Caring for all the Churches:
A response of the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church to an expressed need of the Church, March 2004
The church is the Body of Christ. Our life in this Body is a continuing action of God’s grace among us, by whose power alone we are “joined together” in Christ and grow “into a holy temple in the Lord” (Eph. 2:21). Through the church's common life in Christ, God intends to signify to the world the beginning of a new and reconciled creation.
We know the unity with God that Christ has won for humanity, he won through the victory of his passion. We are mindful of the suffering of Jesus who, on the Cross and through his resurrection, reaches into every corner of alienated human life, reconciling and restoring to the household of God all who come to him in faith. By God's grace the church is continually called, in repentance and hope, to be a trustworthy sign to the world of this costly reconciling power of God. We understand that, in obedience to Christ and putting our whole trust in him, we may share in his unity with the Father through the Holy Spirit. Communion in the Trinity is the salvation of the world. The church, thus, exists for the sake of the world. Therefore, for the sake of the world, we have been called “to serve before God day and night in the ministry of reconciliation”, (BCP, p.521) which is to be carried out “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (Eph. 4:2-3)
We as bishops are not of a common mind about issues concerning human sexuality. Different points of view on these matters also exist within our dioceses and congregations. In some instances there are significant differences between congregation(s) and the bishop and few of our congregations are themselves of one mind. As we exercise pastoral leadership in our dioceses, we pledge ourselves to work always towards the fullest relationship, seeking, as the Archbishop of Canterbury has said, “the highest degree of communion.” We are grateful for his leadership and share the pastoral concerns expressed by the Primates of the Anglican Communion in their statement of October 2003, “for those who in all conscience feel bound to dissent from the teaching and practice of their province in such matters.” We have committed ourselves to living through this time of disagreement in love and charity and with sensitivity to the pastoral needs of all members of our church.
In the circumstance of disagreement regarding the actions of the 74th General Convention on issues of human sexuality, we commit ourselves to providing and to making provision for pastoral care for dissenting congregations, and we recognize that there may be a need for a bishop to delegate some pastoral oversight. 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.” We are aware of current examples of the delegation of pastoral oversight in the gracious accommodations which have occurred in some dioceses.
As we together commit to a process for Delegated Episcopal Pastoral Oversight, we also recognize the constitutional and canonical authority of bishops and the integrity of diocesan boundaries. We are in accord with the statement of the primates: “Whilst we affirm the teaching of successive Lambeth Conferences that bishops must respect the autonomy and territorial integrity of dioceses and provinces other than their own, we call on the provinces concerned to make adequate provision for episcopal oversight of dissenting minorities within their own area of pastoral care in consultation with the Archbishop of Canterbury on behalf of the Primates.”
Sensitive pastoral care does not presuppose like-mindedness. Bishops and congregations have frequently disagreed about particular articulations and interpretations of scripture and the Creeds while being able to transcend their differences through common prayer and celebration of the sacraments of the new covenant. The notion that the bishop's views must be in accord with those of a particular rector or congregation for the bishop to be received as chief pastor opens the way to undermining the bishop's pastoral ministry, which must embrace all and “support all baptized people in their gifts and ministries.” Our theology and practice hold that ordination and consecration provide the gifts and grace necessary for the sacramental acts of a bishop to be effectual. (See article XXVI of the Articles of Religion: Of the Unworthiness of the Ministers, which hinders not the effect of the Sacraments.)
As bishops we share a ministry of episcopé as stewards of the mystery of faith that none of us possesses alone. We believe it is our particular charge to nourish, guard and represent in the church this “unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” We understand this to be for the sake of the world and in fidelity to our Lord who gave his life to restore all to unity with God. We recognize and repent of our failures of charity towards one another in this shared ministry of episcope´, and we pledge ourselves to a sacrificial ministry with one another, valuing in each the presence of the Crucified and Risen Christ. While our unity may be strained, we continue to strive for godly union and concord. Our task requires humility, charity, mutual respect and a willingness to make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
In March of 2002 the House of Bishops adopted the following covenant:
“We believe that the present Constitution and Canons of The Episcopal Church are sufficient for dealing with questions of episcopal oversight, supplemental episcopal pastoral care, and disputes that may arise between the bishop and a congregation. We encourage that their provisions be used wisely and in the spirit of charity.”
“The provision of supplemental episcopal pastoral care shall be under the direction of the bishop of the diocese, who shall invite the visitor and remain in pastoral contact with the congregation. This is to be understood as a temporary arrangement, the ultimate goal of which is the full restoration of the relationship between the congregation and their bishop.”
Expanding on this previous agreement, and working always towards “the highest degree of communion,” we offer the following recommendations in order to provide Delegated Episcopal Pastoral Oversight. We expect that the first priority in a relationship between a diocesan bishop and congregation is a striving for unity. As such, it is incumbent upon both the bishop and the rector/congregation to meet together, with a consultant, if needed, to find ways to work together. If for serious cause in the light of our current disagreements on issues of human sexuality, the bishop and rector/congregation cannot work together, we propose the following process for Delegated Episcopal Pastoral Oversight.
The provincial bishop shall periodically inform the Presiding Bishop, the Presiding Bishop's Council of Advice, and the House of Bishops at its regular meetings of the progress and results of this process.
As bishops of this church, we pledge ourselves to pray and work for patience and the generosity of spirit that can enable a pastoral resolution as we live with our differences. As well, we will strive for Godly union and concord as together we seek to be led by the Spirit of truth who, as Jesus tells us, “will guide us into all the truth.” (John 16:13)
The House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church
23 March 2004