House of Bishops Finds Formula for Peace with Traditionalists

Episcopal News Service. October 4, 1989 [89174]

PHILADELPHIA, September 28 -- In the last plenary session of its weeklong meeting here, the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church unanimously passed a statement that seems to push aside the lingering threats of schism over the issue of ordination of women.

At a closing press conference, Presiding Bishop Edmond L. Browning called the statement and the mood of the House itself "a major shift" and said his "fondest hope has been realized," adding that the church has "moved beyond a kind of legalism we have been living in."

Bishop Clarence Pope of Ft. Worth (Texas), who was elected president of the Evangelical Synod of America (ESA) formed by traditionalists who are challenging recent trends in the church, agreed with the Presiding Bishop that a new period of respect had been initiated. He said that through patience and the grace of God "we have removed the siege mentality." He quickly added that the convictions of traditionalists "are the same -- but now we can move forward together. The atmosphere has changed so that it makes it more possible for us to do our ministry."

Bishop Richard Grein of New York, who headed the committee that produced the four-page House of Bishops' statement, said that the process itself modeled the attempt of clergy to live together with differences. Each day, the bishops began with Bible study, as they had at the Lambeth Conference, and then moved into small groups where they discussed the issues placed before them.

The small group discussion was dominated by reaction to a report of the Archbishop of Canterbury's Commission on Communion and Women in the Episcopate. After major presentations by Bishop Mark Dyer of Bethlehem (Pennsylvania) Dr. Mary Tanner of the Church of England, both members of the commission, the small groups raised a series of questions. The questions were then fed to the Grein committee, and a draft of a statement came back to the bishops for reaction. The committee accepted additional suggestions and produced the final draft for consideration in the final plenary session.

Reaction of the three traditionalist bishops present for the meeting was regarded as critical to acceptance of the statement. Bishop William Wantland of Eau Claire (Wisconsin) told a hushed audience that the statement reflected a "balanced and open" process. "For the first time in years it allows this church to move forward without living in division." He added a veiled warning: "What we say is not really as important as what we do."

Bishop Wantland then added that a September 22 press release by retired bishop Donald Davies of Ft. Worth, executive officer of the ESA, "was done without knowledge or consent of the ESA bishops or with their authority." Davies said in his release, "The feelings and commitments to the Episcopal Visitors Plan are so varied in the House of Bishops that I would anticipate no resolution at all at this action in favor of reconsidering the issue at the next General Convention two years away."

The Episcopal Visitors Plan, passed at last summer's General Convention, provides a way for traditionalist parishes who object to the episcopal visitation of a woman bishop to request an alternative. The ESA passed a resolution that threatened to provide traditionalist bishops for parishes who asked for them, even if the diocesan bishop objected.

The statement issued by the House of Bishops firmly but pastorally reaffirmed its understanding of the authority of bishops, drawing on a resolution from last summer's Lambeth Conference of all bishops in the Anglican Communion. The resolution underscored "respect for diocesan boundaries and the authority of bishops within those boundaries." It further stated that it was "inappropriate behavior for any bishop or priest of this Communion to exercise episcopal or pastoral ministry within another diocese without first obtaining the permission and invitation of the ecclesial authority thereof." The Lambeth resolution closely reflects an article in the constitution of the Episcopal Church.

The House of Bishops statement called on the church to "be pastorally sensitive to those who do not accept the ordination of women to the priesthood and episcopate." It said that the "grace-filled bond of collegiality" so apparent at the House meeting would help the bishops "share each other's burdens and sufferings and thereby bear witness to the life of loving communion with God...."

Presiding Bishop Browning closed the press conference by contending that the statement also reflected an impatience by the bishops to move beyond this controversy and look at some of the other aspects of the church's mission in the world.

As one bishop said, "I would be embarrassed to return to my diocese and tell them all we discussed was the controversy about women in the priesthood and episcopate. There are so many other issues on our agenda."

That eagerness was expressed in the closing words of the statement: "We leave with a renewed sense that the power of God's love, which we have shared, impels us to ministry in the midst of a world torn by racism, poverty, and gross injustice."

[thumbnail: Presiding Bishop Edmond L...]