Episcopal bishop condemns tactics of splinter group

Wednesday, January 28, 2004

Citing "deceitfulness and sabotage" by a group opposed to the consecration of an openly gay bishop, West Tennessee's Episcopal bishop has issued a pastoral letter condemning the tactics.

"Loyal opposition and honest dissent to such actions are legitimate and should be honored by all. I have been careful to do so," the Right Rev. Don E. Johnson wrote to the diocese's 10,000 communicants on Jan. 15. "However, deceitfulness and subversive sabotage justified in the name of serving Christ cannot be overlooked."

Johnson referred to a confidential memo dated Dec. 28 that states the ultimate goal of the American Anglican Council, a group opposed to actions approving the consecration of the Rev. V. Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire during the denomination's quadrennial convention last summer in Minneapolis, "is a realignment of Anglicanism on North American soil committed to biblical faith and values, and driven by Gospel mission."

The memo was signed by the Rev. Geoffrey W. Chapman, Rector of St. Stephens Episcopal Church, Sewickley, Pa.

Chapman is a spokesman for the American Anglican Council. The Episcopal Church in the United States, with about 2.3 million members, is a part of the worldwide Anglican Communion, consisting of an estimated 70 million members in 160 countries.

Chapman's memo, first disclosed by the Washington Post on Jan. 14, states that achieving adequate Episcopal oversight will consist of two stages, one a "spiritual realignment while remaining within the letter of current canons (bylaws of the Episcopal Church)."

Stage two, the memo states, will involve seeking "negotiated settlements in matters of property, jurisdiction, pastoral succession and communion. If adequate settlements are not within reach, a faithful disobedience of canon law on a widespread basis may be necessary."

Chapman cautioned that "Parishes/clusters that go through this process in a 'Stage 2' mode and bishops who receive such parishes/clusters will be at risk of litigation and presentment (a petition for removal of a bishop), and should be prepared for such."

Church property in the Episcopal Church is owned by the diocese and cannot be unilaterally disposed of by individual parishes/churches. Bishops in the denomination are co-equals and are forbidden from ministering to or providing oversight to churches in other dioceses without permission from the diocesan bishop of that geographical area.

Bishop Johnson's pastoral letter was to be read and/or distributed in each of the diocese's 38 churches, including St. Mary's in Dyersburg.

"I took a vow to support my bishop at my ordination," said the Rev. Jack Rogers, rector of St. Mary's, "I view that as a sacred vow.

"It's not a matter of agreeing with him -- though I do agree on this issue."

Rogers, who said he read the letter Sunday to his congregation and allowed questions and comments from those gathered for worship, said the tone of the American Anglican Council memo bothers him.

"The tone of the AAC letter I feel is appalling," he said. "To meet in secret to sabotage the church, I think is something we all took a vow not to do."

Johnson wrote that he is posting both his letter and the AAC memo on the diocese's Web site, www.episwtn.org, called a special meeting of the diocese's Standing Committee, the ecclesiastical authority during a prolonged absence of the bishop and the body that advises and consents with the national church, "... asking for its advice and counsel concerning what next steps need to be taken by my office regarding our clergy and congregations formally affiliated with the American Anglican Council and, implicitly, with its agenda."

Only a few of the diocese's churches have taken steps to affiliate with the AAC.

Third, Johnson wrote: "...I want to go on record in saying that I am not, nor have I ever been, a member of the American Anglican Council. Further, I do not endorse, support or condone their plan to methodically create anarchy in the Church."

In closing his letter Johnson offered an opportunity for those involved with the AAC to disaffiliate from it.

"It is my firm belief that most of you who have associated with the American Anglican Council did so for honorable reasons with no idea that their avowed actual goal is to destroy The Episcopal Church as it currently exists," he wrote. "However, according to their own documents, they seem to advocate whatever means necessary to "innovatively move around, beyond or within the canons" to do so. I know that not everyone associated with the American Anglican Council is of one mind. However, these revelations that have just come to light may help clarify your thinking about their agenda. As such, I hope that you will see this as an opportunity for you and your congregation to rethink and officially disassociate with this organization."

The Right Rev. Frank T. Griswold, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church USA, recently addressed the unrest in the church over the consecration of Robinson and the approval for local dioceses, if they wish, to experiment with services for the celebration and blessing of same-sex unions.

"All of these differences: in our interpretation of scripture, in our understandings of the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church, and in our images of what the church should be and ought to become, were laid bare at the time of our general convention last summer," Griswold wrote in a letter dated Jan. 22. "For quite some time we had been living with the paradox of both/and. We had not been called to say either/or about some of the questions before us concerning homosexuality -- which is undeniably a difficult issue for many. Nevertheless, at that convention, our constitution called for diocesan bishops and the House of Deputies (lay people and clergy) to give consent to the ordination as bishop of a man living in a committed relationship with a partner of the same sex. Since that time, we have been learning a great deal about what it means to live openly and honestly with differing points of view. It has not been easy, and yet we have not drawn back from this necessary, painful and often grace-filled work. I live in great hope that through the tension of this complex season in the life of our church God is leading us more deeply into who we are called to be as a community of faith. I have never felt more privileged to serve this church."

On Jan. 20 a group calling itself the Network of Anglican Communion Dioceses and Parishes (NACDP) was officially launched and a charter adopted after two days of meetings in Plano, Texas, Jan. 19-20.

The group is nearly identical to the AAC.

Bishop Robert Duncan of Pittsburgh was elected moderator of the new network for a three-year term.

The charter states that the intent of the network is that its "associated dioceses and convocations, or clusters of congregations in non-affiliated dioceses, will constitute a true and legitimate expression of the worldwide Anglican Communion" for those opposed to two controversial resolutions adopted by the general convention.

"We are not splitting off from the Episcopal Church, " said Duncan. "We did not discuss at all whether this network would become a replacement for the Episcopal Church."

He did, however, criticize the actions of the general convention.

"The Episcopal Church this summer, in its general convention, took actions which separated it from the Anglican Communion and from its own constitution," he said.

Duncan referred to the preamble of the church's 1789 constitution, revised at the 1967 general convention to resolve the question of whether the church's official title should include the word "Protestant" -- part of a century-old debate between Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals in the church. The revised preamble included a reference to the Episcopal Church as a "constituent member of the Anglican Communion" for the first time in the church's history.

At the final news conference of the Plano meeting, the Rev. Mary Hays, canon (bishop's assistant) in Pittsburgh, indicated that there was some tension during the meeting between participants who oppose the ordination of women and those who affirm it. "Certainly one person talked about it as an iceberg that we might hit up against, and we had some very intense at times but very frank, open and mutually honoring discussions, respectful of one another," she said. "We have agreed that this is an issue that divides us -- I mean, that we disagree about, but that will not divide us."

(The Episcopal News Service contributed to this article.)

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