Episcopal Church deposes bishop of Pittsburgh

Published September 22, 2008

Robert Duncan, bishop of the Episcopal diocese of Pittsburgh, at the 2008 Lambeth Conference in Canterbury, England.

After nearly two days of prayerful and solemn closed-door sessions, the U.S. house of bishops on September 18 voted by a two to one majority to depose Bishop Robert Duncan of Pittsburgh.

The vote authorizes Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori to remove Bishop Duncan from ordained ministry.

The vote total was 88 to 35 in favour of deposing Duncan, according to Episcopal Church spokeswoman Neva Rae Fox. There were four abstentions.

“The House of Bishops worked carefully and prayerfully to consider the weighty matter of Bishop Duncan. The conversation was holy, acknowledging the pain of our deliberations as well as the gratitude many have felt over the years for their relationships with, and the ministry of, Robert Duncan,” Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori said in a statement after the meeting. “The House concluded, however, that his actions over recent months and years constitute ‘abandonment of the communion of this church’ and that he should be deposed. Concern was expressed for the people of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh in the face of leadership which has sought to remove itself from the Episcopal Church.

“In the days and months ahead, this church will work to ensure appropriate pastoral care and provision for the members of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, so that mission and ministry in that part of Pennsylvania may continue in the name of Jesus Christ and in the tradition of the Episcopal Church,” she added.

Bishop Duncan did not return telephone calls seeking comment. A statement on the diocesan Web site said the “purported deposition…will not change the agenda for the Oct. 4 diocesan convention or change Bishop Duncan’s status as bishop in good standing within the Anglican Communion.

“The action of the house of bishops, which was taken in a closed meeting…contravenes numerous canons of the Episcopal Church,” the statement said.

Bishop Jon Bruno of Los Angeles in a statement said the vote was not a referendum on Duncan’s beliefs, but a direct result of his attempts to “lead large numbers of people out of his diocese” and into affiliation with the Anglican Province of the Southern Cone (of South America) even after Bishop Jefferts Schori and Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams called for an end to such actions.
He noted that a Title IV Review Committee certified in 2007 that Bishop Duncan has abandoned communion of the Episcopal Church, defined by the canons as “…an open renunciation of the Doctrine, Discipline, or Worship of this Church…” (Title IV,(10),( 1).
Bishop Duncan characterized the deposition as unlawful but added that he will not challenge it prior to the end of the diocese’s October 4 convention unless “forced to do so by the leadership of the Episcopal Church,” according to the statement on the Diocese of Pittsburgh’s Web site.

Pittsburgh convention delegates will be asked to consider the second reading of a constitutional change that would realign the diocese with the Southern Cone. “With the passage of that constitutional change, the diocese will be free to welcome Bishop Duncan back as its bishop,” according to the statement. “In the meantime, under the diocese’s governing documents, the standing committee will serve as the diocese’s ecclesiastical authority.”

“This is of course a very painful moment for Pittsburgh Episcopalians. The leadership of the Episcopal Church has inserted itself in a most violent manner into the affairs and governance of our diocese. While we await the decision of the diocesan convention on realignment … we will stand firm against any further attempts by those outside our boundaries to intimidate us,” said Rev. David Wilson, president of the Standing Committee.

Rev. Jim Simons, also a standing committee member, said in an interview he opposes the realignment and chairs a group known as the Across the Aisle Steering Committee (AASC), so named because of a diversity of membership, both conservative and progressive, who reached across the aisle to one another because of their commitment to remaining with the Episcopal Church.

Mr. Simons said he was surprised and saddened by Thursday’s vote. “I thought it would be much closer,” said Simons, who is also rector of St. Michael’s of the Valley, Ligonier, Pa. “I’d have thought there’d be more bishops who would have waited until our convention vote to make this decision.”

He said he expects that some members of the diocese will regard the action as premature, even “heavy-handed and they are going to say they cannot stay in a church which acts this way.”

Rich Creehan, a media advisor to the AASC, said Bishop Duncan and his family remain in the prayers of the entire diocese. “We have known him, worked with him, been led by him, and in the case of some clergy, ordained by him. He has been our bishop and we have labored together in ministry and mission, although of late, we arrived at differing visions of the wisest way forward for the diocese.”

He estimated that as many as 30 of the diocese’s 66 recognized congregations will remain with the Episcopal Church. About 325 people attended a recent gathering to show support for the church, he added in an interview.
“There are a lot of anxious feelings about where we’ll be after convention, but we’re sticking with the image of a big tent, in which everybody will be welcome,”

(Rev. Pat McCaughan is Episcopal Life Media correspondent for the dioceses of Province VIII and the House of Bishops. She is based in Los Angeles.)


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