Conservatives balk at ‘vicar’ proposal

By on January 1, 2007

The Episcopal Church’s presiding bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, and a group of bishops announced in early December a proposal that would result in the appointment of a “primatial vicar” for those dioceses that feel they cannot accept her leadership.

Several of the church’s 110 dioceses refuse to ordain women, while others disagree with Bishop Jefferts Schori’s more-liberal attitudes toward homosexuality. In November, eight conservative dioceses asked the Archbishop of Canterbury to appoint a “commissary,” or representative, to lead them.

Under the U.S. proposal, the presiding bishop, in consultation with the Archbishop of Canterbury, would appoint a bishop as primatial vicar to serve as her designated pastor. The primatial vicar could preside at consecrations of bishops, would be accountable to the presiding bishop and would report to an advisory panel.

This would not affect the administrative or other canonical duties of the presiding bishop except to the degree that the presiding bishop may delegate, when appropriate, some of those duties to the primatial vicar.

The arrangement would be provisional, in effect for three years beginning Jan. 1, 2007. During that time, the presiding bishop would monitor its efficacy and consult with the house of bishops and executive council regarding the arrangement.

After Bishop Jefferts Schori was elected at the Episcopal Church’s General Convention last June, the dissenting dioceses asked the Archbishop of Canterbury for “alternative primatial oversight.” In response, Archbishop Rowan Williams proposed that a number of bishops from the Episcopal Church meet to explore a way forward. A first meeting took place in September and a second meeting in November developed the proposal, which has been submitted to Archbishop Williams and the petitioning dioceses. Several conservative bishops who attended the September meeting did not attend the November gathering.

The Archbishop of Canterbury said he would look at the proposal: “The meeting in New York … has produced some imaginative proposals which represent, potentially, a very significant development. I am glad to see these positive suggestions and shall be giving them careful consideration. I hope that they will mark a step forward in the long and difficult process of working out future relationships within the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion in a manner faithful to the Gospel requirements of forebearance and generosity.”

Rev. Susan Russell, president of Integrity, a gay support group, commended the proposal as “protecting the polity of the Episcopal Church while offering a pastoral response to those who hold a minority theological opinion.”

Bishop Robert Duncan of Pittsburgh, leader of a network of dissenting dioceses, said the proposal appears to be inadequate. “We are heartened that the national leadership of the Episcopal Church has realized the time has come for structural change. We will study this proposal,” he said. “However, at first glance what is proposed is neither primatial, nor oversight … This is obviously not what was asked for.”

Bishop Duncan said he was committed to finding a mediated solution to the crisis. “We really do want to talk about all the issues. We want to protect everyone who is unable to travel down the path the majority of the Episcopal Church has clearly chosen,” he said.

Bishop Peter James Lee of Virginia, co-convenor of the meetings that drafted the response said, “It is intended to provide some space for dioceses and congregations that feel they need it while the Anglican Communion sorts out more lasting measures to deal with differences. Those of us who drafted it hope it will be received and used in good faith.”

In other news, the California diocese of San Joaquin, based in Fresno,  on Dec. 2 voted at its synod to remove references to the “Episcopal Church” from its constitution and affirm that it is affiliated with the Anglican Communion. The conservative diocese does not ordain women and objected to the church’s confirmation of a gay bishop in New Hampshire.    

With files from Episcopal News Service.

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