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A theology of rubbing along

02 November 2006

How do women bishops cope with traditionalist parishes, and vice versa? We asked Geralyn Wolf and Jonathan Ostman from Rhode Island

FROM 1975 TO 1977, I attended a liberal seminary during the day, while living in a traditional Anglo-Catholic convent. While the seminary, which was at the forefront of women’s ordination, offered me a great sense of experimentation, I had difficulty with the rhetoric and stridency. Meanwhile, convent life was rhythmical and deeply authentic. My spiritual life flowered under the gentle guidance of the sisters and their clear expectations. Liberal and conservative views became part of an inner, spiritual struggle, as I am attached to both.

When I was elected to serve as the 12th Bishop of Rhode Island, one of the electors made a motion that the election be unanimous. Regardless of the flurry of hands that were raised, I knew that an important group would have difficulty supporting a woman bishop. In my acceptance speech, I acknowledged that the vote was not unanimous, nor should it be. The fact that some priests could not, in good conscience, receive my ministrations was a truth that I wished to honour.

Early in my episcopate, I met the two rectors for whom my election was particularly difficult. One of them, the Revd Jonathan Ostman, served in a parish that had had a history of difficulties. I admired his faithfulness and the healthy direction in which he and the parish were moving. Of course, we shared a common spirituality, honouring the eucharist and being attentive to spiritual direction and sacramental confession. We developed a sincere respect for each other, while voicing concerns over parish visitations, confirmations, and other issues.

I decided to allow each of the two rectors to have a visiting bishop, who would be agreeable to both parties. The other rector, the Revd David Stokes, discussed this with his vestry (the equivalent of a PCC). Surprisingly, they reminded him that they already had a bishop, making it unnecessary to seek a visitor. So it was that I made an official visitation to the church and officiated at confirmation. David and I talked about the impending visit, so that we would both be as comfortable as possible. David’s gracious hospitality was not diminished by his sitting in choir and not receiving communion.

When he left the parish, his successor also did not believe in the ordination of women. I know that he agrees with me in stating that we have a good, supportive relationship, and that we feel and exhibit a high level of respect.

Meanwhile, Jonathan’s vestry gladly accepted my offer for a visitor, even though it came with conditions attached. I asked Jonathan to choose a bishop from the ECUSA House of Bishops, so that we could live in a posture of collegiality. In addition, we would both agree on the bishop, and I would extend the invitation.

At some point during the year, I was to be invited to an event in the parish to encourage Christian friendship. I’ve had dinner with the vestry, attended the anniversary dinner of the parish, met the new vestry, and talked with parishioners after the Stations of the Cross. The Rector and representatives of the parish have come to my office on many occasions.WHEN the Windsor report on the Anglican Communion was released, I invited priests across a spectrum of beliefs to discuss how we will share a common life, in spite of a variety of spirited reactions. The conversation was passionate and respectful, polarised at times, but helpful to all. We will gather again after the Primates’ Meeting.

The problem we have in dealing with painful issues is that we protect our turf at all costs — even the cost of civility and communion. The words we hurl at each other do not build confidence, but cause us to back into corners that are not easily escaped. Absolute truth belongs to Christ.

My journey into that truth demands that I listen to a variety of voices. In the end, a direction must be chosen, but there are ways to walk together, even if we have a different step. The gift from my arrangement with Jonathan is getting to know the bishop visitor that we have both agreed on. The Rt Revd Keith Ackerman, Bishop of Quincy (in Illinois), has become a dear friend in the House of Bishops, and remains loyal to me and the process we have established. Some of our sister and brother bishops marvel at our sincere love for each other.

This arrangement works because of genuine affection and regular communication. I feel blessed, and have every hope that we can remain as a Communion, in spite of important differences. Our faith in one Lord, one incarnation, one death and resurrection for the forgiveness of sins and the salvation of souls — is this not enough for us to receive the Lord’s body and blood together, and to go forth with a viable mission to those in need? I pray so.

The Rt Revd Geralyn Wolf is Bishop of Rhode Island.

THE PARISH of St John the Evangelist in Newport, Rhode Island, was organised in 1875 under the direct influence of the Oxford Movement. St John’s has maintained an uncompromising Catholic witness within the Episcopal diocese of Rhode Island, and throughout greater New England.

Because of our theological convictions and liturgical practices, the bishops of the diocese have tended to maintain a hands-off approach, which has allowed a succession of Anglo-Catholic bishops from the Anglican Communion to perform episcopal ministrations for many years.

This conscious practice by Rhode Island bishops of laissez-faire "oversight" allowed St John’s to weather the tumultuous storms of the 1970s, when the parish successfully resisted the liturgical innovations influencing the Episcopal Church, as well as the ordination of women to the priesthood. As a result, St John’s continued its witness to traditional Anglo-Catholic faith and worship, virtually unchanged since its founding.

To express our theological conviction, and to seek the support of like-minded Anglicans of our integrity, St John’s was the first parish to affiliate with the Episcopal Synod of America (which later became Forward in Faith North America); and the first non-UK parish to affiliate with Forward in Faith in England. This provided the spiritual support we desired, and exposure to the wider Anglican experience made us even more stalwart in our convictions. In 1995, however, our historical witness and internal stability was threatened by the election of the Revd Geralyn Wolf as Bishop of Rhode Island.

There is nothing similar to the Act of Synod in ECUSA. The leaders of the parish and I agreed that, to preserve our witness to Catholic order and scriptural teaching, we had to take a difficult and perhaps costly stand. It was agreed that we could not accept Geralyn Wolf’s orders, but we would respect her position as Ordinary of the diocese of Rhode Island.

The first meetings with Geralyn were understandably filled with anxiety, but quickly we discovered in Geralyn a graciousness that would allow us to discuss our differences openly. Having stated my theological objections to the ordination of women to holy orders, we arrived at a compromise, if there was one, that I would agree to call on an episcopal visitor from the ECUSA House of Bishops. Before Geralyn’s election, we had been relying on one of the Provincial Episcopal Visitors from England.

Since that time, the Rt Revd Keith Ackerman, a member of Forward in Faith North America, has been making an annual visit to officiate at confirmation and reception. Our parishioners tend to be unified in theology, and view Bishop Ackerman as "our" bishop, while at the same time providing a warm welcome to Geralyn whenever she visits.

Our pattern has been to invite Geralyn to join the congregation for choral evensong and benediction, followed by a parish supper, during which she addresses the parish. My wife and I have also entertained her with the vestry in the rectory.

While some might see this as degrading of her ministry, at St John’s we strive to maintain the highest degree of communion we might possibly have with someone who represents a "theological impossibility". We enjoy better relations with Geralyn Wolf than we did with her predecessor, who was a male

Given her generosity towards St John’s, I would rather be in our anomalous ecclesiastical situation than in a diocese such as Pennsylvania, where the Bishop, the Rt Revd Charles Bennison, is relentless in his attempts to harass traditional priests and their parishes.

While I personally am grateful to Geralyn for her gracious approach towards St John’s, which has allowed us to maintain our theological integrity and liturgical practice, a more permanent and regularised solution to this disparate situation is highly desirable. With the present trends within ECUSA, as evidenced by comments in the Windsor report, the long-term future of a parish such as ours within the Episcopal Church is now very uncertain.

The Revd Jonathan Ostman is Rector of St John’s, Newport.


Another tradition: the Revd Jonathan Ostman at St John’s, Newport

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