Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Under Orders

The fray over the late decision of the Diocese of San Joaquin and their (erstwhile?) bishop, John-David Schofield, speaks largely for itself. I commend Tobias Haller's pithy essay as a suitable summary.
Where I have been drawn to reflect involves a very simple question: To whom are John-David Schofield and his clergy now accountable?
It might be easy to say, especially amongst our self-proclaimed reasserter sisters and brothers, Jesus Christ, of course! To me that is a given for anyone who embraces the title "Christian."
But that's not what I mean by accountability. I mean rather accountability in community. To illustrate, if it comes down to a choice between my faith in Jesus Christ and my accountability as an ordained priest to the Church I serve, I renounce my orders in that Church. Pure and simple.
In this way, honor has been served to a greater degree by those who cannot abide the recent decisions of The Episcopal Church and have therefore renounced their orders. Honor has also been served by those who disagree with the decisions of the greater Church but remain in communion, that is, in community, submitting to a level of mutual accountability that is honorable in at least two ways: to the integrity of their own theological positions and beliefs, and to the integrity of the Body of Christ -- the Church.
Do you disagree? Welcome to community.
John-David Schofield is one, but by no means the only bishop who seems to want to have it both ways: to withdraw and impugn the integrity of the Church to whom he has given vows of discipline, while at the same time not be held accountable to it.
This is a fundamental lesson about being "under orders," or taking vows. In the language of covenanted relationship it is the potentially fruitful agreement that engages conflict honestly while keeping the convenience of withdrawal and the extremes of divorce, abuse, and violence all off the table.
When John-David and a number of other bishops at the center of the current conflict withdrew from the House of Bishops, they violated the spirit, if not the letter, of their vows. Every clergy person makes a commitment to show up and be counted in a collegial body of shared ministry and leadership: oversight most particularly for bishops, pastoral duties particularly for priests, servanthood particularly for deacons -- and all three to some extent shared between these orders and among the laity. Our canons, discipline, and tradition make these relationships mutually, and to some degree, hierarchically accountable. We are all under orders, acknowledging the authority of another in our decision-making, even when we don't like it.
If for no other reason, this structure -- this polity -- is provided so that we do not assume the arrogance of conflating our views with those of God.
Withdrawing and retaining the privileges and powers of office amounts therefore to hubris, plain and simple. This point about the case of San Joaquin was made to me this past Sunday by none other than a Roman Catholic priest.
Now that San Joaquin has done the impossible and seceded from The Episcopal Church, will it endeavor to bring its canonical structure in line with that of the Southern Cone, its protector apparent? And to whom is John-David Schofield accountable in the event his clergy, parishes, or missions wish to make appeals about his leadership or decisions? What is to stop him from suspending the canons of his own diocese as he sees fit? And if it is a divine gift of benevolence that prevents him from doing so, what will prevent his inevitable successor from wielding autocratic power over a "diocese" that has apparently decided to chart its own course -- a course divorced from any real accountability to a provincial body?
These questions are probably more theoretical than practical. Deposition and litigation are the next steps in this train wreck, and the process is likely already under way. They may well make this whole reflection moot. I pray that may be sooner rather than later.
Even so, many of us seek ways to pastorally support the people of the congregations who have decided to remain part of The Episcopal Church. It is an ugly time now, and potentially uglier ahead.
But, keeping to the context of this essay, I want to know to whom John-David Schofield and the clergy who have followed him are most beholden at present. If indeed, as he wrote in his latest missive to the Presiding Bishop, he and his diocese can choose to return to The Episcopal Church if we "repent" to his satisfaction, what sort of authority does Presiding Bishop Venables (their new "Father in God") or the governance of the Southern Cone Province really wield in John-David's mind?
In short, to whom amongst the imperfect temporal powers of the Anglican Communion, however divinely inspired, is John-David truly accountable?


Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

The whole problem is summed up in the difference between the bishop as colleague of other bishops in a church, and the bishop as the "head" of a diocese sufficient unto itself. In the profoundly mistaken (but also profoundly misread) opinion of Williams expressed to Howe, the latter world-view seems operative.

Reverend Ref + said...

In short, to whom amongst the imperfect temporal powers of the Anglican Communion, however divinely inspired, is John-David truly accountable?

A: JDS would appear to be accountable solely to himself. I think there will come a day in the not-to-distant future when ++Venebles will find his newly acquired bishop striking out on his own yet again.

++Venebles will need to be very careful about making sure he keeps his flock purely happy.

Anonymous said...

I think the distinction Tobias makes is between a "church" (i.e., the plebs sancta Dei) and a "sect".

I am now concerned about the canonical location of persons henceforth ordained by +JDS. They will not, presumably, be priests of the Episcopal Church, but of what? Argentina? And if +JDS is inhibited (as is bound to happen) will all his episcopal functions thereafter be "valid but illicit" - at least from the Episcopal point of view?

So, if a person is now ordained priest by +JDS and later wants to re-enter the Episcopal Church, what will be his status? Will he be an "ordained alien"? Will his Orders be accepted (since they are, apparently, "Anglican", i.e., in apostolic succession) and will he need to then be "received" (as a C of E priest would be)?

I have a hunch we are going to find some canonical blind alleys before all of the dust settles.