A STATEMENT TO THE HOUSE OF BISHOPS OF THE EPISCOPAL CHURCH
NEW ORLEANS, 25 SEPTEMBER 2007
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
Please let me begin by thanking you for your gracious hospitality to me during the time I have been privileged to belong to this House. I appreciate your careful and deliberate efforts to embrace the practical values of Christian community. At no point have I thought to myself, “I don’t want to be in communion with these people.” Quite the opposite: I have deeply valued these relationships and sincerely hoped that they might model a way of remaining in communion for all the Church.
But communion, Christian communion, is more than human relationships, as essential as these are. My conscience is deeply troubled, because I sense that the obligations of my ministry in the Episcopal Church may lead me to a place apart from Scripture and Tradition. I am concerned that if I do not listen to and act in accordance with conscience now, it will become harder and harder to hear God’s voice. Already I have sought out our Presiding Bishop for her counsel and prayers, and now I come before you, asking that you give me the necessary canonical permission to resign as ordinary of my diocese. I should like to do this by the end of this year, and afterwards, in proper order, to be released from my ordination vows in the Episcopal Church.
I want to emphasize my gratitude for the gift of ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church and for the many blessings received along the way. Especially am I thankful for the people of my diocese and the high honor of serving them both as canon to the ordinary and bishop. It is indeed painful to lay down this ministry, but I realize that an effective leader cannot be so conflicted about the guiding principles of the Church one serves. I hope my decision will encourage others who believe they can no longer remain in the Episcopal Church, to respect its laws and to withdraw as courteously as possible for the sake of the Christian witness.
Our spring meeting this year at Camp Allen was a profoundly disturbing experience for me. I was more than a little surprised when such a substantial majority declared the polity of the Episcopal Church to be primarily that of an autonomous and independent local church relating to the wider Anglican Communion by voluntary association. This is not the Anglicanism in which I was formed, inspired by the Oxford movement and the Catholic Revival in the Church of England. Perhaps something was defective in my education for ministry in the Episcopal Church, but, honestly, I did not recognize the church that this House described on that occasion.
This sent me to reflect further on that crucial text from Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium: “Many elements of sanctification and of truth can be found outside the Church’s visible structure. These elements, however, as gifts properly belonging to the Church of Christ, possess an inner dynamic toward Catholic unity.” If this is true, then what we say and do as Anglicans ought to be directed toward the goal of reunification with the Catholic Church. The Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission strove valiantly to bring this about, and it once seemed that Anglicanism might offer itself, even sacrificially, for the sake of authentic Christian unity. It is much to be regretted that its 1998 report, “The Gift of Authority,” has been largely forgotten in our present conflicts, especially its call for the re-reception of the historic ministry of Peter within Anglican life.
In light of this, I have tried to understand the choices that are now before us:
It seems to me that the Episcopal Church has made a decisive turn away from those extraordinary efforts to preserve the Communion, such as Archbishop Rowan’s proposal last summer in “The Challenge and Hope of Being an Anglican Today.” It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Episcopal Church has rejected the discipline of communion but wants it only on its own terms.
Others in the Anglican Communion have taken it upon themselves to establish a separate provincial structure to challenge the Episcopal Church, some even arguing for a re-formed Anglicanism without reference to the See of Canterbury.
The Windsor Report calls for a future Anglicanism governed by strengthened instruments of communion and a covenant, but the strong medicine of primacy, so necessary to Catholic order, is missing from its prescriptions.
In none of these choices do I find that “inner dynamic toward Catholic unity.” It doesn’t appear that one can get there from where we are now, at least not corporately, considering Anglicanism’s present configurations.
From time to time it seems necessary for some to embark on these personal journeys as a reminder that the churches of the Reformation were not intended to carry on indefinitely separated from their historical and theological mooring in the Church of Rome. I believe that the Lord now calls me in this direction. It amazes me, after all of these years, what a radical journey of faith this must necessarily be. To some it seems foolish; to others disloyal; to others an abandonment. I once thought that it would be a simple matter of considering the theological evidence and then drawing a rational conclusion that surely would be self-evident to reasonable people. But faith is also a mystery and a gift, and this ultimately becomes a journey of the heart.
One day in the fall of 1978 I came home from classes at Harvard Divinity School to tune in the evening news and see John Paul II step on to the loggia of St. Peter’s for the first time. It was a quo vadis? moment, and I remember sensing for the first time the importance of being in communion with Peter. Over the years I have been especially conscious of those moments of peace and joy experienced when hearing and reflecting on the words of the two most recent successors of St. Peter. My old teacher, Dr. Mark Noll, writes in Is the Reformation Over? of his surprise at reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church and finding himself stopping to pray. That is exactly it, the experience of giving your heart to Jesus Christ again because you have encountered his words anew, now embodied in his ecclesial Body at its source. I do want to assure you that I have tried to follow the Ignatian principle of discernment, to make no important decision while in a place of spiritual desolation. I have especially sought to give no place to that anger which darkens understanding and clouds judgment.
With all my heart, I ask for your forgiveness for any difficulty this may cause and for anything I may have said or done that has failed to live up to the love of Christ. I hope that you will not see this as a repudiation of the Episcopal Church or Anglicanism. Rather, it is the sincere desire of a simple soul to bear witness to the fullness of the Catholic Faith, in communion with what St. Irenaeus called “that greatest and most ancient Church” (Adv. Haer. 3.3.2). I believe that our noble Anglican tradition (“this worthy patrimony”) has deep within it the instinct of a migratory bird calling, “It is time to fly home to a place you have never seen before.” May the Lord bless my steps and yours and bring our paths together in His good time.
- The Rt. Rev. Jeffrey Steenson