First, a disclaimer: I am a bishop member of the Communion Partners, and much of what I write here concerns the Communion Partners directly. While I am reasonably confident that most or all of my CP bishop colleagues will broadly agree with what I say, I have not vetted this post with them, and I speak only for myself.
Popular wisdom suggests that if you’re taking fire from partisans on both sides of a conflict, you may be occupying the moral high ground. Of course, the truth of this wisdom is evident only to those currently occupying that middle ground, and not necessarily to someone planted firmly on one end or the other who may, when the smoke clears, turn out to have been correct.
In any case, as Episcopalians and those in the larger Anglican ambit digest the news of Albany bishop William Love’s conviction for violating the discipline and worship of the Episcopal Church, and of his subsequent resignation as part of a canonical Accord in lieu of facing a sentence that could have included deposition from ordained ministry, the Communion Partners find themselves on the receiving end of criticism from both mainstream Episcopalians and (mostly) former Episcopalians who have formed the Anglican Church in North America.
Let me switch to the first-person singular here: I am dazed and depressed by these developments. They bode ill for the future of my connection to the church that has been my ecclesial home, in seven different dioceses, for 47 years, and which I have served in ordained ministry for 32 years, nearly a decade of that time as a bishop. Moreover, it also bodes ill, I would suggest, for the future of the Episcopal Church itself.
The reason the Communion Partners even exists as an organization is in response to an unrelenting juggernaut of change over the last four decades or so, with increased intensity since 2003, in the Episcopal Church’s stance toward the moral context of human sexuality and the nature of marriage. When I became an Episcopalian in the mid-1970s, Christians of other than heterosexual disposition were just beginning to “come out” with increasing frequency, form alliances, and demand to be treated with full human dignity rather than as intrinsically and personally reprobate.
The 1976 General Convention passed resolution A-069, stating “that it is the sense of this General Convention that homosexual persons are children of God who have a full and equal claim with all other persons upon the love, acceptance, and pastoral concern and care of the Church.” Even the most conservative of Episcopalians today would have no problem acceding to that much. But the train did not stop at that station. Every General Convention since — all 14 of them — has seen a concerted and high-profile effort to move the ball a little further down the field. As recently as 2012, the goal had morphed well beyond pastoral care, compassion, and tolerance all the way to the generation of rites for the liturgical blessing of same-sex relationships. A mere three years later, emboldened by the Supreme Court’s Obergefell v. Hodges decision that was handed down while convention was in session, the Episcopal Church embraced full-on “marriage equality.”
When texts for the celebration of same-sex marriages were approved in 2015, it was clear that permission to implement them lay at the discretion of bishops diocesan. Communion Partner bishops breathed a tentative sigh of relief. We knew ourselves to be already compromised simply by remaining in an ecclesial entity that had engaged in herculean theological and exegetical acrobatics so as to turn away from the clear witness of scripture, the Catholic tradition, and the formally received teaching of the worldwide Anglican Communion. But at least we could say, “Not in my diocese. We will adhere to the classic prayer book teaching on marriage.”
In the run-up to General Convention 2018, this reprieve revealed itself to be short-lived. Resolutions were being prepared that would effectively strip diocesan bishops of their ancient role as the chief teaching and liturgical authority in their dioceses by enshrining the expanded marriage rites in a first reading of a revised Book of Common Prayer. (Bishops may decline to authorize experimental and supplemental liturgies and trial-use texts but may not prohibit the use of prayer book texts.)
To forestall such a cataclysmic event, Communion Partner bishops were quietly cooperative with some strategic allies from the mainstream in developing an alternative proposal — which eventually became the now-infamous resolution B-012. It offered bishops (and their dioceses) whose theological views cannot accommodate same-sex marriage something of a way out: when a parish wishes to host such a ceremony, the bishop can invite a colleague to assume pastoral and spiritual authority over the “situation” — I use such a vague term because some bishops might be satisfied with ceding authority on a one-off basis, while others will need full-on Delegated Episcopal Pastoral Oversight (DEPO).
