Is ‘orthodoxy’ now optional in the US?

Oct 23, 2020 by

Is ‘orthodoxy’ now optional in US?

By Andrew Goddard

 A US bishop, William Love of Albany, is being disciplined for refusing to allow same sex marriages in his diocese. Andrew Goddard examines how the policy of the Episcopal Church poses questions for the ongoing life of the Anglican Communion and the Church of England

Over recent decades it has often been the case that the Episcopal Church (TEC) has pursued its understanding of “inclusion” within its own life in such a way as to marginalise and exclude those who hold to Communion teaching, as now risks recurring in relation to Bishop Love.

In short, TEC have appeared to be strict legalists at home, pursuing conservative Anglicans like Bishop Love and many before him through the courts, while being radical antinomians abroad, arguing their actions should have no consequences for their place in the Anglican Communion. The decisions of the Primates in 2016 introduced some consequences but there has been controversy as to how thoroughly these were implemented and they strictly expired in 2019 and do not appear to have been renewed.

This new ruling of a TEC initiated disciplinary hearing against a serving conservative bishop holding to Communion teaching represents a further significant step which, in the words of that 2016 Primates’ statement, must surely “further impair our communion and create a deeper mistrust between us”. This ruling holds that the discipline and worship (and perhaps doctrine) of TEC, which all TEC bishops need to conform to and uphold, and violations of which will likely result in disciplinary action, have been changed to include same-sex marriage.

In their treatment of Bishop Love and in this ruling, authorities within TEC appear to have effectively declared that the overwhelming majority of bishops within the Communion—including the Archbishop of Canterbury and many Church of England bishops—would now be unable to serve as bishops in the province of TEC because of their beliefs about marriage. At the very least they would not have a place with any security or integrity within TEC’s episcopate.This development raises a new major question as to the extent of the impairment of communion that now exists between TEC and the rest of the Communion.

Unless a better way forward can be found to safeguard conservative witness within TEC this situation must reopen questions about invitations to the 2022 Lambeth Conference. For example, if, as is not impossible given the seriousness of the offence (violating ordination promises relating to the Discipline and Worship of the Church), Bishop Love is now formally removed from office then will his invitation to the 2022 Lambeth Conference be withdrawn by the Archbishop of Canterbury while the invitation to those removing him from office remains unchanged?

In summary, this judgment claiming same-sex marriage is enshrined in the BCP makes even more pressing the question of how recognisably TEC now is, as it claims to be in the Preamble of its Constitution, a constituent member of the Communion which it describes as a “Fellowship of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, of those duly constituted Dioceses, Provinces, and regional Churches in communion with the See of Canterbury, upholding and propagating the historic Faith and Order as set forth in the Book of Common Prayer”.

Archbishop Justin Welby has to consider how to respond to this in relation to Communion structures, the earlier “consequences” for TEC of their move to permit same-sex marriage within their canons, and his previously very positive partnership with TEC’s Presiding Bishop. How he does so— whether by silence, voicing disapproval but doing nothing, or by changing his stance as an Instrument of Communion in relation to TEC—will inevitably have its own consequences in relation to how he is viewed within the Church of England. It is clear that many within the Church of England cannot understand how TEC’s actions against Bishop Love, and now this judgment, can be ignored by him as Archbishop of Canterbury.

The issue is, however, now also coming closer to home. This next step within TEC’s long journey highlights the challenges that the Church of England must now face as it comes to term with its own divisions during its discernment process using the Living in Love and Faith (LLF) resources to be launched in early November.

Those resources focus more on issues of identity, sexuality, relationships and marriage but— as the TEC experience and this judgment show—these issues also raise major and complex questions of ecclesiology. These will have to be a particular concern of the bishops and wider church over the next few years.

It is not clear where we will discern God leading us as a church and LLF makes no recommendations and sets no trajectory. Although it faces significant challenges, including legally and doctrinally, clearly one possible decision in 2022 could be for the Church of England to begin to walk the path TEC started several years ago and which has now led them to this latest ruling. This would mean the Church of England introducing, in some form, its own liturgical changes in relation to same-sex couples, as many within it are seeking. It appears unlikely this will involve the sort of rites for marriage that TEC has authorised for trial use. More plausibly the bishops might (as proposed by the Pilling Report) grant permission and perhaps publish guidance or liturgies for some form of public liturgical celebration, thanksgiving, or blessing of same-sex unions, including probably civil marriages.

It is important to consider the lessons of the Bishop Love case and its preceding history as very few, if any, are actively seeking such outcomes here. There is, however, a very powerful, perhaps inexorable, dynamic at play once any changes are made to liturgy. The Church of England as the national, established church usually authorises new liturgies for use across the whole church. This is in contrast to TEC where, until recently, diocesan bishops need not allow services for use in their diocese which are not in the BCP and dioceses have canons defining marriage. As in TEC, there will be undoubtedly by a conscience clause in any liturgical changes introduced here to ensure clergy need not use new liturgies in their ministries if they object to them.

Once an episcopally-ordered denomination authorises liturgies for same-sex unions, and the claim is made, by appeal to justice and full inclusion, that all must have access to these, then major problems logically arise for a church structure in which there are non-overlapping geographical dioceses where one bishop has jurisdiction. Either bishops have the right to forbid clergy under their authority to use such services (in a manner similar to Bishop Love) or they do not. If they do have the right then there will need to be clarity about how this is exercised and some alternative episcopal provision will likely need to be made for any parishes wishing to use such rites against the wishes of their bishop (as attempted by B019 in TEC). There will also need to be some provision for those conservative parishes whose communion with their bishop is impaired because the bishop does permit such rites within their diocese.

If each bishop does not have the right to prohibit use of any authorised service (as is the usual practice in the Church of England, although the initial legislation for women priests allowed a diocesan bishop to prevent their ministry in their diocese) then all such conservative parishes will find their communion impaired with their bishop. In addition, bishops will be required, whatever their beliefs, to accept such services being authorised in those places where they are “chief pastor” and have “jurisdiction as Ordinary”, despite having “the right, save in places and over persons exempt by law or custom… of conducting, ordering, controlling, and authorizing all services in churches, chapels, churchyards and consecrated burial grounds” and the duty to “banish and drive away all erroneous and strange opinions” (Canon C18). This outcome will make it very difficult, perhaps impossible, for many present and future bishops who are committed to exercising their ministry in a manner faithful to their understanding of Scripture and the teaching of the Anglican Communion.

TEC had appeared in recent years to be more willing to find a way of still incorporating within its common life those committed to traditional and Communion teaching on marriage and sexual ethics who wished to witness to that teaching and to uphold it with integrity while ministering within TEC. In the light of the treatment of Bishop Love and the recent judgment against him that commitment now hangs by a thread. This ruling appears, to those who hold his views, to push TEC to the very brink of confirming Richard Neuhaus’s Law that “Where orthodoxy is optional, orthodoxy will sooner or later be proscribed”.

This is not, however, inevitable. It may be that realising this danger will enable us—in TEC, the Communion, and perhaps shortly in the Church of England—to pull back from that cliff edge. The challenge now is whether there are enough people truly committed to working out what it means to seek “Communion Across Difference”. Can we find, across those differences, creative ways which encourage the highest possible degree of communion between us.

Rev Dr Andrew Goddard is Assistant Minister, St James the Less, Pimlico, and Tutor in Christian Ethics at Westminster Theological Centre.

Published in the Church of England Newspaper October 23 2020.



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