In a curious development pertinent to my recent post about being obliged to ‘renounce my orders’ so as to serve in a different province of the Anglican Communion, the House of Bishops of the Province de l’Église Anglicane au Rwanda has had to instruct some its member bishops about orders and jurisdiction as well, though apparently with different terminology.
For the benefit of anyone who’s interested by the topic, but unfamiliar with the current state of play among Episcopalians/Anglicans around the world: some US Episcopalians are disaffected because of doctrinal/disciplinary matters in the US Episcopal Church (most prominently involving sexuality), such that they no longer can acknowledge the spiritual authority of bishops whose teachings and practice seem (to these disaffected Episcopalians) to fall culpably short of the standards for bishops. Some clergy among these US Episcopalians have been consecrated bishops by the Rwandan province, so that they can minister as bishops to other alienated US Episcopalians. A number of these Rwandan-US bishops recently withdrew from the authority of the Rwandan Anglican Church (for reasons to which I am not privy).
Now, I read that on 29 March, the Rwandan House of Bishops has advised these (separated) missionary bishops that
there are only three ways that we may “release” clergy affiliated with us:
1. By transferring them to another jurisdiction within the Anglican Communion;
2. By their voluntary renunciation of orders;
3. By formal ecclesiastical discipline.
So, at least in Rwanda’s understanding of canon law, ‘renouncing orders’ is categorically different from ‘transferring to another jurisdiction within the Anglican Communion’.
Obviously Rwandan canons don’t affect the canon law or interpretation of the US Episcopal Church — but this interpretation of ‘orders’ and ‘transferring’ appears to make more sense. The bishops in question must (on this interpretation — I’m not arguing anything about their side of the disagreement) have a canonical relationship with one or another Anglican province, but that’s a separate question from whether their orders as bishops are valid. If on the other hand they have no relationship to another recognised Anglican body, the status of their request to withdraw from the Rwandan Church is canonically intelligible only as a request to be removed from the roll of actual bishops. If my situation were interpreted on this basis, we would say that I wish to move (‘transfer’) my vows of obedience and allegiance to the Diocese of Glasgow and Galloway and the Scottish Episcopal Church — not to renounce my orders altogether.
If I understand the interpretation of canon law from the US Episcopal hierarchy, my priesthood is not in question — they’re interpreting my ‘orders’ as sort of ‘the ordered relationship that binds me to my bishop and the doctrine, disciple, and whatever of this [US Episcopal] Church’. On their account, then, it would be possible for me to maintain my ordained status without having a canonical relationship with a particular Church (and, by extension, so would the US-Rwandan bishops, if in fact the US Episcopal Church recognised their episcopal orders in the first place) — though I would not be authorised by any Church to exercise that priesthood. The Rwandan interpretation (again, if I understand it correctly) is that apart from a relationship with a particular Church, the idea of ‘orders’ is incoherent; the validity of orders depends on a living relationship of authority and accountability with a Church.
Of these two, I had been operating on premises closer to those expressed by the Rwandan bishops than those I’ve been instructed to observe by the relevant US authorities. I see elements of soundness in each. Ordination confers a grace that isn’t itself dependent on temporal authorities, or geography; but on the other hand, ‘orders’ outwith a relationship to a Church are gravely problematic.
I’m not usually very interested by canon law — but these developments point toward intriguing theological and political (in the sense of ‘church polity’) nuances. In all of this, I emphasise that I’m cooperating with my understanding of US policy, not repudiating anybody’s authority or rebelling against them. “Dissenting about what I think is a good idea’, maybe; but not rebelling or repudiating.