Alternative Oversight, Alternative Authority, Alternative Straw: Keep the eye on the ball!

When Thinking Anglicans notices something stirring in the Episcopal Church it is usually a dust up worthy of our attention. When Father Jake takes the same matter on, the storm clouds have a certain heightened importance. The two together beat out The Weather Channel for predicting the storms to come.

The whole matter of Fr. Mark Hansen, a heretofore more or less unknown rector in Connecticut, has become a cell in the storm front pushing across the Communion. Both TA and Fr. Jake recognized this. It has reached the point where Hansen is considered a martyr (something of a slight to those who die for the faith) and letters from bishops pop up in support of Fr. Hansen and against Bishop Smith’s actions. Fr. Jake rightly says of all this mess, “Inhibit, but please, leave the locksmith behind next time.”

Canon Ellis Brust Chief Operating Officer of the ACC, husband of Cynthia Brust, who writes for the AAC, wrote about one piece of the unfolding tempest. (Interesting to see that the AAC is a cottage industry.)

He made some observations of a July 17th meeting at St. John’s Church, Bristol, Connecticut.

He said: I was in Bristol, Connecticut, last weekend to support an American Anglican Council (AAC) parish as its theological dispute with Bishop Andrew Smith escalated.

I wonder: Deciding that this is a theological dispute, rather than a disciplinary dispute is precisely the beginning spin the AAC wants to put on this. If it were a disciplinary dispute, then one would have to take seriously a variety of matters completely ignored by Fr. Hansen’s supporters. If it were disciplinary then Fr. Jake is on the mark. But this report wants the matter to be a theological dispute.

He said: On Sunday I was invited by the senior warden and members of the vestry to attend a hastily called meeting between Bishop Andrew Smith and the congregation of St. John’s.

I wonder: Granted, that under the best of circumstances a meeting called by the Bishop with the Congregation might be open for outsiders, but this was not the best of circumstances. Who called this meeting? If it was Bishop Smith then he issued the invitation as to who was to attend. The Senior Warden and members (some I presume) invited Brust to come in what is clearly an advocacy role and as an accusatory witness (for that is what a witness “against” is about).

Brust came already convinced of the occasion as a witness against Bishop Smith. He stated that: “Just days before, on July 13, Bishop Smith--joined by a squad of diocesan staff, locksmiths, computer hackers, and security guards--seized control of the building despite protests of the parish secretary and senior warden. Bishop Smith locked out members of the congregation, issued an inhibition of Fr. Mark Hansen, and forced a revisionist priest-in-charge on the orthodox congregation.”

Canon Brust wasn’t there for that occasion, I take it, nor was Fr. Hansen, but the core of the matter is that Fr. Hansen was removed from office and another priest placed in charge. All the other drama – the “squad” the locksmiths, hackers, security guards, etc, sound like the actions of a corporate body in the 21st Century taken against an employee suspected of possible disruption following firing; not pleasant, surely, but not surprising. The whole thing might be ugly and unenlightened, but so are the times.

So AAC representatives were there, uninvited by the Bishop who initiated the meeting, at what was supposedly a meeting between Bishop and Parish in an advocacy role. Burst reported that when the Bishop asked to leave, “The congregation erupted in protest stating that we were their representatives at the meeting. The bishop acquiesced.” So according to Burst, he and Dean Murdoch, also of the AAC, were not only advocates and adversarial witnesses but also representatives of the congregation at that meeting.

The actual “voice of the vestry” was Dr. William Witt. There is no indication that Canon Brust spoke at the meeting or had any part in defending the Rector, Senior Warden or Vestry. Nor is there indication that he was active in the meeting itself as an advocate, witness against the Bishop, or as a representative of the parish. Perhaps Canon Brust is too modest here, but his report, while full of editorial comments, never refers to his being an actor in this drama. Witt’s statement, written shortly after the takeover of the Parish was posted on the AAC blog, and clearly owed some of its thinking to wider AAC concerns. Canon Brust and Dean Murdock may well have been advocates, accusers and representatives to that preparation.

What then are we to make of this meeting? On the one hand, nothing new seems to have come from it. It sounds like a disaster in which all are to be pitied.

At the same time Canon Brust reports it out as a clear sign that Bishop Smith is incompetent, incoherent and disingenuous. He turns the staff of the diocese into a “squad,” the priest in charge into a “revisionist,” who fought back tears, the Bishop as cavalier, angry and ineffectual.

In other words, Canon Brust produced a rather well done piece of propaganda. The core of this effort was to not allow the possibility that this indeed was a matter of canonical discipline, but a matter of theology.

Good luck. Fr. Jake is on the case here. He understands precisely that it is indeed a matter of canon, for at issue is not what you think about the Bishop’s views, voting pattern, ideas, beliefs, etc. What is at issue is whether or not you are attempting to disengage as a parish and as a priest from your canonical relation to the Diocese and to the Ordinary of that Diocese. What the parish is seeking is not alternative oversight for some limited period of time, but alternative Episcopal authority. What this priest seems to be seeking is discharge from his vows concerning authority, replacing them with vows to obedience provided there is theological agreement between himself and the bishop as his conscience dictates.