This is, of course, cold comfort. In an unprecedented manner, it robs a bishop of the pastoral and teaching charisms that are traditionally inherent in the office. It’s the proverbial camel’s-nose-under-the-tent in the direction of the Episcopal Church becoming an utterly monolithic authoritarian ecclesial behemoth, with dioceses functioning as little more than regional offices and bishops as area managers — a far cry from the “wonderful and sacred mystery” of Catholic tradition. Yet, the alternative was arguably worse — same-sex marriage in the prayer book. I am, in the ambit of the Episcopal Church, a “survivor.” Over the last four-plus decades, I have discovered more reserves of flexibility than I could have ever imagined. But that would have been the death of me — certainly as a bishop, and probably as an Episcopalian. I would have found (and still might find, I must remember) myself in ecclesial exile, where the denizens of a strange land would cajole me, in the spirit of Psalm 137, to “sing us one of your Anglican chants.”
Bishop Love, alone among the Communion Partners, found that his conscience was not at all (let alone sufficiently) salved by the chimera of an escape hatch offered by B-012. He determined that caring faithfully for his flock as a living icon of the Good Shepherd could brook no compromise with heresy. (Yes, this is a strong and potentially inflammatory category in which to place same-sex marriage, but it is at least arguably an offense against the first article of both the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds, which set forth the doctrine of creation, creation being the theological context in which marriage is rooted by the Book of Common Prayer.) So he stood firm, while his closest colleagues, myself included, bent for strategic reasons. I am not prepared to argue here that he was right and we were wrong, or that we were right and he was wrong. Either could be the truth. Suffice it to say that our informed consciences led us to different places.
So the Communion Partners, who represent a marginal fringe in a church that is only a marginal fringe of its former self, are now regularly castigated (if being labeled “quislings” can qualify as castigation) from, as it were, our right flank — those who continue to identify as Anglican in one way or another but who have left the Episcopal Church. But, while we sincerely desire reconciliation among “all who profess and call themselves Christians” (BCP, p. 814), I, for one, am not losing very much sleep over criticism from such quarters. What does awaken any predisposition to anxiety we might have is how we are viewed and understood by those within our immediate ecclesial household. The integrity of our ministries (to say nothing of, to a not insignificant extent, our material livelihoods and those of the clergy who serve in our dioceses), is profoundly affected by this.
We are repeatedly assured that we are valued members of the Episcopal Church, and that our voices need to be heard. (As long ago as 2009, at the General Convention in Anaheim, I remember thinking that, if I had a dollar for every time somebody approached me to voice, without solicitation, such sentiments, I might enjoy an afternoon at Disneyland.) The 2018 General Convention created a Task Force for Communion Across Difference that has met both in person and online and was even granted some space at the last in-person meeting of the House of Bishops in September 2019. Nonetheless, the sequence of events leading up to Bishop Love’s announcement of his resignation on October 24, frankly, makes my blood run cold, and causes me to question the assurances we have been given in such abundance.
First, there is the fact that Bishop Love was charged and restricted based solely on a pastoral directive he issued to the clergy of his diocese, a pastoral directive that was consonant with the canons of the diocese — to be clear, something he wrote, not anything he actually did. He voiced an intention to act a certain way (that is, to impose discipline on clergy who purport to solemnize a same-sex marriage), without even encountering circumstances that would cause him to follow through on his avowed intent. It has never been anything but in the realm of the abstract.
Second, the charges were brought not by any aggrieved or potentially-aggrieved party, but directly by the Presiding Bishop’s office. There was no actual complainant in the case against Bishop Love, nobody with “skin in the game.” And, while the wheels of ecclesiastical justice did grind quite slowly between the time charges were filed and the final disposition of the case, the time between Bishop Love’s pastoral directive and the initiation of Title IV proceedings against him elapsed, by comparison, overnight.
Third, the case against Bishop Love, and the basis of his conviction, was risibly weak. Most conspicuously, the contention by the Church Attorney (prosecutor), upheld in the written opinion of the Hearing Panel, that the 2018 General Convention, in assigning the newly-authorized rites that status of “trial use,” invested them with the constitutional authority of a proposed revision to the Book of Common Prayer, falls apart on its face. Convention rather overtly declined to initiate a process of prayer book revision, and instead passed a resolution that memorializes the 1979 Book of Common Prayer in presumptive perpetuity (even as it encouraged development of and experimentation with supplemental or alternative texts). The Episcopal Church is manifestly not in the process of revising the Book of Common Prayer, and to assert otherwise is to defy the objective reality of the meaning of words in General Convention resolutions. Bishop Love’s conviction is based on fiction.
