Last week end four bishops were ordained and consecrated in Virginia by the Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion.) These men were in ministry in the Episcopal Church and are now bishops in a church that considers itself out of communion with the Episcopal Church. They took oaths related to their ministry in TEC, and now they have taken oaths related to their ministry in the CofN.
The booklet for the ordinations contained five solemn oaths taken by the bishops-elect. They are instructive both of the conditions under which they will minister and the understanding of Episcopal ministry held by the Church of Nigeria.
They read as follows:
I, [Roger/David/Amos/Nathan], now to be consecrated bishop do so affirm and accordingly declare my belief in the faith which is revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds and to which the historic formularies of the Church of Nigeria bear witness; and in public prayer and administration of the Sacraments. I will use only the forms of service which are authorized or allowed by the canons.
Declaration of Submission to Synod
I do also declare that I consent to be bound by the regulations of the Church of Nigeria and canons which have been made or which may hereafter be made by the Church of Nigeria synod or may otherwise have lawful effect in the Convocation of Anglicans in North America.
Oath of Canonical Obedience
I, [Roger/David/Amos/Nathan], do swear by Almighty God that I will pay true and canonical obedience to the Primate of the Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion) and his successors in all things lawful and honest.
Oath of Submission
And I hereby undertake to accept and immediately submit to any sentence depriving me of any or all the rights and emoluments appertaining to the office of bishop, which may at any time be passed upon me after due examination by the Primate acting under the constitution of the Church of Nigeria. I agree to exercise the said office of bishop so long as may be required of me by the Primate and his successors. So help me God. Amen.
Oath of Allegiance to Christ
I, [Roger/David/Amos/Nathan], confess before God and his church that I am not a member of any secret cult. I also vow that I will never join any secret cult; and I owe allegiance to no other but to the Lord Jesus Christ; and that my loyalty to him will always be absolute, total, and undivided. If I go back on this oath and vow, I put myself under the wrath of God, in the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Amen."
Much of what is sworn is expected. Still, there are some interesting variations on the ways in which obedience to the Church is specified.
Consider the form that the oath takes in the ordination of a bishop in the Episcopal Church, which is called variously a promise or a declaration:
"In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, I, N.N., chosen Bishop in the Church in N., solemnly declare that I do believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation; and I do solemnly engaged to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of The Episcopal Church." (pg.513, BCP)
This is the Declaration required by the Constitution of The Episcopal Church. (Article VIII) There are further promises and commitments made in the Examination (pgs 517-519, BCP), but the Declaration is the core oath, comparable to the oath of conformity required in the Church of England.
The Nigerian promise to use only "only the forms of service which are authorized or allowed by the canons" is in The Episcopal Church a promise that grows from the BCP itself (p. 13) and Title II of the Canons. The declaration of submission to Synod (and Canons) is parallel to the oath taken in the BCP declaration / oath of conformity. The oath of canonical obedience, to the Primate of the Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion) in all things lawful, is not required by bishops of The Episcopal Church to their Primate – rather that obedience is to the "doctrine, discipline, and worship" of the church. The implications of that oath of obedience is made clearer in the Nigerian oath of Submission, in which the bishop elect pledges to "submit to any sentence depriving me of any or all the rights and emoluments appertaining to the office of bishop, which may at any time be passed upon me after due examination by the Primate acting under the constitution of the Church of Nigeria. I agree to exercise the said office of bishop so long as may be required of me by the Primate and his successors." That means that the Primate can limit or extend the exercise of the office of bishop as his judgment and the canons require.
Bishops in the Church of Nigeria are by oath bound to obedience and submission specifically to the Primate of Nigeria in ways that bishops in The Episcopal Church are not to the Primate of this church. Still, every priest in The Episcopal Church takes the oath to "solemnly engaged to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of The Episcopal Church." This is not an oath to be taken lightly, since it is made in the name of the Trinity and in the presence of the assembled people of God.
The oath of conformity taken by these priests, or confirmed by other words if they were admitted to ministry in The Episcopal Church from another church, has been set aside by these persons now bishops in the Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion.) They have, in effect taken the last of the oaths of the Province of Nigeria as the basis of their renunciation of their oaths taken in The Episcopal Church: "I owe allegiance to no other but to the Lord Jesus Christ."
My sense is that the last of these oaths, the "Oath of Allegiance to Christ," is the true oath that binds us all beyond all canons, constitutions, personages, and institutions. It is both the basis for obedience and disobedience to the will of the church as it is represented by its own rules, doctrines, disciplines and officers. It leaves open the question as to when obedience to Christ requires disobedience to the Church. It also makes all previous oaths contingent on the extent to which the oath taker believes the actions required in particular circumstances are required because of allegiance to Christ.
The new bishops ought to realize, however, that they have indeed sworn that they will give up "any or all the rights and emoluments appertaining to the office of bishop" if required to do so by their Primate. If obedience to the Lord Jesus Christ requires actions that lead to contrary judgment by the Church of Nigeria, they have sworn to give up being bishops in fact. The costs for obedience can be high indeed. The fifth oath in conjunction with the previous four can require withdrawal from ordained ministry, for if one cannot stay with integrity then submission to the Primate and allegiance to the Lord Jesus Christ will mean giving up those things "appertaining to the office of bishop."
Now the question I have is this: If these men have stepped away from their oaths regarding the doctrine, discipline and worship, of The Episcopal Church in obedience to Jesus Christ, what makes the Primate of Nigeria believe that they will maintain their oaths of submission to the Primate of Nigeria or the canons of that church? Will they not, for claim of the higher submission to the Lord Jesus Christ, be just as capable of reneging on vows one through four in favor of the fifth?
Those who have forsaken their oaths to uphold the doctrine, discipline and worship of the Episcopal Church for the sake of their loyalty to Jesus Christ are honorable persons. I am not in a position to say that the four who were ordained on Saturday were acting out of such honorable motives. But that I cannot judge.
However, I am not sure that taking oaths to the Church of Nigeria is an improvement, for loyalty to Jesus Christ may mean in a fairly universal sense disloyalty to any person or institution, for all such loyalties fall short of the glory of the Lord. Put another way, If they don't like obedience to the doctrine, discipline and worship of the Episcopal Church and the oversight by the Presiding Bishop, easy yoke as that is, I am not sure they won't chafe under the weighty yoke of direct and complete submission to the Archbishop of all Nigeria.
And, if that question is wrongly phrased, perhaps a better question is this: What makes the promises made now to conform to the canons of Nigeria and the discipline of the Church of Nigeria, just made, any better than the promises to obey those of The Episcopal Church, just renounced?
I believe the Church of Nigeria is in for some surprises down the road. It is always difficult to know what to do with dissenters.