Friday, July 22, 2005

Bishop Smith's Inhibition

The Episcopal dust-up between Bishop Andrew Smith and half a dozen Connecticut pastors, better known as the “Connecticut Six,” is but the tip of a volcano; the eruption is portentous because it points to a profound and long lasting split in the world-wide Anglican Church over the issue of gay pastors and, in this case, gay Bishop V. Gene Robinson, recently installed in New Hampshire.

The fissure in the Anglican Church began at the moment of Robinson’s consecration, the battle lines at that point forming around theological issues. Robinson’s installation was the tap of the jeweler’s hammer that split the Anglican diamond, some scholars now predict, into two world-wide provinces: a conservative contingent that opposes admission of gays to the clergy on doctrinal grounds, and a liberal contingent that favors such admissions and an allegorical reading of sacred texts.

Having threatened to depose the Connecticut Six, Bishop Smith now has “inhibited” – Episcopal-speak for “fired” – the Rev. Mark Hansen of St John’s Church in Bristol.

A description by senior warden of the church Mr. Rick Gonneville of the bishop’s raid on St. John’s reads like a fourth century account of the incursion of Attila the Hun, “the scourge of God,” into a small Gallic town in northern France.

Hansen is one of the notorious “Connecticut Six” now in dispute with Smith, who supported the installation of Robinson. The six dissenters, they and others insist, are in doctrinal communion with the the wold-wide Anglican faith and the Episcopal faith in the United States prior to Robinson installation.

Smith, Mr. Gonneville said in an interview, “told me he had inhibited Mark and said the Rev. Susan McCone was taking over as priest in charge. I told him that I was not accepting that. He said it didn’t matter whether I accepted it or not; Mark was now inhibited and this individual was now in charge. He then asked me to open Mark’s office. I told him that was his personal office and I did not have the keys. They (the bishop and his retinue of twelve assistants) called in a locksmith company and proceeded to pry open the door. When they had done that, they changed all the locks on the church doors. In a sense we have all been inhibited. We have been locked out of the church including the parishioners. No one can get into the church without the key held by the bishop and his priest in charge.”

The bishop and his retinue hacked into St. John’s computers and retrieved financial information, apparently to support Smith’s view that Hansen had “abandoned communion with his church” by being in arrears in payment to the diocese and taking an unauthorized sabbatical.

The support group for the Connecticut Six insist that Smith’s action against Hansen under Title IV, Cannon 10 for “abandonment of communion” is “wholly and patently a misuse of that canon. It is clearly inapplicable where, as here, the priest being charged has resolutely maintained his commitment to the theology and structure of the Communion. It is Bishop Smith, not Fr. Hansen, who has stepped outside the normative teachings of the Anglican Communion by participating in the consecration of the Bishop of New Hampshire, his ordination of active same-sex partnered clergy and his teachings consistent with these actions. It is Bishop Smith, not Fr. Hansen, who has aided and abetted these theological innovations that threaten our Episcopal Church's very claim to be Anglican.”

Since the sanction Smith has applied against Hansen is one used ordinarily for canonical offenses, Smith has undercut his case by insisting that he is not discharging Hansen on a point of theology; according to Smith, it’s all about money and clerical defiance.

Hansen is in arrears in payments for a diocesan loan, and he has taken an unauthorized sabbatical.

“The bishop is fully aware,” Hansen said, “that family circumstances necessitated a sabbatical leave. I have informed him of the fact that our son has needs requiring a variety of specialized support services. The needs are real, and the services are expensive. In inhibiting me, the bishop has knowingly and willfully endangered my family’s well-being and security. If the bishop had issues with my contractual arrangements with the congregation, surely his concerns could have been expressed through pastoral rather than canonical actions, particularly in light of his knowledge of my specific circumstances.”

The last time a bishop in Connecticut sought to remove a priest from his parish for insufficient reasons, the bishop was flayed alive by the media. The hapless bishop now finds himself fending off a legal suit. It had been hotly asserted in numerous stories and editorials that the bishop had used a charge of financial mismanagement as a cover for ridding himself of a pestiferous priest. Since the bishop was a Catholic and the priest an African, it was also suggested that the bishop may have been racially motivated. One editorial suggested that the sex scandal in the Catholic Church had considerably reduced the trust quotient of the laity towards its bishops.

Yet here is a case, emblematic of a split in the world-wide Anglican Church, in which a bishop may have discharged a priest on the same false pretense and, in addition, has threatened to discharge five other priests.

And the silence surrounding these events is deafening.

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