The AAC wants to speak of oversight, but what is at state is authority. Bishops carry the vocation to oversight as part of their title, but they carry their authority within the canonical bounds of a Diocese. The propaganda effort is to plea for alternative oversight but work for alternative authority.

This, by the way, is what is seriously wrong with Bishop Lipscomb’s comment in his letter to his Diocese of July 11, as reported in the Living Church online, “Those who choose to remain must fully embrace the radical claims of interdependence within a global community. Such individuals, congregations, and dioceses have a rightful and constitutional claim to be the Episcopal Church in the United States.” Bishop Lipscomb is arguing for an alternative authority to that of General Convention and the House of Bishops, one that can make the claim to be the “true” Episcopal Church.

The little commentary by Canon Brust is one more effort to slide in acquiescence to alternative authority under the guise of alternative oversight. The Fr. Hansen affair is a messy situation and terribly sad, but for all that it is none the less a small field in which larger players are working their wills.

Keep the eye on the ball. This thing is about a minority within the Episcopal Church walking away with the authority to be the Episcopal Church while no one is looking. Don’t think oversight. We give oversight to one another all the time, particularly as one or the other of us actually does good theology, practical and otherwise. Think authority, which is the context in which we get to exercise our oversight of congregations, dioceses, seminaries, etc.


  1. "Canon Burst."

    Yeah, that about sums it up, doesn't it.

  2. obadiahslope24/7/05 7:35 PM

    In the heat of battle is probably a bad time for me to ask you a question, Mark, but I would like to have your views on the place of Evangelicals within ECUSA.
    Some progressives take the line that somehow evangelicals are unanglican, and we could have the discussion about how ECUSA is different from the other provinces in that the evangelical presence in anglicanism has been relatively small for some time in your part of the world.
    Yet I want to ask the question of whether there is a better way forward for the evangelicals in ECUSA.
    Should there be a provision that gives them some degree of assurance that they can not only survive but thrive in ECUSA? Should parishes have some form of assurance that they will continue to call clergy of their style? What form should alternative oversight take if you think it should be provided?
    In my country racism took the form of "smoothing the pillow of a dying race" in regard to the aborigininal people. Evangelicals might wonder if the progressive majority in ECUSA has the same attitude to them. Bill Carroll for example says that the 1979 prayerbook meant that the writing was on the wall for this form of christianity within ECUSA. What is your view.
    I am not asking so much about the canons as what you think is an ideal.
    I have no right to fire these questions at you, but would be interested in your response sometime.

  3. obadiahslope asked a wonderful question. I personally would have no problems in an Anglicanism large enought to include classic Anglican Evangelicals, provided they would allow space for "progressive" in the same Anglicanism.

    I am strongly of the opinon that a hundred flowers should bloom and contend. Contending makes us all the richer, all the more abundant in the expression of the gifts we bring. The problem arises, however, when the contention becomes brutal and the options are narrowed to acquesence or explusion. So, I don't know where we stand now.

    As a progressive I can affirm that the Gospel the same yesterday, today and forever. But I can not affirm the "Word of God" (meaning by that the Bible) yesterday, today and forever. Where we might come together is that I could say that of the Word of God, meaning the constantly self-renewing Word of God that presents itself to those who truely engage the biblical material.

    In the past few days I have been reading "A Church at War", by Stephen Bates. I was surprized to realize (as I should have much earlier I supposed) that the English Evangelicals really predate all the strange goings on in ECUSA by a hundred years at least. In the context of the English experience of Evangelicals our ECUSA struggles pale by comparison.

    I very much believe that US Bishops have been learning bad habits. Many of them have confused avoiding conflict with doing justice. An Evangelical parish has every business electing and choosing an evangelical priest. That priest might be in serious contention with the Bishop (who for sake of this argument is a progressive.) Such priests are not to be avoided. But there are limits to that priest's options. If he becomes part of the Diocese, as he must in order to be rector, then he must accept the authority of the Bishop of the Diocese. Evangelicals who step themselves out of that jurisdiction really step out from the Episcopal Church.

    Perhaps alternative Episcopal Oversight would be a short term solution, but the long term solution is for bishops and contentious clergy and laity to actually engage one another. For that to happen it will be necessary for the Bishop to embrace evagelicals in his or her midst and work with them for the Love of God and the following of Jesus.

    Well enough muttering.


  4. Well, in the "big picture," I agree that there should be a place for evangelicals in our church - with the caveats that Fr. Mark expressed.

    But it's gotta swing the other way, too - and in our Diocese it surely isn't. It's becomiong increasingly clear that the Bishop of Dallas is manipulating the clergy selection process to pack the roles with socially-conservative evangelicals and AAC sympathizers. Those of us in mainstream parishes are quite fearful for the loss of any of our clergy, as acceptable replacements might be a long time coming (if ever).

