Letter from America
The one who slipped away
For several years – at least since the Episcopal Church (ECUSA) canonically mandated the acceptance of women clergy – the word on the street has been that no orthodox cleric would ever again get sufficient consents to be consecrated a bishop in ECUSA. And in fact, no cleric theologically opposed to women’s ordination has been elected a bishop in ECUSA since Jack Iker was chosen as Fort Worth’s bishop a decade ago.
But in the Diocese of the Rio Grande, a man one cleric termed ‘solid, orthodox, steadfast and courageous’ has not only slipped into the episcopate nonetheless, he may have been helped into it by some of the very forces that would normally be arrayed against him.
To the satisfaction of a number of online commentators, the Revd Canon Jeffrey N. Steenson was consecrated January 15 at the Cathedral Church of St John, Albuquerque, New Mexico, with some twenty liberal and conservative bishops – including at least three orthodox prelates – laying on hands. Dr Steenson, who happens to be ECUSA’s 1,000th bishop, will succeed conservative, British-born Bishop Terence Kelshaw upon his retirement this July.
Steenson, who has been canon (assistant) to Kelshaw since 2000, was elected as bishop coadjutor by the Diocese of the Rio Grande on October 16. He led a slate of six candidates, of which he was one of two nominated by petition. Sufficient consents for his consecration from diocesan bishops and standing committees came in swiftly, before Christmas, an outcome some sources attributed to the diligent efforts of none other than Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold.
The question of just why that happened – if it did – has been a matter for speculation. Was it because Griswold and his revisionist colleagues had a rare attack of genuine inclusivity and tolerance? Or because the quietly moderate Steenson is more palatably orthodox to the revisionist mind? Or was it because (as some said) Bishop Griswold was anxious for anything that might bolster his case at February’s Primates’ Meeting – in this case something he can use to claim that neither he or ECUSA are shutting conservatives out, that he will ordain straight traditionalists as well as gay revisionists?
Whatever the reason, it appears that – though there were (unconfirmed) reports that Rio Grande’s standing committee asked him not to come – Griswold would not be turned away from Steenson’s January 15 consecration, a fact that would evoke a protest from a lone cleric during the rite.
Steenson (52) is highly educated, and has served some well-known orthodox parishes. He holds a doctorate in theology from Oxford, a master’s in divinity from Harvard Divinity School, a master’s in church history from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and a bachelor’s in history from Trinity College. He was previously rector of St Andrew’s, Fort Worth, and before that of the prominent Good Shepherd, Rosemont, Pennsylvania.
While Bishop Kelshaw has ordained women, Fr Steenson is said to back the historic all-male priesthood. However, he would evidently allow others to ordain female candidates and will work with women clergy already in the diocese. (Steenson did not respond to TCC’s invitation to comment on this or other matters related to his consecration.)
In response to questions earlier posed to him, Steenson said it is ‘hard to understand the Presiding Bishop’s comment about each individual’s truth. My focus is on God’s truth. I believe there is absolute truth but how do we get there? God is in charge. One can damage that truth, but not irrevocably. I do not follow a politically correct mindset.’ He opposed the consecration of gay cleric Gene Robinson, but ‘will not be a standard bearer for sexual issues. My main goal is the unity of the church.’ But unless theological accord is achieved, such unity might be more institutional in nature.
Steenson stressed communication, relationships, and working out problems in community rather than creating more division in the Christian world, and said he would ‘never declare myself out of communion’. Nor can he imagine ever excommunicating someone else; nor does he see it as legally possible ever to consider taking the Rio Grande diocese out of ECUSA.
On the other hand, he said that, ‘My passion is in ecumenical work, especially with the Catholic Church,’ something that unless Rome or the Orthodox were to change a great deal, would demand that some orthodox order be restored in ECUSA. ‘I have a great love of the Catholic Church. We have an overarching ecumenical mandate,’ he said.
Among the some twenty bishops joining Griswold in consecrating Steenson January 15 were Bishop Kelshaw; former Fort Worth Bishop Clarence Pope, Saskatchewan Bishop Anthony Burton (who preached), Richard Llewellin (retired area Bishop at Lambeth), and traditionalist Bishops Keith Ackerman of Quincy and John-David Schofield of San Joaquin (California), who sat in the congregation in clericals (not vested), coming up only for the laying on of hands. Bishop Steenson celebrated the Eucharist. ‘The liturgy was glorious,’ said Ackerman.
Not without a hitch
But all did not pass off without a hitch. Doubtless speaking for some others, one Rio Grande cleric stepped up during the service to urge Steenson not to be ordained by the chief consecrator of Gene Robinson, and urged Griswold to withdraw from the service, saying the PB’s participation would badly compromise Steenson’s conscience and the diocese’s mission.
Though he describes himself as not one prone to speak out, the Revd Carl Brenner, the conservative rector of St John’s Episcopal Church in Farmington, New Mexico, was moved enough to publicly state, ‘Jeffrey, with grief I stand in objection to your consecration as the seventh Bishop of the Diocese of the Rio Grande. I object because you have willingly conceded to the laying on of hands and consecration by our Presiding Bishop and other bishops of the church that have avowedly supported the actions of the Diocese of New Hampshire and who are leading our church in a spiritually perilous manner.’
To the Presiding Bishop, Brenner said, ‘Bishop Griswold, because your actions this day will divide some of us from Jeffrey, and potentially divide him from other members of the Anglican Communion, I humbly ask you...not to lay hands on Jeffrey – unless God is leading you to lead our greater church into a time of pronounced repentance for the actions of New Hampshire.’ Bishop Ackerman pronounced Brenner’s statement ‘absolutely superb.’ Griswold noted later that Brenner’s ‘tone and words remained respectful and polite throughout’. But all Griswold did was to thank Brenner and proceed with the service.
What now? Steenson is a ‘good...orthodox, gentle, kind and pastoral’ man, observed church journalist David Virtue. But Virtue thinks the new bishop has a tough road ahead, fraught with persistent pressure from liberals intent on imposing their ‘pansexual agenda’.
Auburn Traycik is the editor of
‘The Christian Challenge’ in which
a version of this article first appeared
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