Tuesday, July 15, 1997

Rowley Committee to Traditionalists: “We Will Bury You!”

In a momentous decision in 1976, the Episcopal Church approved the ordination of women by passing a canon specifying that access to ordination “shall be equally applicable to men and women” (Title II.8.1 in the 1994 Constitution and Canons).

Now a committee chaired by (Presiding Bishop candidate) Robert Rowley is bringing to the 1997 General Convention an equally momentous decision. By a vote of 5 to 4, the Rowley Committee proposes adding the following sentence to Canon III.8.1: “No one shall be denied access to the ordination process nor postulancy, candidacy or ordination in any parish or diocese of this church solely on account of sex.” (Resolution A052).

The operative phrase in this addition is “in any parish or diocese.” The 1976 decision was intrerpreted at the time (e.g., in the 1977 “Port St. Lucie” letter of the House of Bishops) to be permissive, not mandatory, allowing for individual dioceses and parishes to continue the traditional practice of male-only ordinations and placements. Resolution A052 makes clear that this local option is no longer to be tolerated. “The canons are mandatory and applicable in all dioceses.”

Coupled with Resolution A052 is what appears to be a sop to traditionalists: Resolution A053: Rights of Those Opposing Women’s Ordination. While conceding that individuals “are free to disagree on matters of theology in the Episcopal Church,” it concludes that “every person who exercises a ministry as a leader and trustee in this church is obliged to obey and implement the canon law of this church.” A053 is, in fact, the enabling resolution to A052, making clear that women’s ordination will be enforced at every level of decision-making, not only in dioceses, but in parishes and auxiliary organizations as well.

What is wrong with asking conformity to the plan sense of Church canons? Surely no one would object to enforcement of the rule that every candidate for bishop should be 30 years old (Article II.2). Here’s the difference: Church canons (discipline) are prudential in intent but binding in application. The Church could change a canonical age requirement up or down with little effect, and it would rightly expect all dioceses to obey the new age limit.

The ordination of women, however, is not prudential, but a matter of biblical and theological principle, a matter of doctrine. Some doctrine and moral norms, such as the Fatherhood of God, the Virgin Birth, and the two-sex nature of marriage, are binding because they are settled and central tenets of Scripture that the Church has received throughout its history. (Perversely, the Righter Court has said this kind of doctrine cannot be enforced.)

To pass mandatory canons – in 1976 or 1997 – is to place women’s ordination in the same category of settled doctrine which can be regulated by canon. This is simply not the case. Women’s ordination is part of a larger discussion of marriage, sexuality, and leadership across the whole Christian Church. Since 1976, the Roman Catholic Church has made it clear that the reforms of Vatican II do not necessitate the ordination of women. Evangelicals continue to debate the meaning of male “headship” in the family and Church. And the Anglican Communion remains deeply divided on this subject.

Meanwhile, in the Episcopal Church, there has been no dialogue on this issue since 1976 – only pressure politics. For the Episcopal Women’s Caucus to assert that this is a justice issue and therefore non-negotiable is not an argument but a threat. By such threats, the Rowley committee itself was pushed from compromising with traditionalists to excluding them. Anyone who follows the politics of the Rowley committee can foresee that the same politics will be used in a few years to enforce the ordination of practicing homosexuals across the Church.

The Rowley committee majority complains that the laissez-faire practice of the past 20 years involves the “Balkanization” of the Church. Last year’s Righter trial has already created a Balkanization of doctrine by conferring impunity on all manner of false teaching. Resolutions A052 and A053 will make violation of canons the only thing that can get one in trouble in the Episcopal Church, short of criminal acts. A Church with chaotic doctrine on clear biblical principles and ironclad discipline on matters of serious dispute is a caricature of the Body of Christ.

If Balkanization is a problem at present (and admittedly it is), the Rowley committee solution involves the Sovietization of the Church, that is, forcing into conformity by canon law those individuals, churches, and dioceses who hold legitimate position within the Church. In effect, the leadership of the Episcopal Church is saying to traditionalists: “We will bury you.” Therefore we urge that the revisions to Canon III.8.1 be defeated.

So what should be done? The Rev. Judith Gentle-Hardy, speaking at the AAC organizational meeting in Chicago last year, made the wise observation that an historic Church should expect major changes in doctrine and order to be test6ed during a lengthy period of “reception,” accompanied by ongoing debate and the possibility that the innovation may be finally rejected. This was the practice of the apostolic Church (Acts 15:5-9) and the recommendation of the Eames Report at Lambeth 1988.

If the Rowley committee revisions pass, it will be a victory for those like Bishops Spong and Browning, who in 1979 proclaimed their conscientious right to violate the Church’s stated teaching on sexuality but who will now apply the iron teeth of canon law to depose traditionalist bishops and rectors. Proclaiming themselves defenders of the marginalized, they will see that their opponents are “included” among the defrocked.

This possibility poses a dilemma for orthodox Episcopalians, whether they favor women's ordination or not. They will be canonically obligated to a leadership with whom they are out of spiritual communion, and they will be spiritually committed to brothers and sisters who are canonical outcasts.

Canons or communion? Which way will we go?

This editorial appeared in the July 1997 edition of Encompass, the newsletter of the American Anglican Council, Used with permission. The revisions to Canon III.8.1 passed the General Convention 1997 easily, despite a petition by women clergy who opposed it.

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