  5. Obadiahslope,

    When you ask about "evangelicals," do you mean classical, theological evangelicals or conservatives? It seems like we've all taken you to mean conservatives.

    Personally, I have nothing but respect for the gifts that evangelicals give to the Anglican Church, whether in ECUSA or otherwise. I think that there are large cultural differences between evangelicals in America and abroad though. Evangelicals in the UK, from my understanding, read John Calvin and hold reformed theological positions. Evangelicals in America, by contrast, listen to Christian rock and watch televangelists. These are broad generalizations that are not true for everybody, but you get the idea.

    I think evangelical focus on scripture and personal conversion are both great gifts for the Church. When they are practiced in a Catholic framework, such as the Anglican reformers undoubtedly wished to keep, then I have no problem with them at all. It's when the sacramental, historical Church is made subordinate to "personal interpretation" of scripture that my feathers get mussed.

    My two cents.


  6. Evangelicals in the UK, from my understanding, read John Calvin and hold reformed theological positions. Evangelicals in America, by contrast, listen to Christian rock and watch televangelists.

    Heh. That pretty much captures it ;-> You might add something like, "Evangelicals in the UK might vote Labour (or whatever the similar party is for evangelicals in Oz), but in the US they voted for Bush."

  7. obadiahslope25/7/05 8:03 PM

    my guess is that the Anglican Evangelicals in Sydney would split between the major parties with a majority to Labor (which is how we spell it here). The Archbishop always says consider ALL the issues in an election which is code for don't just vote on "moral" issues - you might want to think about the war in Iraq as well - and that was not intended to endorse the war. And yes, we read John Calvin here. Lots of John Calvin, although we are not strict "five pointers."
    You are right to point out the difficulties progressive congregations will have in conservative dioceses. There is something about bishops that can lead to winner take all politics whatever the "churchpersonship", high or low, left or right.
    OTOH My local assistant bishop made it clear to me (as a representative of an evangelical parish) that he was determined to preserve one of our neighbours as a parish for the dissidents - and it has the best real estate of any parish around.
    Succession of clergy is the KEY issue for minorities on both sides - Connecticut or Dallas. Someone suggested that expanding the partnering of dioceses might be a way forward. So the progressives in your area might have a (episcopal?) visitor taking part in your calling of clergy. If the same was offered in Connecticut it might reduce a lot of the underlying tension there too. Just my two cents worth - 1.5 cents in your currency.

    as Mark hinted it can sometimes be a shock for American Anglicans to realise that there are very different sorts of anglicans around, not only a majority in some provinces but making the claim that they have been present for as long as the denomination has been around.
    So it is quite possible to grow up in a progressive part of the AC and be shocked that the comminuion is so evangelical. Or to grow up somewhere evangelical anglican and be shocked to find progressives, perhaps in a different province like yours.
    So you might find your feathers quite ruffled in my diocese, Sydney, which is unashameably "low". I would see clergy in robes once a year if that. So you probably think we go too far. (Other parishes are very liturgical.) Yet I trust that our reflection on scripture is sober and well reasoned, and we avoid the excesses you might associate with the word Evangelical. I assure you we don't like televangelists, and we reject the mixing of church and right wing politics.

  8. obadiahslope,

    Much obliged for your observations. I'm aware that the provinces of the Communion hold various and differing makeup. From the large evangelical influence in the C of E to the Pentecostal flavor erupting in parts of Africa. It's bound to happen in a an inculturated body like ours. And much of that is good. Much of that, in fact, I commend.

    I am not concerned about political wrangling. My concern with evangelicals is the influence they have over the Communion's teaching on sacraments and order, as I see these as being at the core of what makes us an institution that can lay claim to being a branch of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. It's really not a matter of churchmanship, per se. I like low church worship. I can't stand Palistrina. And while I prefer somewhat high vestments, I think that low vestments or even no vestments are perfectly acceptable. I'm even comfortable with lay preaching, so long as there's some oversight by clergy. What I'm not willing to do is see the sacramental nature of the Church watered down in any way, whether that be in the form of denying the proper authority of bishops or in the form of allowing lay presidency at the Eucharist.

    Yes, there has long been an Evangelical movement of sorts within Anglicanism. That movement has often been a gift to the Church. But the reformers knew what they were doing. They worked hard to ensure that certain measures were not taken, namely those that would make us an invalid institution. In that spirit, I will fight with every breath in my body to see that there is not erosion of these principles in our own day.

    Just my 1.5 cents worth. ;-)

    Pax Christi,


  9. There is a logical fallacy that the "conservatives" repeat over and over again. They move from the principle of interdependence, which all responsible parties accept, to the need for centralized authority, including a global code of canon law. The genius of Anglicanism has been to be a global, Catholic communion with genuine relationships of interdependence, maintained by consultatiion, without resorting to a central legislative or executive body. See Lambeth 1930, resolution 49.




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