Thursday, April 27, 2006

A Tale of Two Bishops

There was a fascinating essay by Peter J. Boyer in the New Yorker for this week regarding the Present Unpleasantness in the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America. I was drawn to the essay like a rubbernecker to a traffic accident, principally because of my own past involvement with the PECUSA. Another important element in the essay, at least for me, was the attention paid therein to my old friend and mentor, the Right Reverend Bob Duncan, Episcopal Bishop of Pittsburgh. I haven't seen Fr. Bob in person for a long time, and it was rather dear to read the quotes from him in the essay--his personality jumped right off the page at me ("gracious sakes" he is quoted as saying at one point--I had forgotten his cornucopia of such quaint phrases).

I have written some emails to Fr. Bob over the years, but the last time I saw him in person was in May of 1984 when Peter James Lee was installed as the Bishop Coadjutor in the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia (Lee is now Bishop of the diocese). Fr. Bob took part in the Consecration that day, laying hands on the man with whom he had worked as a parish priest in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. I knew the two of them when they were at the Chapel of the Cross together, Fr. Bob as the University Chaplain, Peter Lee as the Rector of the parish. I was a member of the parish from 1980 until my conversion to Catholicism in 1983. By the time I converted, Fr. Bob had already left to become Rector of St. Thomas Parish in Newark, Delaware, but Peter Lee was still running the show at the Chapel of the Cross.

I worked closely with both of them--I was active in the Anglican Student Fellowship that Fr. Bob had set up, and I was also appointed by Peter Lee to serve as a kind of "secretary" to the Parish Vestry. During the 1982-83 academic year I worked particularly closely with Peter Lee because I was serving as an intern at St. Bartholomew's parish in Pittsboro. My plan was to become a postulant for the priesthood in the Episcopal church.

Looking back on those days fills me with a kind of nostalgia--though in some ways I see myself as having dodged a bullet by converting when I did. I cannot imagine what I would have done had I gone on to ordination in that denomination--one can only hope that one would have had the courage, fortitude, and intellectual integrity of a Fr. Alvin Kimel. Nostalgia is a word that we borrow, believe it or not, from the Homeric dialect. It is a combination of two Greek words: nostos, a homecoming, and algos, pain or distress. A painful homecoming: thinking of those days is much like going home, but I cannot help but feel distress when I ponder what has happened since--and what happened then. Fr. Bob and Peter Lee were very different in many ways: Southerner v. Yankee; High Church v. Broad Church; formal v. informal. But in one way they were alike: both men are very principled persons.

You can certainly see this in Fr. Bob these days--he led a group of 20 Bishops in a walkout from the 74th General Convention when the Consecration of Gene Robinson was affirmed. He now stands as a bulwark of orthodoxy within the American branch of the Anglican Communion, a light on the hilltop of the Anglican Communion Network, the group that has managed to preserve the doctrinal integrity of what was once the Episcopal Church. That group--the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America--has fallen into open heresy and ipso facto, cut itself off from Communion with other Christians of good will.

Heresy is a strong word, of course; some prefer to say PECUSA has merely entered into a schism. Peter Lee, famously, has said that he prefers heresy to schism, so perhaps the semantics here are not the main issue. Peter Boyle really hit the nail on the head in his essay when he noted that the PECUSA, lacking any kind of centralized teaching authority or disciplinary mechanism, cannot help but dissolve away in a sea of relativistic entropy as group after group decides, unilaterally, that their way of doing things is either the best way or, at the very least, a good enough way for them, regardless of whatever anyone else might have to say.

This, indeed, seems to be the prevalent attitude among the "progressives" mentioned in Boyle's essay. First, there is Robinson himself, who seems honest and decent enough as a person but for whom all truth appears to be grounded in his own subjective experience of things. For him, his homosexuality is a fact not about who he is but about what he is. Strangely, rather than offer up this fact about himself in a selfless act of kenosis by adopting a celibate lifestyle, he chose instead to just act on his impulses as though there were no reason or motivation to investigate whether each and every physical or emotional impulse is something that we ought to live our lives in accordance with. Similarly with John Spong, arguably the most visible and risible heretic in the Anglican fold (if he is really in that, or any, Christian fold), who is quoted as saying about the doctrine of Atonement that it is "a barbarian idea, based on primitive concepts of God". One can only imagine the arrogance of someone who would say such a thing out loud, let alone think it about those whom he professes to love with Christian charity.

Peter Lee's committment to principle is, I think, every bit as strong as Fr. Bob's, but it manifests itself in curiously different ways. When I was working with Peter at the Chapel of the Cross just before my conversion in 1983, a friend of mine asked me to approach him about the possibility of letting her group address members of the parish. Her group was an anti-abortion pregnancy support group with which Janet Smith was once affiliated. My friend came to me because Peter had apparently turned her down when she asked him directly for permission to talk to members of the parish. I asked him about it, and I was astonished at his reasoning. He had, he said, once paid for an abortion for a 13 year old African American girl, and he did not want anyone coming into the parish trying to persuade folks that abortion is morally wrong. He averred as how it "tore [him] up inside" to pay for that abortion, but apparently it did not tear him up quite enough to keep him from doing it. His committment was to a very different sort of principle than I was comfortable with--his principle was one of convenience, in a way, doing whatever needs to be done to keep things flowing smoothly for everyone on an even keel. I have no idea whether that girl is happy now that her abortion was paid for then, but I presume that Peter Lee thought that what he did was for the best, in the long run. One has to hope that it is such committment to principle that motivates him to prefer heresy to schism--better to make a doctrinal mistake than to sin against charity. Granted that a sin against charity is a very grave matter indeed, but the facile slogan ignores the possibility that some heresies are in themselves also sins against charity. John Spong, for example, in condemning those who view matters differently from himself in such strong and condescending terms not only commits grave doctrinal errors, but he also sins against charity in doing so. He is both a schismatic and a heretic, and that, surely, is not a very good place to be. This seems to me, as an outside observer, to be an attitue that is widely shared among the defenders of Gene Robinson, who see themselves as somehow more enlightened than the rest of the Anglican Communion. I was particularly distressed by Boyle's description of the way in which the African Bishops were treated at past Conventions. Now that the African delegates to the Convention represent the growing majority of worldwide Anglicanism, one hopes that their voices will be granted greater respect.

Fr. Bob, by contrast, commits neither a doctrinal error by standing up (literally) for the truth, nor does he sin against charity by reminding his brothers and sisters of what the truth is. Far from being a sin against charity the work of fraternal correction is rather a spiritual work of mercy. This is the sort of committment to principle that can bear only good fruit in the long run, whatever unpleasant fruit it may appear to bear in the short run. Sometimes we must undertake something unpleasant in order to serve the common good, as Plato so eloquently argued in such dialogues as Gorgias and Republic. It is no different, really, from taking an unpleasant medicine or undergoing a painful medical procedure in order to make oneself healthier, the only difference being that we are discussing the spiritual rather than the physical domain.


Mike L said...


I've alerted Al Kimel to this. Duncan was Al's bishop before the latter poped.


Unknown said...

It's funny, my path to the Catholic Church was pretty similar to yours. I also planned to become a postulant for the priesthood in the Episcopal church.

I've met Bishop Duncan and he is a great guy. I was attending Trinity Cathedral before I decided to convert.

David B. said...

This is an excellent analysis and really deserves to be picked up by some of the Episcopal news blogs!

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