Faith groups, particularly those with a democratic organization structure, often have difficulty implementing major policy changes -- especially those involving moral questions. Such groups lack a single leader who can define "truth" for the entire denomination. The individual members and the clergy have the responsibility of effecting change. Unfortunately they will inevitably hold a range of opinions. It can take many decades for the denomination to reach a near consensus. Over the past 15 decades, this happened in the Anglican Communion with such important conflicts as the abolition of slavery, the morality of couples using contraceptives for family planning, the ordination of women, the consecration of women as bishops, etc.
As each topic achieves a high profile, it becomes obvious that:
Feelings can run so high that serious talk of schism surfaces. The Episcopal church is currently divided over the ordination of non-celibate homosexuals. Two additional potential conflicts have the potential of intensifying in the near future: establishing church rituals to recognize same-sex relationships, and performing a marriage ceremony for same-sex couples. Some Episcopalians feel that they cannot remain part of a diocese which ordains sexually-active homosexuals. Some even want to distance themselves from a bishop who favors such ordinations.
In 2004-MAR, the Episcopal Church, USA developed a "Delegated Episcopal Pastoral Oversight," (DEPO) procedure. It allows parishes that refuse to accept the consecration of Bishop V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire to receive pastoral oversight from another bishop, "who neither supported the election [of Robinson] nor supports the ordination of homosexuals to ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church."
The procedure stresses that all are to understand that this oversight is to be a temporary arrangement. All parishes are expected to return under the full authority of their diocesan bishop. This may not be readily achievable. In many conservative parishes, public opinion is overwhelmingly opposed to granting equal rights to sexually-active gays, lesbians and bisexuals. Those beliefs may continue unchanged for decades. Female ordination may be one indicator of the slowness of change within the Episcopal Church USA. The Church formally changed its canon laws to allow women priests in 1976. Yet, bishops in some dioceses still refuse to ordain women.
As of 2004-JUL, one parish in Newark, NJ, has been granted delegated oversight. Six churches in Massachusetts -- Christ Church in Watertown, St. John's Church in Bristol, St. Paul's Church in Darien, Trinity Church in Bristol, Christ & The Epiphany Church in East Haven, and Bishop of Seabury Church in Groton -- are considering requesting oversight. 2
"Delegated Episcopal Pastoral Oversight," (DEPO)
Starting on 2004-MAR-19, bishops of the Episcopal Church attended an intense two-day retreat at Camp Allen, TX, for a period of intensive conversation and prayer. They developed a statement titled "Caring For All the churches: A Response of the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church to an expressed need of the Church." The specific need referred to is an option for individual parishes which "...find themselves in distress because of the actions of the 74th General Convention." That Convention approved the consecration of Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, in 2003-AUG. He is a gay man involved in a loving, committed relationship with another man. Some parishes find it difficult or impossible to remain under the leadership of one of the majority of bishops who voted to affirm Robinson's consecration. 3
The Oversight procedure starts with a meeting between a congregation and their bishop "...with a consultant, if needed, to find ways to work together." If reconciliation cannot be achieved, then the leadership of the congregation "...may seek from their diocesan bishop...a conference regarding the appropriateness and conditions for Delegated Episcopal Pastoral Oversight." Alternatively, this step can be suggested by the bishop. "...the bishop may appoint another bishop to provide pastoral oversight" for the congregation. If conflict continues, "there may then be an appeal to the bishop who is president or vice-president of the ECUSA province in which the congregation is geographically located, for help in seeking a resolution." Oversight plans are aimed at reconciliation and "for a stated period of time with regular reviews" and reports to the Presiding Bishop, the Council of Advice and the House of Bishops. 2
The document stresses that the term "Oversight means the episcopal acts performed as part of a diocesan bishop’s ministry either by the diocesan bishop or by another bishop to whom such responsibility has been delegated by the diocesan bishop. In other Anglican Provinces, the term 'pastoral oversight' signifies what we mean by 'pastoral care.' In our Episcopal Church polity, 'oversight' does not confer 'jurisdiction'." 4
Positive response to the Oversight document:
Presiding Bishop Frank T. Griswald issued a statement which praised the bishops for their work. He wrote:
Bishop Charles Jenkins of Louisiana, president of the Presiding Bishops Council of Advice, said:
Bishop Mark Sisk of New York, chairperson of the planning committee of the House of Bishops, said:
Negative response to the Oversight document:
A radical departure:
The oversight procedure implements a radical departure from church tradition. The worldwide Anglican Communion has established 38 national churches or "provinces" in the world, such as the Episcopal Church in the US, the Anglican Church in Canada, the Church of England in England, the Scottish Episcopal Church in Scotland. Each province has wide powers of self-government. Each church subdivides its territory into many dioceses and selects a bishop to lead all of the parishes in her/his diocese. In the document "Caring For All The Churches" the bishops affirm "....the teaching of successive Lambeth Conferences that bishops must respect the autonomy and territorial integrity of dioceses and provinces other than their own." 1 Having one or more parishes under the oversight of a visiting bishop who is not the diocesan bishop is a very unusual circumstance.
A possible implementation of the procedure:
The Bishop and the Standing Committee of the Diocese of Central Pennsylvania has issued a statement describing how the oversight process might be implemented in their Diocese:
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