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US Bishops depose Bishop Bob Duncan for secession

25 September 2008

by Pat Ashworth

Bishop Bob Duncan AP

Bishop Bob Duncan AP

THE Bishop of Pittsburgh, the Rt Revd Robert Duncan, has been deposed from ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church in the United States, after a majority vote by the House of Bishops at a meeting in Salt Lake City last week.

The deposition was considered inevitable in the light of moves by Bishop Duncan to remove Pittsburgh from the Episcopal Church, and realign it with the Province of the Southern Cone (News, 9 November 2007). But the Pitts­burgh diocesan convention does not vote on realign­ment until 4 October, and the timing of the Bishops’ decision has been questioned both in the House and in the Anglican Communion.

The Presiding Bishop, Dr Katharine Jefferts Schori, warned Bishop Duncan in October 2007 that if he did not retreat from his position, she would “regrettably be compelled to see that appropriate canonical steps are promptly taken to consider whether you have abandoned the Communion of the Church” (News, 18 January).

A Title IV Review Committee then certified that the Bishop had abandoned communion, leaving the bishops to judge last week whether he should be deposed as a consequence. They voted that he should, by 88 to 35, with four abstentions.

The Presiding Bishop of the Southern Cone, the Most Revd Greg Venables, declared Bishop Duncan’s reception into his own House of Bishops as “effective immediately. . . Neither the Presiding Bishop nor the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church has any further jurisdic­tion over his ministry,” he said.

Under an administrative employment agree­ment, Bishop Duncan will remain on the payroll of the diocese, but with no sacramental ministry or authority to act on its behalf. He described the outcome of the meeting as “a very sad day for the Episcopal Church. It is also a sad day for me, a faithful son of that Church.”

A statement by the Presiding Bishop said that the House of Bishops had 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 relationship with, and the mini­stry of, Robert Duncan.”

There was respect for her handling of the meeting, which the Bishop of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, the Rt Revd Paul Marshall, described as “flawless . . . She allowed no space for anything vindictive or self-pitying, and kept us focused on our task.” Protests and challenges relating to the provision of the canons where a bishop is accused of abandoning communion and to the rules governing the agenda of House of Bishops meetings were overruled by majority vote.

The Bishop of Albany, the Rt Revd William Love, a conservative, made a passionate plea for a truce. “The current attacks directed against the theologically conservative orthodox Chris­tians within the Episcopal Church are not scaring or intimidating them, but rather angering and emboldening them. With each new attack, more fuel is thrown on the fire.”

One of the Episcopal Church’s three senior bishops, the Bishop of Virginia, the Rt Revd Peter Lee, was among centrist bishops who favoured the deposition, but voted against it, believing it to be premature. “The rest of the House felt that acting now would be pastorally helpful to the loyal Episcopalians in the diocese of Pittsburgh, who need to reorganise the dio­cese, presuming that they vote to leave,” he said on Monday. “But I would have been much happier if we had waited until the diocese of Pittsburgh itself acted.”

The Bishop of Upper South Carolina, the Rt Revd Dorsey Henderson, chaired the com­mittee that brought the charges, but also voted against consent to deposition, saying that he believed “that we should put the ball back in Duncan’s court — let the decision be his, not ours”.

The president of Pittsburgh’s standing committee, the Revd David Wilson, said that the leadership of the Episcopal Church had “inserted itself in a most violent manner into the affairs and governance of our diocese”. The American Anglican Council called it “illegal and unjust”. The Bishop of Fort Worth, the Rt Revd Jack Iker, referred to it as “a sham deposition”, and the Bishop of Quincy, the Rt Revd Keith Ackerman, who is president of Forward in Faith North America, said the action, “leaves me speechless and drives me to my knees”.

The President-Bishop in Jerusalem and the Middle East, the Most Revd Mouneer Anis, said: “I don’t know what to call it, a tragedy or a comedy, for the faithful to be disciplined by those who tear the fabric of the Anglican Com­munion.” The Archbishops of the West Indies and Kenya and the Presiding Bishop of the Southern Cone were joined by the Primate of Nigeria in a statement declaring the deposition to be invalid.

In England, the Bishops of Blackburn, Chester, Chichester, Exeter, Rochester, and Win­chester issued a joint statement on Tuesday, declaring themselves “deeply saddened and shocked by the proposed deposition of Bishop Robert Duncan in the Episcopal Church, USA. We declare that we continue to believe that Bishop Bob is a bishop in the Church of God and a bishop in good standing in the Anglican Communion.”

The Bishop of Fulham, the Rt Revd John Broadhurst, chairman of Forward in Faith International, said that Bishop Duncan’s “summary deposition” showed “scant respect for due process, and calls into question both the political wisdom and Christian charity of the Presiding Bishop. We welcome Bishop Duncan’s admission to the College of Bishops of the Southern Cone, and call upon all other orthodox bishops to assert their solidarity with him as a bishop in good standing in the Communion.”

Bishop Duncan spoke confidently of the ability of his diocesan standing committee to “carry the diocese through to our realignment vote on October 4”. But, while many believe that outcome to be a foregone conclusion, others are not sure. Bishop Lee said: “There are some very articulate, deeply committed loyal Episcopalians in the diocese, and a number who agree with Bishop Duncan on theological matters, but think leaving the Church is not the right strategy. . . We’re certainly heading for court, I think, because the Episcopal Church does not recognise the legitimacy of a diocese seceding.”

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