-sex marriages, could elevated to the equivalent of Prayer Book status, even though the BCP itself has not been revised. But after discussion and clarification it won unanimous support from the House of Bishops, including those bishops opposed to same-sex marriages;
  • Explicitly permit continued use of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, where the marriage liturgy specifies that marriage is between a man and a woman;
  • Clarify the definition of Episcopal Church “doctrine” in the Canons. Proposed by the Task Force on Communion Across Differences, its proponents say it is designed to “ensure that neither the emendation of the Book of Common Prayer to include a marriage service for use by opposite-sex or same-sex couples nor the alteration of the understanding of marriage presented in the Catechism to remove reference to gender would place members of the clergy who believe that marriage is a covenant between a man and a woman in violation of Title IV or their ordination vows;”
  • Guarantee that no person shall be denied employment or access to the discernment process either “because of their conscientiously-held theological belief that marriage is a covenant between a man and a woman, or that marriage is a covenant between two people.” Proponents said people with both viewpoints claim discrimination, or fear future discrimination, because of their belief. People on both sides of this theological divide felt the new language would protect them and make sure there is a place in the Church for both beliefs;
  • Continuing the work of that task force for another three years, with half the members coming from those who believe marriage to be a “covenant between a man and a woman,” and half being those who believe it is a “covenant between two people.” The task force was supposed to complete its work this year, but reported progress was hampered by the pandemic. In asking for more time, it reported that two post-pandemic face-to-face meetings enabled it to make “remarkable headway” on the issues under its charter, and “its members were able to build collegial and respectful relationships of trust and goodwill with each other.

“The liturgical and canonical concerns raised by this task force…and sustainable path forward…need to be fleshed out and applied to new situations. Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, the work of building relationships across difference remains crucial, and it requires more time and the contributions of more voices.” Task Force asked for another three years “to work and pray together in person, collaborate with other interim bodies, consult with Anglicans from around the world, and reflect on all that unites us – without papering over or discounting the reality of our differences.”

  • Clarify the “distinction” between Biblical Israel and the modern State of Israel in Prayer Book liturgies and hymnody and authorize use of alternative Good Friday liturgies which replace references to “the Jews” with “the Judeans,” which proponents say is a more accurate rendering of John’s Gospel;
  • Allowing “local ecumenical partnerships” – such as sharing of ministers – between Episcopal and Presbyterian churches;
  • Development and electronic publication of alternative versions of hymn texts that “address issues of problematic wording” – meaning language considered colonialist, imperialistic or white supremacist. Marty Wheeler Burnette, associate professor of church music at Virginia Theological Seminary, cautioned the Resolutions Committee that copyrights could be an issue in this effort;
  • Developing and publishing a new supplement to the Hymnal 1982;
  • Calling on the U.S. Government to withhold military funding for the State of Israel until it “eliminates apartheid laws, respects Palestinian human rights, and stops violating international law in its treatment of Palestinians;
  • Develop guidelines and best practices to “Increase recruitment, hiring, appointment, retention, and representation of People of Color in church positions at the national, diocese and parish levels.

A complete list of proposed resolutions is available on the General Convention’s website.

The General Convention is the foundational governing body of The Episcopal Church. It is a bicameral legislature made up of two houses: A House of Bishops, comprised of all bishops of the Church, active and retired, and a House of Deputies, comprised of lay and clergy delegates elected by the diocesan conventions in their respective dioceses. Most actions must be approved by a majority vote in each House.

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Primates from most – but not all – of the Anglican Communion’s 42 provinces gathered in Rome late in April for 23rd Primates meeting. It was the first held in Rome, and featured an historic, hour-long audience with Pope Francis.

The pope noted that even the earliest Christians, who had “known the Lord and had encountered him as risen from the dead” – were divided in their understanding of the faith. “Only a love that becomes gratuitous service, only the love that Jesus taught and embodies, will bring separated Christians closer to one another. Only that love, which does not appeal to the past in order to remain aloof or to point a finger, only that love which in God’s name puts our brothers and sisters before the ironclad defence of our own religious structures, only that love will unite us. First our brothers and sisters, the structures later.”

