Not so good
What might be real cost to the 'code of practice' solution?
There is always the danger, when writing into the ether, that what one writes will be interpreted differently than what one intends. Last November, I was approached by The Church Times to provide my perspective on the arrangement for episcopal oversight between my parish of St John the Evangelist in Newport, Rhode Island, and the woman bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island.
Having explained the unique Anglo-Catholic history of St John’s, I made the observation that throughout our 130 year history with the diocese, most bishops had maintained a laissez-faire attitude towards the parish. This has both allowed and necessitated that we, as a parish, develop relationships with faithful bishops from around the Anglican Communion, in order to maintain Catholic ecclesiology.
Structurally, because we are geographically within the Diocese of Rhode Island, we remain canonically within that ECUSA diocese. However, at present we are under the episcopal care of the Rt Rev’d Keith Ackerman, known to many in Forward-in-Faith as the traditionalist Bishop of Quincy. This arrangement has been in place since the present Episcopal Bishop of Rhode Island, Geralyn Wolf, assumed her responsibilities.
Generosity of spirit
Apparently, much has been made of this arrangement and Geralyn Wolf’s generosity of spirit following my remarks in The Church Times. Several voices advocating the Church of England follow in the novelty of consecrating women to the episcopate have also suggested this relationship be a model in England for women bishops and those who would be opposed to them within their own dioceses.
While being personally grateful to Geralyn Wolf for this arrangement, I have a number of concerns about its long-term applicability. At the top of my list is what I call ‘spiritual dysfunction.’ Because I as a priest and St John’s as a parish reside canonically within the Diocese of Rhode Island, I am technically a presbyter within the college of presbyters under the episcopate of Geralyn Wolf. Spiritually, this is untenable.
In the matter of headship, I am in a relationship that is the inverse of the biblical model. Rather like the overthrow of the divine hierarchy portrayed in the early chapters of Genesis, I feel like a silent Adam partaking of the fruit of priestly ministry at the hand of ‘the woman’. We all know what happened to that first Adam when God came to judge his failure in honouring the divine order.
In the matter of the iconic representation of the Bridegroom to his Bride reflected in the relationship of the bishop to his diocese, this is completely lost in the present situation. In fact, it confuses the faithful of my parish who when in gatherings with Geralyn Wolf do not know how to address her, or more especially, how to think of her.
Then there is the matter of ‘collegiality’ or what when only men were ordained used to be called priestly fraternity. Often one hears within ECUSA the mantra that ‘there is more that unites us than divides us.’ A corollary of this is the oft-repeated phrase (so oft-repeated that its source is lost in antiquity), ‘schism is a worse sin than heresy.’
I often speculate on the possible disastrous ecclesiastical effects of Athanasius sharing (one always ‘shares’ with others; there are no ‘hard sayings’ in the modern church) similar clichés with Arius.
Isolation and discouragement
Throughout the history of the Church, we find that truth cannot be collegial with heresy. In the end truth always suffers, as does the Church. As a result of having to distance myself from my fellow Rhode Island presbyters, I find myself without the mutual support and encouragement that should be present in a faithful, healthy and spiritually mature diocese.
This can lead to discouragement, depression and other spiritual disorders. After all, we are talking about a seriously disordered Body. I find myself craving an authentic priestly fraternity that will not only uphold my priestly calling but will also call its members to accountability, something sadly lacking in a church with no absolutes.
Then there is the problem of episcopal oversight. When episcopal functions are reduced to utilitarian expediency and bishops are seen as CEOs, all manner of ‘arrangements’ can be suggested to accommodate doctrinal innovations. But the reality in my case is that I am forced to rely on an overworked diocesan bishop who resides 1000 miles from Newport, and who has other parishes in similar circumstances under his episcopal care.
The best I can hope for in most circurstances is email communication, which certainly does not enable me to participate in his Chrism Mass, nor does it allow for that close pastoral relationship that should exist between a bishop and his priests. I am not criticising Bishop Ackerman, but am only too aware of his many responsibilities within his own diocese and in the wider Church.
Perhaps the most troubling of my concerns is the temporary and somewhat capricious nature of the present arrangement. The Standing Committee of the Diocese of Rhode Island or various members of the ECUSA House of Bishops may put pressure on Geralyn Wolf to rescind her agreement with Keith Ackerman.
Should that ever be the case, there is no appeal that could be made within the structures of the Episcopal Church. Even disregarding speculation for the moment, it is quite likely that Geralyn will retire from active ministry within the next several years.
The well-established principle concerning episcopal elections in ECUSA is that movement goes only in one direction, which has consistently been more intolerantly liberal. That is to say, come the election for the next Bishop of Rhode Island, the good money would be on such an arrangement being rescinded even before the new bishop’s mitre was donned for the first time.
There are many within North American Anglicanism who believe the time has come for the orthodox to be excised from the Anglican Communion. They are not only disinterested in maintaining a place for traditional Anglicanism, but state clearly their desire that these pitiful annoyances be removed.
By God’s grace, St John’s has continued to witness to her unbroken tradition of Catholic faith and worship in spite of the vicissitudes of the Episcopal Church. We have always seen ourselves as being a part of something bigger than the vagaries of American public worship.
As we look to the future, our confidence cannot be in any arrangement down the road brokered by those desirous to demonstrate the ‘inclusivity’ of ECUSA. Quite simply, there is none and I would never expect that to change. Rather, our confidence must remain in our Lord, that as we endeavour to remain faithful to the Gospel, he will provide a way forward in this present confusion.
Jonathan Ostman is the Rector
of St John’s, Newport, Rhode Island
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