Episcopal Church May Face Schism over Traditionalist Plan for Missionary Diocese

Episcopal News Service. November 21, 1991 [91227]

Despite a last-minute effort at reconciliation, a confrontation over a proposal by a group of traditionalists in the Episcopal Church for a "missionary diocese" may be difficult to avoid.

Presiding Bishop Edmond L. Browning met with representatives of the Episcopal Synod of America (ESA) in Ft. Worth, November 18, to discuss their intention to establish a nongeographic missionary diocese.

The plan, unanimously adopted by the Synodical Council of the ESA in Fresno, California, November 8, would invite existing congregations to transfer to a new diocese beginning the first Sunday in Advent 1991. The plan also intends to form new parishes in dioceses that the ESA now considers "hostile."

Browning asked the ESA, a coalition of traditionalists that opposes what it perceives as liberal trends in the church, not to implement the plan. Despite Browning's plea, Bishop Clarence Pope, president of the ESA, said implementation would proceed.

Although Browning has often expressed the need for traditionalist voices in the church, he told Pope and Bishop Donald Davies that the missionary diocese is "uncanonical and anyone identifying with it would be outside the Episcopal Church -- they would be abandoning the church." He added that no other province in the Anglican Communion is prepared to encourage such a diocese.

Browning also expressed dismay with the ESA's interpretation that the missionary diocese could be "an interim step as new situations are recognized and addressed by the church," as suggested in an ESA press release following the meeting. The presiding bishop also dismissed Bishop Clarence Pope's suggestion in a November 19 letter to his clergy that "the presiding bishop agreed that the door would remain open for discussions about ways in which it could be brought into the structure of the Episcopal Church while it developed."

Browning said he was very clear and "unequivocal" that such a structure "is disallowed by the canons of our church and contrary to resolutions of Lambeth and the Primates." Browning said he continues to believe that "reconciliation is possible" and he holds out hopes for "pastoral solutions."

Canterbury says plan 'is potentially schismatic'

Although the ESA said that it was "encouraged in this enterprise by our negotiations with another province of the Anglican Communion," Browning reported that Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey "had never heard of such a thing."

In a November 14 letter to Browning, Carey said that he was "very sorry to learn that the Episcopal Synod of America intends to establish a 'missionary diocese.' I urge all Episcopalians to consider very carefully the constitutional implications of this drastic proposal." He added, "Any alternative episcopal oversight which is imposed without the good will and cooperation of the entire Province is potentially schismatic."

According to some press reports, the ESA and members of the Church of England who oppose the ordination of women were negotiating with the Anglican Province of Papua New Guinea for episcopal oversight. Archbishop Bevan Meredith, primate of Papua New Guinea, released a statement on November 18 affirming that "we believe strongly in the collegiality of the episcopate and therefore could not intrude into another Province without due permission from the proper authorities."

Browning is sending a letter to all diocesan bishops (see Newsfeatures section for text) expressing his concern that those who transfer to the diocese "would diminish our wholeness." He also expressed "particular concern for people within our church who are confused by the Synodical Council's proposals and what they may mean."

Prior to the Ft. Worth meeting, Browning said that "reconciliation was still on the table" and observed that he had "worked hard over the past six years to try to keep us together."

Council of Advice reacts strongly against plan

After the ESA released its plan of action, Browning brought the issue before a regular meeting of the nine bishops elected to serve as his Council of Advice. They reacted strongly to the ESA plan and its contention that it is necessary to protect traditionalists from a "leadership that continues to suppress and persecute biblical Christianity."

In a November 12 statement released in New York, Browning and the Council of Advice called on the ESA "to cease from implementing" the plan "which clearly points toward schism." In an interview, Browning added that there was "strong sentiment" on the council that the ESA's plan "is not the way we solve our problems."

"We are deeply troubled that the Synodical Council has taken the position that those who do not agree with them have rejected the authority of Scripture and the Creed and 'suppress and persecute biblical Christianity,'" the Council of Advice said.

After the recent General Convention in Phoenix, the ESA released a statement asserting that "there are two religions in the Episcopal Church. One accepts the Gospel, the other the ways of the world. Those who promote the religion of this world dominate the leadership of the Episcopal Church and work ceaselessly to advance their religion."

'Confusing to the faithful'

Browning and his Council of Advice called ESA assertions "confusing to the faithful" and "theologically ungrounded" and said that they can "only sow disunity in the church whose faith, unity, and discipline we have promised to uphold."

"I don't recognize the church that the ESA is describing and certainly reject the idea that there are two Episcopal Churches," said Bishop Arthur Walmsley of Connecticut, a member of the Council of Advice. "Their assertion that Episcopal leadership is persecuting biblical Christianity is simply not so."

Bishop Charles Jones of Montana, another member of the Council of Advice, said that the ESA's plan was "uncanonical because it had not been voted on by the General Convention. This is something that is outside the Episcopal Church and outside the Anglican Communion."

'Suffocating in the oppressive spiritual climate'

William Murchison, a spokesperson for the ESA, said that the declaration issued at the end of the Fresno meeting is a signal that the time of "subservience and absolute dependence" on the national church is over. He added that since the missionary diocese would rely on oversight from retired bishops, the ESA plan hoped to protect active ESA bishops from censure by the denomination.

In a November 12 fundraising letter, Bishop Clarence Pope said that the new diocese, led initially by retired Bishop Donald Davies of Fort Worth, "will minister to Episcopalians suffocating in the oppressive spiritual climate of today's Episcopal Church."

Pope said that the ESA would continue to work with like-minded Episcopalians within the church, and work to reform the current structure, but that it will also "challenge structures and institutions that break the true communion of the church, which is founded upon adherence to the Gospel, not the canons."