Fourth, and of utmost concern, Bishop Love’s resignation does not merely represent a desire on his part to avoid protracted conflict and remove himself from the fray for a well-deserved respite — that much would be understandable. Rather, it is part of a formal Accord (a term-of-art in the Title IV disciplinary canons) between Bishop Love and the Presiding Bishop. A respondent in a Title IV proceeding only agrees to an Accord as a “lesser evil” — it’s tantamount to a plea bargain in a secular criminal proceeding. One cannot help but surmise that the ecclesiastical “death penalty” — deposition from holy orders — was seriously on the table, and that Bishop Love chose resignation rather than the indignity of being deposed. It need not have been so. It was within the purview of the Hearing Panel to administer a proverbial “slap on the wrist.” That they did not is hugely telling.
Putting this all together, a pattern of relentless urgency emerges. It’s as if nothing can be allowed to even seem momentarily to eclipse the perceived moral imperative of achieving the goal of “all the sacraments for all the baptized,” no matter the cost, even the tearing apart of a vital and largely unified diocese of the Episcopal Church. Make no mistake: this is not about Bishop Love being held to account for violating his ordination vow to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church. It’s about the weaponizing of the canons of the church for the purpose of prosecuting a single, focused agenda, an agenda which its supporters understand as a matter of gospel justice — and, you know, “justice delayed is justice denied” — but an agenda that sits lightly to the authority of Holy Scripture, which every ordinand in the Episcopal Church confesses to be “the word of God” and which has rent the worldwide Anglican Communion nearly completely asunder. Gospel justice cannot be seen to compete with gospel righteousness. If they seem to be in conflict, then the chances are that neither is being properly understood.
On more than one occasion during Bishop Love’s canonical tribulations, the Communion Partners have voiced concern that there seems to be an inconsistent standard for the application of canonical justice in the Episcopal Church. There is a very unambiguous canon that prohibits the administration of Holy Communion to unbaptized persons. A proposal to rescind this canon was overwhelmingly defeated, with not a single oral argument in its favor, by the House of Bishops in 2012. In 2015, a proposal merely to study the question was solidly defeated, as was a subsequent motion to reconsider that vote. Yet, it is nearly ubiquitous in many parts of the Episcopal Church for oral and written announcements on Sunday mornings to invite everyone in attendance to come forward and receive the sacrament “wherever you are on your spiritual journey” (or words to similar effect). I have had a colleague bishop tell me quite openly that he supports this and does it himself, fully aware that he is thereby violating his ordination vows regarding doctrine, discipline, and worship, and that he is fully prepared to suffer the canonical consequences, should any arise.
So, one might well ask, why have no such consequences arisen for him? And the answer, not surprisingly to anyone who is truly attentive, is not legal but political. No one has filed charges against this bishop, or plenty of others, because doing so would invite all manner of scorn or annoyance on the part of many who are themselves either guilty of the same charges or are keepers of the law, but who are fine with a “live and let live” attitude toward this question. The theological integrity of the Eucharist, to say nothing of souls eating and drinking damnation unto themselves (1 Cor. 11:29), apparently pales in importance beside the imperative of allowing same-sex couples to be able to say that they are in sacramental marriages. The political momentum of the moment is focused on the felt needs of sexual minorities, and because of that the church has the collective stomach for aiming the enforcement of its canons against those who are seen to stand in the way of that goal. It’s never been about the impartial application of canon law; it’s about the fulfillment of the dominant political will. Canons are malleable and will always be bent toward such fulfillment.
So, my Communion Partner colleagues and I — we’re nervous. Over the last nearly two decades, we have remained engaged in good faith with the Episcopal Church. We are Episcopalians! And we have remained Episcopalian at no small cost in myriad personal relationships that have been quite precious to us — relationships with people with whom we have been co-laborers in the work of the gospel, and with whom we still have more in common, theologically and spiritually, than we do with most of our fellow Episcopalians. So, our message to those fellow Episcopalians is: we are here. See us. We do not actually have power to harm you. We want to remain, we believe ourselves called to remain, despite our discomfort with where the mainstream of the church has gone. But we want to do more than remain. We want to flourish. (And we, as bishops, speak on behalf of a generation of amazing young leaders who will be key contributors to the revitalization of this church in God’s good time.) What has happened in Albany makes us think you don’t share that desire, that you are not willing to work with us in creating a space in which we can flourish. Are we wrong about this? What concessions are you willing to make to prove your good intentions?
The Rt. Rev. Daniel Martins is the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Springfield.