By Brandt L. Montgomery
After former Albany Bishop William Love announced his resignation, due to the Hearing Panel for the Trial of a Bishop determining that he failed to conform to the Episcopal Church’s doctrine, discipline, and worship by refusing to allow same-sex marriages in his diocese as called for by Resolution B012, I wrote that
[conservative and progressive Episcopalians] must be willing to trust each other. It is a poor reflection on progressives when they ungenerously react to a minority that holds to a two-millennia old tradition, and a poor reflection on conservatives when they actively demean the majority and fail to respect their dignity as human beings…. The only way for mutual flourishing to be successful is for all members of the Church, progressive and conservative, to intentionally hold “steadfast to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers” (Acts 2:42).
To this effect, something recently happened that I hope will pave the way and be a model for further renewed relationships between conservative and progressive Episcopalians.
On the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, a statement by the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama and Birmingham’s Episcopal Cathedral Church of the Advent, the diocese’s most theologically conservative parish, was released. As the statement notes, throughout the past several decades, “tensions have arisen over various issues involving the manner in which the Advent and the Diocese have conducted their respective ministries, which have taken on a heightened intensity” (p. 1). With their joint statement, Alabama’s 12th bishop and the Episcopal Church’s seventh largest congregation now pledge to “seek a renewed relationship, and hope… that with a renewed relationship… peace may be achieved, and mutual respect given, which would set… a framework that the Diocese, Diocesan leaders, the Advent, and future Bishops will want to embrace and continue” (p. 2).
In forging this renewed relationship, the Bishop of Alabama has covenanted to ensure the Advent’s continued flourishing as a cardinal parish of the Anglican evangelical tradition. As such, the Advent will be allowed to continue expressing its theology and conducting its ministries in accordance with its evangelical identity, to call clergy and raise up nominees and candidates for ordination who reflect such identity, and to have its particular gifts in church planting, mission, ministry development, preaching and teaching, and youth and young adult ministry commended to the wider diocese. The Bishop will also appoint an Advent layperson, nominated by the Cathedral vestry, to serve on the diocesan Commission on Ministry and another as an ex-officio member of the Diocesan Council. The Advent, in turn, has covenanted to return the name “Episcopal” to its public signage, newsletter, and website, transition its principal Sunday liturgy back to the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, and to no longer actively endorse “restricted giving by its parishioners which limit monies going to the general operations of the Diocese.” It is the bishop’s and the Advent’s “hope and expectation that this Covenant will provide a foundation for a stronger relationship between the Diocese and the Advent that will deepen over the course of this Bishop’s tenure” (pp. 3-5).
The Alabama-Advent Accord is very encouraging in that it demonstrates how God’s people can maintain unity amidst theological division. As a former Alabama priest, having once been a clergy colleague of both the current bishop and the Advent’s interim dean, I can attest that the statement’s intentions are rooted in the sincere desire for Christian unity. In its fundamental aim is the striving for the preservation of the common mission Christians have espoused since apostolic times: proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection for all people. The Alabama-Advent Accord underlines Anglican Christians’ sharing a Christian bond through the via media that has been, for all sides, a welcome call to the ecclesiastical table.
As a conservative Episcopalian, I find this Accord to be a happy sign of the functional possibility of communion across difference and my and my fellow conservatives’ mutual flourishing. Many of us I am sure will be paying close attention to the Accord’s ongoing implementation. The Episcopal Church’s recent actions on issues surrounding Christian marriage have caused spiritual wounds, and emotions are running high. But the Accord’s publication reignites the hope of the progressive majority making space for the conservative minority to work together in confessing the faith of Christ crucified, died, and risen and to serve others in his name. The Diocese of Alabama and the Cathedral Church of the Advent are modeling for the rest of us how we should make room for one another as they do for us, lifting each other up to God in prayer and proclaiming the gospel.
I can see how some of my progressive brothers and sisters might see the statement as a step backwards that will eventually lead to certain groups being forced back into magisterial silence. For the larger Episcopal Church, the issue the Alabama-Advent Accord raises is the allowance for conscience. Can conservative and progressive Episcopalians love and serve the Lord together in a relationship of theological pluralism? Will the Episcopal Church continue making space for the flourishing of its theologically conservative members, parishes, and dioceses, keeping alive a spirit of Christian conciliation and love?
My hope is that the answer to these questions is the same: “Yes!” What the Diocese of Alabama and the Cathedral Church of the Advent have reinforced is that we are a church that longs to experience communion with others. Unity is part of our Anglican DNA, our bonds of affection being infectious bonds. Experiencing those bonds being torn asunder amidst bitter theological arguments and division detracts from our mission as God’s people to restore all people to unity with him and each other in Jesus Christ (BCP, p. 855). God is, again, calling all of us to this mission.
If anything, the Alabama-Advent Accord shows that peaceful co-existence between conservative and progressive Episcopalians can be and is possible. It testifies to the willingness of those with differing theological opinions to walk in Christian love together as part of the one Body under Jesus’ Headship (BCP, p. 854). Conservative and progressive Episcopalians can actually come together as fellow Christians and engage in loving, respectful, and genuine conversation and fellowship.
This is why I enthusiastically laud the Alabama-Advent Accord. Though its purpose is for a particular diocese and its cathedral church, it is a much-needed example for the Episcopal Church at this time. It is my hope that this Accord will become a model for the larger Church to look to in discovering how communion across difference can be observed and individual theological conscience maintained without fear of the other. “We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves.” Each of us must please our neighbor for the purpose of building up [our] neighbor. For Christ did not please himself; but, as it is written, ‘The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me’” (Rom. 15:1-3).
Three years ago, pondering on whether there was still a place for conservatives in the Episcopal Church, I wrote:
How we proceed should involve conversation together. [H]owever it happens, we must be grounded in a commitment to maintaining the bonds of peace and affection amidst issues on which we disagree. And crucial to mutual flourishing’s success would be the casting out of fear: conservative fears of exclusion by the progressive majority, and progressive fears of conservatives somehow rising again and forcing them back into silence. Fear and exclusion must not be allowed to fracture our unity.
With the Alabama-Advent Accord, I am much more hopeful now about conservative Episcopalians’ mutual flourishing than I have been in quite some time. Many thanks to the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama and the Episcopal Cathedral Church of the Advent for showing how conservative and progressive Episcopalians can, indeed, trust each other. Thank you for showing us how, despite whatever theological differences we might have, all we do should be done to God’s greater glory and the betterment of each other. The Alabama-Advent Accord “is the LORD’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes” (Ps. 118:23). All glory be to God for this example of Christian love and relationship. Yea Alabama!
The Rev. Brandt Montgomery is the Chaplain of Saint James School in Hagerstown, Maryland.