Communion Partner bishops jump the shark

The Communion Partner bishops defended their most recent undertaking yesterday in a story released by Episcopal Life Online.

Their comments brought this video to mind.

The bishops assert that their statement, in which they claim diocesan autonomy, is a response to ecclesiastical confusion, but it is better understood as an attempt to create ecclesiastical confusion by raising questions about the authority of General Convention to govern the Church. Fortunately, they have not achieved their aims. No serious student of the Church’s canons, constitution or history has endorsed this poorly camouflaged power grab.

Perhaps this is because the grabbers in question, particularly Bishop John Howe of Central Florida, have been involved in previous grabs.

Or perhaps it is because the Anglican Communion Institute, which does the heavy intellectual lifting for these bishops, is an organization with a tortuous and sometimes inadvertently amusing past. The ACI’s three members, Ephraim Radner, Christopher Seitz and Philip Turner are respected scholars, but as ecclesial politicians, they have their limits.

Two years ago, the group’s executive director the Rev. Don Armstrong, was brought up on charges of misappropriating funds–an offense of which he was eventually found guilty, but not before he joined the North American arm of the Anglican Church of Nigeria, which, of course, exonerated him of all charges. He is now under investigation by civil authorities in Colorado.

The diocesan charges against Armstrong were filed upon his return from a retreat at which he helped the so-called “Windsor Bishops,” many of whom are now members of the Communion Partners, formulate their first plan to create a Church within a Church, this one governed by a self-selecting college of bishops. That they had been aided in their discernment by a man whose bishop suspended him from ministry apparently troubled the bishops not at all. The ACI was inconvenienced however, by the fact that Armstrong controlled its communications. Thus the three remaining members of the group had to disassociate themselves from their own Web site.

Having put together a new site, the ACI featured an essay on human sexuality by a woman who identified herself as Dr. Jacqueline Jenkins Keenan. Sarah Dylan Breuer read the article and wondered about the background of the author. She wrote:

Let’s see — she’s a “Dr.” writing on human sexuality, and her article seems to suggest that she would have been a better choice for the committee selected to write To Set Our Hope on Christ than were the theologians and pastors who served.

Is she an M.D.? No.

Does she have a Ph.D. in psychology? Is she a research scientist in neuroscience or some other field that includes studies of human sexuality? No.

Is she a Ph.D. at all? No.

Dr. Jacqueline Jenkins Keenan is a veterinarian.

“She has been reading and studying human and animal medical literature for 27 years,” her byline says to justify her speaking as an expert in medical science about human sexuality. I’ve been reading novels for more than 27 years, but that doesn’t make me Dostoevsky…

It is perhaps, unsurprising that this group would latch on to a lawyer with no discernable expertise in church history or canon law to help draft its declaration of diocesan autonomy, and that it should inadvertently add an email address to a discussion of their statement, thus putting the emails into wider circulation, and revealing the group’s plans to use the proposed Anglican Covenant to pry parishes out from under the authority of their diocesan bishops.

For more than three years, the Episcopal Church has watched the Windsor Bishops warily, wondering what their motives were. Their influence and that of the ACI was evident in the proposed Dar es Salaam settlement, which lauded the “Camp Allen Principles” that the bishops had worked out with Don Armstrong and would have accorded them special authority had it not been shot down by their episcopal colleagues. Radner was a member of the group that drafted the proposed Anglican Covenant. Bishop Gary Lilibridge of Southwest Texas was a member of the Windsor Continuation Group, which endorsed a moratorium on the blessing of same-sex relationships and the consecration of openly gay bishops. (He did not sign the ACI’s most recent statement, but according to the emails, he read it and offered suggestions.) Yet, for all the respect accorded the ACI and its partner bishops, they frequently behave like the gang that couldn’t shoot straight.

Lambeth Palace apparently finds the fiction that a critical mass of non-schismatic conservatives are willing to act as a bulwark against the Episcopal Church’s faltering efforts to recognize and respect the dignity of gay and lesbian Christians too useful to abandon. We can expect the ACI and its allies to continue to populate important committees within the Anglican Communion. But we can also count on them to undermine their own best efforts. There is an ongoing tension when one is informed of their activities: to fret or to laugh.

In this instance, the call is easy. So as you make your way through the lengthy, lugubrious statement that these folks have recently produced, think not of highly-placed ecclesial operators planning their next initiative. Think instead of Fonzie on water skis. With their declaration of diocesan autonomy, the ACI and the Communion Partners have definitely jumped the shark.

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