Features

A good Friday

Religion | A liberal bishop blinks-for now-in the latest ECUSA showdown

Issue: "John Bolton: Take cover!," May 7, 2005

It was the stuff of high drama. Episcopal bishop Andrew Smith of the Diocese of Connecticut had given six evangelical priests until Friday, April 15, to toe the line or be barred from any further ministry and face possible defrocking.

The six parishes were redirecting their giving away from the diocese to protest the action of the Episcopal Church (ECUSA) in consecrating an openly gay bishop in 2003. And the six priests were seeking alternative spiritual oversight from a bishop other than Mr. Smith, who had voted with the majority of ECUSA bishops to consecrate the practicing homosexual, Gene Robinson of New Hampshire. (Such oversight is now possible under new church rules, as long as the diocesan bishop remains in control of the process.)

But negotiations broke down, and the bishop and his standing committee in a closed meeting in March with no advance notice decided to charge the six with having "abandoned the communion," a church law usually applied to those who leave ECUSA to join another denomination. Despite protests and denials by the six, Mr. Smith and the committee declined to explain their action. Curiously, the church officials made reinstatement of the parishes' giving a precondition for any reconsideration.

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As the deadline approached, major news outlets picked up the story, conservative ECUSA bishops spoke out, and complaints from across the nation poured into diocesan headquarters in Hartford. Church members launched open-air prayer vigils. To lend visibility and support, some prominent evangelical ECUSA clergy elsewhere in the country traveled to Connecticut to preach at the six pulpits on the Sunday when they were due to be vacant.

But Friday came and went without Mr. Smith's dreaded announcement. Instead, he invited the six to a meeting on Monday to discuss things in the presence of "neutral" bishop Gordon Scruton from neighboring Massachusetts, who had abstained from voting on the Robinson consecration. After three hours, the participants remained divided. Mr. Smith wanted to retain hands-on involvement with the parishes; the six wanted the alternative-oversight bishop to assume that role.

"What they expect, I cannot grant," the bishop told reporters.

The bishop next sent an urgent e-mail message summoning all the clergy in the diocese to a closed meeting that Thursday in Hartford to discuss the matter. Afterward, the majority of the 184 who attended indicated they supported the bishop but not his proposed punishment so quickly. Many encouraged the six to seek a compromise solution. Bishop Smith agreed to back off for the moment, but he warned that "by leaving the meeting tonight without acknowledging my authority as their bishop, they have placed themselves under the threat of [removal from ministry]." He didn't say when the ax would fall.

"The elephant in the room remains-the difference between those who are guided by Scripture and those who want to rewrite it," retired priest Clark Coughlin said.

Apparently there is no going back.

"If we could miraculously turn the clock back, we would need to return to July 2003 before the ECUSA abandoned Scripture and the faith and order of Anglicanism," said Christopher Leighton, rector of St. Paul's, an internationally known charismatic parish in Darien. "Unless ECUSA repents and returns to the apostolic faith, we cannot go back."

Meanwhile, the pot keeps boiling in other parts of ECUSA. For example, Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold is feuding with 21 conservative bishops, including the heads of about one-fifth of all ECUSA dioceses. They had sent a letter to London requesting an emergency meeting with Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams late this month to "lay before you our concerns regarding the future of our church" in light of "irreconcilable differences" within ECUSA. But they neglected to inform Mr. Griswold about the letter, believing it would remain confidential. Mr. Griswold said they had been "extremely discourteous" in not giving him an opportunity to reply. He demanded an accounting from each bishop individually. Archbishop Williams declined to comment.

Edward E. Plowman
Edward E. Plowman

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