I wrote, a while back, about becoming a priest of the Scottish Episcopal Church. At the time, I was mostly looking back into the murky church history of the years between the Reformation and the repeal of legal restrictions on episcopal worship in Scotland; this morning, I take up the topic again to check in after an unsettling, but ultimately (I think) benign chain of events.
When I first came over to Scotland, I arranged with the Dean of the Diocese of Glasgow and Galloway to be licensed (as a priest whose residence lay in another diocese) to serve at the cathedral, and all was well. Blessings abounded, I went to meetings of Synod even though I didn’t have to, helped out at St Mary’s and other congregations, and relished working in the Diocese.
As the years rolled by, though — and as it became clear that I wasn’t about to return to the States — it seemed that I really ought to say to Glasgow, ‘This is where I belong’. It bothered me, a bit, to receive clergy mailings from Chicago (and not from Glasgow); it felt odd to serve on the Doctrine Committee of the Scottish Episcopal Church when my canon-legal identity bound me to Chicago. So I wrote back to the Diocese of Chicago and said, in effect, ‘Let’s arrange a transfer from Chicago to my new home diocese. You’re Episcopalians, we’re Episcopalians, what will be the bother?’
Didn’t hear anything for a while — and then, several weeks ago, I received an email from 815, the Episcopal Church Headquarters in New York City. From one of the very important offices in 815. And the email explained to me that in order to become canonically resident in Glasgow, I had to renounce my orders.
That bowled me over. There was no way on earth I wanted to renounce my orders; my ordination to the priesthood was exactly what I wanted to preserve, but in a different location. I had heard and read about clergy turning their backs on the US Episcopal Church because of the directions it has taken on particular topics of urgent contemporary concern, but that wasn’t me. I’m not a conscience-driven or disgruntled departee, seeking a more congenial theological-ideological haven. Scotland is possibly next after the US and Canada among Anglican provinces in our leftward inclination. Honesty requires that I acknowledge having some ruffled feathers about the convulsion at Seabury and my scramble to find work after having been turned out of my (tenured) position; nonetheless, I started this correspondence precisely because I did find a job, and I just wanted to minister, as a Scottish Episcopal priest, where I live.
I wrote to several trusted [U.S.] Episcopal Church friends, who responded with sympathy and dismay, and with an indication that (a) I was not alone in feeling stunned that I would have to renounce my orders, and (b) it was not as dramatic a step as it sounded. As emails volleyed back and forth between me and canon lawyers and Church Pension Fund officials (yes, I am anxious about my hypothetical retirement, and no, this doesn’t rise to the level of a matter of conscience for which I’d throw away my pension), the message gradually shaped up that this was a step more formidable in its title than in its effects. I am obliged to renounce my orders in the [U.S.] Episcopal Church, but not to renounce altogether my priestly orders. I must ask Bishop Lee of Chicago to be released from my vows of obedience to him, but I am not thereby defrocked.
The terminology sounds 100% wrong to me, as it did to Bishop MacDonald. I take the point that, since the relations between the [U.S.] Episcopal Church and the Scottish Episcopal Church are collegial and not corporate (as it were), one diocese cannot merely hand me over to another. And the pastoral angle of this — that it seems not to have occurred to anyone that talking me through the process would make sense, and that I might have intelligible questions about the terminology and consequences of the process — was pretty much a train wreck. Assuming that everything I’ve been told holds true, this is my word to clergy moving from one provnce to another: it’s OK, ‘renouncing your orders’ in this context just means being released from your oath of obedience to one diocese so that you can make that oath truthfully somewhere else, and don’t worry about your pension (unless the circumstances of your departure make someone suspect that you’re undermining the [U.S.] Episcopal Church. But someone at 815 (at least at 815, if not on a diocesan level) should be in a position to recognise these circumstances and oversee the transition.
This morning, I wrote to Bishop Lee, copied to relevant administrative figures, saying that if and only if my understanding of the situation holds true, I would like Bishop Lee to release me from my oath to him — I would like, in these terms, to renounce my orders. I think the story ends happily here, with me in Glasgow, with Bishop Gregor, and robins singing and the sun shining (Americans, did you know that our robins over here are different birds from your robins? That’s really disorienting.) The weather is lovely, Margaret is home from an enlivening and encouraging theological conference, I’m a happy priest of Glasgow and Galloway, and it’s all OK.