Walter Brennan, in one of his best character roles, plays Eddie, the perpetually drunk ship's mate. Eddie has the annoying habit of asking each new person he meets, "Have you ever been stung by a dead bee?" In response to the other person's inevitable question, Eddie explains, "Even a dead bee can sting you if you step on it, especially if it was mad when it died."
Nine bishops of the Episcopal Church just got stung by a dead bee this week.
Bishops Edward L. Salmon, Jr., Peter H. Beckwith and Bruce MacPherson received word that a complaint had been filed against them under Title IV of the Episcopal Church's Canons for signing affidavits in opposition to a motion for Summary Judgment in the Episcopal Church's lawsuit in the Diocese of Quincy. In a similar action, Bishops Maurice M. Benitez, John W. Howe, Paul E. Lambert, William H. Love, Bruce MacPherson, Daniel H. Martins, and James M. Stanton were informed that a complaint was being brought against them for filing an Amicus Curiae (Friend of the Court) Brief in the Episcopal Church's lawsuit in the Supreme Court of Texas involving the Diocese of Fort Worth.
As Attorney Allan Haley (The Anglican Curmudgeon) notes, the Bishops are being charged merely for expressing an opinion that differs from the Episcopal Church's litigation strategy. I encourage you to read Mr. Haley's blog for an excellent analysis of all that this means. My concern is the most basic one: The Episcopal Church is now pressing charges against bishops (and could presumably press them against any member of the clergy) merely for expressing an opinion that differs from the Episcopal leadership's party line.
Is the Episcopal Church frightened that the disagreement of a few bishops could jeopardize its case? It cannot be argued that the Episcopal Church is taking this disciplinary action to keep the rest of its bishops in line. Of the nine bishops being charged, five are already retired; and there aren't any other bishops left in the Episcopal Church with the slightest inclination to question its litigation strategy. So where is the threat?
A sociologist has observed that one sign of a dying organization is that it will try to exercise increasingly tighter control over its shrinking membership.
Average Sunday attendance across the Episcopal church in 2010 was 657,831 in the United States. That compares to 856,579 in 2000 (a 23% decline in only ten years). In contrast the Anglican Church in North America now numbers over 1000 congregations and reported an increase in Average Sunday Attendance of 15% in one year (2010-2011). The ACNA also reported that 13% of its congregations were in the process of planting a church during 2011.
My purpose is not to make much of these statistics other than to observe that all the signs of life seem to be on one side. Meanwhile the Episcopal Church is headed toward a General Convention in Indianapolis next week where it is sure to approve rites for blessing same sex marriages. The main reason this won't provoke a sizable exodus is that there aren't that many conservatives left to leave. There is a disagreement not merely over the denomination's budget but even how the budget should be presented and by whom. Then, for good measure, there is an official "Lament Over the Doctrine of Discovery" being thrown in, complete with prayers by the Presiding Bishop and the President of the House of Deputies. For the uninitiated, this means repenting for the fact that European settlers came to America.
The "Lament" is being described as:
A prayerful gathering, in a Sacred Circle,
with readings, stories, prayers, songs, reflection,
giving and receiving;
In acknowledgment of and response to the tragic consequences
of the Doctrine of Discovery;
Just for fun, try Googling the term "Sacred Circle" and notice how many of the results refer to anything even remotely Christian. (Hint: it's a nice round number, i.e., zero.)
I have had numerous discussions in recent years with Episcopal bishops, including most of the nine named above, against whom charges are now being preferred, regarding whether the Episcopal Church was salvageable or a lost cause, and about whether its present condition was the result of incompetence or active malignancy.
To these fathers in God I would simply say,
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. (I Peter 4:12-14)With regard to these same bishops, I know that my thinking tends to be too "bottom line" oriented for those who have spent their entire lives in the Episcopal Church and who have become wedded to it through long and intimate association. In my reckoning, if the Episcopal Church is going to be out of business by 2050, it is already dying now; and we should not mistake its death throes for signs of life. Though the Episcopal Church still has the power to sting, it is only the sting of a dead bee.