Meeting on Primatial Oversight Adjourns Without Agreement

Episcopal News Service. September 13, 2006 [091306-4-A]

Mary Frances Schjonberg, Matthew Davies

Despite "honest and frank conversations," a group of bishops with differing perspectives, meeting in New York September 11-13, was unable to reach an agreement on how to meet the needs of seven dioceses that have asked for oversight with a primate other than the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church.

"We're hoping to call another meeting later this fall to continue to wrestle with the issues," Presiding Bishop-elect Katharine Jefferts Schori said after the meeting concluded, adding that there is a "general commitment" among those present at this week's meeting to attend a subsequent meeting.

"It has occurred to me that it might be helpful to expand the group slightly so that it's not too large but includes the variety of perspectives" that exist, Jefferts Schori added.

Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold and Jefferts Schori both said after the meeting ended that the conversations that took place were valuable. "According to some of the participants, it was for them the most fruitful exchange they've been able to have," Griswold said.

Jefferts Schori called them "open and frank, sometimes challenging conversations, but very healthy ones."

The co-conveners of the meeting were Bishops Peter James Lee of Virginia and John Lipscomb of Southwest Florida. Other participants, in addition to Griswold and Jefferts Schori, were Bishops Jack Iker of Fort Worth, Robert Duncan of Pittsburgh, James Stanton of Dallas, Edward Salmon of South Carolina, Mark Sisk of New York, Dorsey Henderson of Upper South Carolina, and Robert O'Neill of Colorado. Also participating was Canon Kenneth Kearon, secretary general of the Anglican Consultative Council, who facilitated the meeting at the request of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams.

A statement issued at the close of the meeting said that the bishops had confronted "the depth of the conflicts" they face and although they "could not come to consensus on a common plan to move forward to meet the needs of the dioceses that issued the appeal for Alternate Primatial Oversight ... The level of openness and charity in this conference allow us to pledge to hold one another in prayer and to work together until we have reached the solution God holds out for us."

Williams responded shortly after the statement was released, calling it "a positive sign that these difficult conversations have been taking place in a frank and honest way."

Williams identified "the openness and charity" of the discussions as "signs of hope for the future.

Griswold said that the sessions' grounding in prayer and Scripture reading helped the group see what it held in common and "created the spirit, the environment, in which frankness could occur."

Jefferts Schori said that the sessions helped her begin "to get a sense of the diversity of the context in which this church functions," that there are diverse perceptions and that "diocesan landscapes are not uniform."

Griswold echoed that understanding, noting the sessions showed the diversity that exists "even among people who are sometimes characterized as of the same mind."

The meeting was called after the bishops and standing committees in seven dioceses requested oversight from a primate other than the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, citing actions of the 2003 and 2006 General Conventions. The dioceses are Central Florida (Orlando-based), Dallas, Fort Worth, Pittsburgh, South Carolina, Springfield (Illinois), and San Joaquin (California). None of the dioceses' conventions have ratified the requests.

The constitution of the Anglican Consultative Council, the Anglican Communion's main policy-making body, makes no provisions for alternative primatial oversight. Neither do the Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church.

Griswold said after the end of the meeting that the use of the term "alternative primatial oversight" itself was discussed.

"There was some disagreement as to whether it was appropriate even to use that term," he said. "There was some reluctance to use that terminology."

The meeting was called after Kearon noted that the Archbishop of Canterbury, "though symbolic head of the Anglican Communion, has no direct authority over the internal life of the Provinces that make up the Communion," Griswold noted in an August 22 statement.

Kearon's point, Griswold said, was that such requests needed to be discussed and "a resolution be sought within the Episcopal Church itself."

Griswold said after the meeting that participants used words like "safety and space" to describe what they felt they needed in the church. He characterized that need as a desire for a "changed environment in which controversial points of view are not treated as beyond the community or contrary to the community. They have a place within the community to be taken seriously and respected as held by genuine people of faith."

"The great value in this meeting was the ability to have face-to-face conversations with people who frequently are caricatured by others," Jefferts Schori said after the meeting. "Communicating on the internet about such issues relieves us of the incarnate necessity of engaging our neighbors."

She said that the meeting was "an attempt to provide ministry and pastoral care for all parts of the Episcopal Church."

Both acknowledged that the meeting took place during an anxious time not only in the church, but also in the world.

"We live in an anxious season that is not bounded by ecclesiastical reality; it's the global reality and I think the more we can actually be with one another, and ask not only what divides us but what do we hold in common and build from that common base, the more we will reveal whatever God is up to in this time," Griswold said. "In the midst of anxiety there is often incredible possibility and hopefulness."

"I am fond of reminding people," Jefferts Schori added, "that without chaos there would have been no opportunity for creation."

Griswold said that the meeting is part of the larger context of the Anglican Communion.

"While we were having our conversation, we were part of larger processes going on, the assessment of our response to the Windsor Report, [and] the unfolding of the covenant process," he said. "We now have a global perspective. We now understand ourselves in relationship to an Anglican community that is far more complex and diverse than even our own Episcopal Church."

Meanwhile, Griswold said, "the church continues to attend to its mission while also seeking to draw the diversity of opinions together and break down some of the walls of suspicion and mistrust that seriously hinder, no matter what perspectives we may hold."