On the issue of papal supremacy – one of the key theological disagreements between Anglicans and Roman Catholics – the pope said “I realize that the role of the Bishop of Rome is still a controversial and divisive issue among Christians…” and that “it is necessary to engage in ‘a patient and fraternal dialogue on this subject, a dialogue which, leaving useless controversies behind’, strives to understand how the Petrine ministry can develop as a service of love for all.”

Abp. Linda Nichols, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, said “Maybe the most moving moment was when the pope said to us, ‘This is a tough job. Please pray for me.’ We were thankful for our welcome there, and we will continue our prayers for Pope Francis, for our brothers and sisters in the community of the church of Rome.

The primates devoted four sessions to issues related to the inner workings, structures and relationships of the Anglican Communion, discussing a working paper commissioned by the Anglican Consultative Council. That paper, they said “addresses honestly the fractures of the Anglican Communion.”

“We agree wholeheartedly with the call to reconciliation and deeper engagement one with another, and we believe there is great hope for progress in this regard.”

They agreed on the need to “recast” way we describe the nature of the Communion, but turned down a suggestion to have a primate elected from the whole communion to serve alongside the Archbishop of Canterbury. But they did begin discussing “ways of assisting and broadening aspects of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s ministry in the Communion, including through the Regional Primates who form the Primates’ Standing Committee.

At least nine primates from theologically conservative provinces in Africa and elsewhere boycotted the meeting. Some have said they longer recognize the Archbishop of Canterbury’s authority over the Communion. The post-meeting communique noted their absence, saying “We could not help but feel keenly the absence of friends and colleagues who were unable to be with us, for a variety of reasons, at this Primates’ Meeting. We seek their contributions to our continuing discernments about the faith and order of the Communion. Hopefully, those present at this meeting who will also attend the June gathering of the Global South Fellowship of Anglican Churches will convey our desire for conversation and mutual discernment of the way forward together”

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, who has been on restricted travel and duties due to health issues, did not attend. Bp. Mary Gray-Reeves, vice president of the House of Bishops, represented him.

The Primates Meeting is considered one of the four Instruments of Unity within the Anglican Communion, along with the Anglican Consultative Conference, the Lambeth Conference and the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Elsewhere:

  • The three Episcopal dioceses in the state of Wisconsin have voted overwhelmingly to reunite into one diocese, re-establishing the historic Diocese of Wisconsin. The proposal was approved by delegations of priests and lay people from each of the three current dioceses meeting in a special joint convention. Votes from the dioceses of Milwaukee and Eau Claire were almost unanimous; there was greater opposition from the Diocese of Fon du Lac, historically one of the more conservative in The Episcopal Church, but a large majority from that diocese supported the proposal as well.

All three dioceses currently are in leadership transition. The reunited diocese will be led by the Rt. Rev. Matthew Gunter, who currently serves as bishop of Fond du Lac, bishop provisional of Eau Claire and as assisting bishop in the Diocese of Milwaukee.

The vote was the penultimate step in a discernment process that began in the fall of 2021. Final approval is needed from this summer’s General Convention, which also will vote on a proposal from the dioceses of Eastern Michigan and Western Michigan to join into one diocese. This is canonically a different process because the two were never one diocese. The two dioceses have been in partnership of ministry collaboration and some shared leadership for the last four years

As we go through our transition to a new rector, it is worthwhile to note what Presiding Bishop Michael Curry said to the Executive Council this spring: When you’re in those transition moments, you’re not really sure, is the Red Sea going to part?…That’s where we are now as a church, but it’s also where we are in this country. So how do you get through it? Stand still and behold the salvation of God. Be still, as the psalmist says, and know that I am God. To finally in the end, put your hands in the hands of the God who made us and made this world. That’s ultimately what we all have to do.

Don Brownlee