Thursday, July 21, 2005

On the authority of bishops

Some items to chew on.

Hartford Advocate:

This is an authority issue, and I think the Connecticut six are simply in error. What these priests believe as individuals is, quite honestly, irrelevant with regards to their duty in obedience to the bishop. Moreover, the churches that they preach in do not belong to them nor do they belong to the parishioners -- the churches and the property are governed by the diocese, which is presided over by the bishop. If these six clerics want to make a principled stand, they are free to do so as people, maybe even as priests, but they aren't free to run their churches as free-agents, deciding unilaterally what the line of authority is, who they're going to listen to and who they aren't going to listen to, as though it was up to them to decide what is out-of-line, and what isn't.
The Living Church:
In the fractiousness resulting from the General Convention’s approval of the consecration of the Bishop Coadjutor of New Hampshire, all sorts of assaults have been made on the office and authority of some of our bishops, including that of the Presiding Bishop. Clergy and laity ignore bishops and/or are disrespectful; their directives are disregarded; clergy who disagree with their bishop’s stands on the issues openly defy their authority; and other bishops, especially retired conservative bishops, openly defy canon law and cross diocesan lines to exercise the episcopal office in places where they have no jurisdiction, and they do this with impunity. Diocesan clergy who disagree withdraw completely from all diocesan activity and gatherings with other clergy and form alliances with like-minded clergy and bishops from other jurisdictions, yet remain in good standing in their own dioceses.

Episcopal bishops need to regain their rightful authority. That authority is primarily spiritual and moral, but having that character is real authority. Of course, there is disciplinary authority as well and it needs to be used wisely, fairly, and firmly. When “everything is permitted,” there is nihilistic anarchy and no one benefits.
. . .
Some cynics see bishops primarily as “confirming machines” and only necessary as those who confirm and ordain, and consecrate others like themselves. Others see them primarily as administrators and ecclesiastical bureaucrats.

What is the authority of Episcopal bishops? They cannot assign clergy; seminarians and clergy are expected to get their own jobs. In this instance, our bishops do not even have the authority of United Methodist district superintendents. Bishops consult on parish calls but have a limited window to object to a specific call, after which, if they cannot confidently show that there is some moral or legal defect in the one proposed, they must allow the call to go forward.

They are supposed to be notified and consulted when there is a vacancy in a parish, but some larger parishes go off on their own, make their own arrangements, and simply announce to the bishop a fait accompli. The bishop may object, but these objections are ignored with impunity. Thereby the health and future of large, influential parishes are put in jeopardy. We have effectively emerging congregationalism and it does not contribute to the health of our Church.

Are bishops among the most knowledgeable, best educated, and thoughtful clergy of a diocese or indeed of the Church? Often not. Some even boast about not being scholarly. It is a rarity for an Episcopal bishop to be recognized as a theologian, a biblical scholar, or as a prominent ethicist, not to mention as a historian. There are, of course, notable exceptions.

Bishops ordain persons to the ministry, but more often than not surrender the selection of these persons to commissions on ministry, who are supposed to be only advisory to the bishop. The Church had strong clergy when the bishops personally selected the candidates and left examination of competency in the required areas of study to Boards of Examining Chaplains. That critical task has been surrendered to the General Ordination Examinations, which have never been sufficiently revelatory of competence in specific and necessary disciplines. The results are disastrous.

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