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Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Pittsburgh Schism

Sunday Forum:

Conservative activist
takes issue with
the conservatives' split
from the Episcopal Church,
finding no support for it
in biblical or Christian tradition

Sunday, November 11, 2007

My wife is a reader at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in McKeesport. This means that she sometimes leads the people in prayer, including a prayer "for Katharine, our presiding bishop; Robert and Henry, our bishops; and Jay, our priest." These are our leaders. Katharine Jefferts Schori is the elected head of the U.S. branch of the church. Robert Duncan along with his assistant, Henry Scriven, leads the diocese, and Jay Geisler is the priest at St. Stephen's in McKeesport.

This past summer, Bishop Duncan instructed my wife and hundreds of other readers in the diocese to omit the prayer for Katharine. Katharine Jefferts Schori has been a frequent target for conservatives in the U.S. church ever since she was elected presiding bishop in 2006. Coming on the heels of the installation of an active and outspoken homosexual bishop, the elevation of a woman of liberal sympathies seemed a bridge too far for many conservatives.

It appeared at the time that omitting the prayer for Katharine was a steppingstone to where the bishop was really trying to take us -- outside of the Episcopal Church. You see, to include Katharine in the prayers was to acknowledge her office, and to acknowledge her office was to acknowledge our obligation to her.

Our suspicions were confirmed on Nov. 2, when the Diocese of Pittsburgh voted overwhelmingly to change its constitution to permit separation from the Episcopal Church USA.

When my wife, Susan, asked me for advice about the prayer directive, I told her that Katharine was elected lawfully under the standards of the Episcopal Church. Robert was using his authority to tell her to disregard Katharine's authority. When there is a disruption in the chain of authority, I said, "look to the highest authority." He said, "Love your enemies, pray for those who despitefully use you." If you should pray for your enemies, should you not pray even more for friends with whom you disagree?

I am not a liberal. I think the Episcopal Church made a terrible mistake when it installed Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire in 2004. It did the church no favors when it trod the historic standards of Anglicanism under foot in a rush to make some sort of political point. It did Father Robinson no good to turn this deeply wounded man into a cause celebre with no thought to the pressure it would impose (driving him eventually into rehab). It did the world no favor to turn the church into an echo of the sexual revolution rather than a beacon out of it. Many commandments were broken, most notably that "they should be one, Father, even as You and I are one."

But the solution does not lie in breaking more commandments. The priests who voted overwhelmingly for secession this month had taken an oath of loyalty to the Episcopal Church at the time of their ordination. That oath holds whether our guys win every battle or not.

I know Republicans who simply refused to acknowledge Bill Clinton as president in the 1990s. I know Democrats who did the same regarding George W. Bush. But both presidents were elected under the rules laid out in our national Constitution.

The same thing has happened in our church. My side lost on the Gene Robinson issue. It was bitter, but it was fair.

Secession is not the biblical pattern of resistance to flawed authority. Young David served under a tyrannical and apostate King named Saul. David submitted to Saul's authority and he resisted the urge to revolt or secede. He remained faithful to Israel and Saul until the end, and then, because of his patience, became king himself.

David's great (28 times) grandson, Jesus, was a reader in the synagogue despite its shortcomings. He worshipped in the temple despite its corruption and oppression. King Herod was a murderous crook and the temple priesthood were his hired cronies and yet Mary and Joseph and Jesus were there year after year, making offerings, saying prayers, talking with rabbis.

When St. Paul was beaten by the high priest he showed him deference, not contempt. "You salute the rank," as they say in the military, "not the man."

That's because the authority of a priest or bishop doesn't come from him; it comes from God. The failings of the man, or woman, don't erase that authority. Saul would regularly try to murder David. He disregarded God and took on the responsibility to offer sacrifices himself. He murdered faithful priests. Through all of this, David saluted the office long after the man had outlived his merit.

On Oct. 31., the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church USA sent a letter to the bishop of Pittsburgh, directing him not to split the diocese from the denomination. Bishop Duncan replied by quoting Martin Luther, "Here I stand. I can do no other."

It's a powerful quote, but a misuse of history. Martin Luther didn't leave the Roman Catholic Church; he was kicked out. He decided to "stand" and fight. It's ironic that Bishop Duncan quoted Luther's pledge to "stand" in order to justify his intention to "walk."

Are my fellow conservatives fully aware of the biblical and patristic teachings on schism? How do they justify a break with the Episcopal Church to which they have literally sworn loyalty? How do they justify taking Episcopal property with them? Given Paul's command to the first-century Corinthian Church not to address church issues in secular courts, how do they justify the inevitable legal battles that accompany a schism? How much will the litigation cost? Will the money come from our offerings?

There are moral questions, too. If we break with the Episcopal Church in America over gay priests, how can we then align ourselves with African bishops who tolerate polygamist priests? Paul says that a church leader is to be "the husband of one wife." Do we think that the word "husband" is inerrant but the word "one" is not?

If the Episcopal Church really has become apostate and its current leaders really are enemies of God, then how can we justify leaving the church, its resources and its sheep in their care? If not, how can we justify this separation?

Yes, there are times when it's necessary to leave one authority for another. When the New Testament writers were forced to deal with this issue, they concluded that they were compelled to obey higher authority at all times, except when it commanded them to disobey God. Roman Emperors were monstrous beasts. The church preached against them and prayed for them to repent, but Christians still obeyed the law. It wasn't until Rome ordered them to stop preaching the gospel and to offer sacrifices to Caesar that the early church was forced to disobey.

By analogy, New Hampshire can install a whole pride of gay bishops, but we don't break our oath of loyalty to the Episcopal Church until they order us to start installing them here.

Until then, the pattern of David and Jesus holds: Be faithful. Be patient. Be active in good works. And be in prayer for all in authority ... "for Katharine, our presiding bishop; Robert and Henry, our bishops; and Jay, our priest, I pray. Lord, hear our prayer."

Jerry Bowyer is an Episcopal vestryman, a financial journalist and the chairman of Bowyer Media (

Correction/Clarification: (Published Nov. 12, 2007) Part of the name of the Episcopal Church presiding bishop was misspelled in this essay, "The Pittsburgh Schism," as originally published Nov. 11, 2007. She is Katharine Jefferts Schori, not Jefferts. Also, she was elected presiding bishop in 2006, not two years ago.
First published on November 11, 2007 at 12:00 am

1 comment:

Hiram said...

Two questions regarding this article: 1) What is the date of the memo and the exact wording wherein Bp Duncan told rectors not to pray for Bp Schori? If the instruction was given orally, when and where? Who else can testify to what was said?

I have heard of parishes being forbidden to pray for Bp Schori, but I have never once seen a citation given so that the instruction can be verified.

2) Mr Bowyer says, "If we break with the Episcopal Church in America over gay priests, how can we then align ourselves with African bishops who tolerate polygamist priests?" This a frequent accusation -- and it has never been backed up by names or dioceses. Such polygamous priests do not exist. (I will grant, of course, that there are adulterous priests in Africa -- just as there are in the US -- but there are no bishops in Africa who would tolerate an openly adulterous priest, nor yet any polygamous bishops (which is the usual accusation -- again, without any form of citation).