I’ve only just recently found out that anybody cares what I think about the recent sad news from Connecticut. If you don’t care to register with the New York Times, the short answer is that the diocesan bishop inhibited a priest (“suspended” him), took possession of the parish’s buildings and records, changed the locks, and installed an interim rector. It is hard to think that it’s coincidental that the priest in question was one of six clergy who actively resist the consecration of Gene Robinson to the episcopacy (among other vexatious actions taken by the Episcopal Church over the past few years).

Since it’s a matter whose resolution depends greatly on details of the transactions between bishop and priest, I have kept my own counsel — I reasoned that it could hardly help clarify a complicated situation if large numbers of people who don’t know the details take uninformed positions. I’ve been in situations where the presenting issue could not be discussed publicly, which circumstance contributed to an appearance of extreme unfairness on the part of the authority involved; since then, I’ve tried to be especially cautious regarding such situations.

Because this has become a touchstone for determining even-handedness in ecclesiastical commentary, however, and because there’s been plenty of time to make as clear as possible a case for what looks on the face of things like a clumsy power grab, I can without hesitation say that if Bishop Smith has a good reason for the way he handled this situation, he has so far withheld it. The highly-charged atmosphere ought to incline someone who holds power to exercise that power as little and as gently and unexceptionably as possible, with as much explanation as possible. Unless Bishop Smith is in the agonizing position of knowing something very terrible and confidential about the conduct of the Rev. Mr. Hansen’s ministry — something of which no hint of a clue has even been rumored, so one has to consider that option off-the-table — Bishop Smith must be deemed to have mishandled a delicate situation.

In a couple of conversations at the Ekklesia Project, I observed that I increasingly find the pivotal text in Pauline ethics to be 1 Cor 6:7: “In fact, to have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded? ” We demonstrate sinfully constricted imaginations when we concentrate our efforts on prevailing over our sisters and brothers, arm-twisting or out-maneuvering in order to win, to justify oneself.

I can imagine some circumstances that might motivate Bishop Smith to take the actions he did, and I can imagine some circumstances that might motivate Fr. Hansen to have taken the actions that seem to have precipitated the diocese’s foreclosure — but the information circulating in public so far casts the diocese’s side in a pretty grim light. When I wrote “if our charity were not already exhausted,” this dysangelical mess was the sort of sorry outcome I feared.

6 thoughts on “Dubious

  1. Clearly the bishop went about this in a rather clumsy way, but it appears that there is perhaps good reason for it. It appears that the rector in question had actually intended to resign his position, but was persuaded to pretend to go on a sabbitical so that the parish would not have to tell the bishop and the diocese that there was an opening. The priest in question has taken another job (a non-ecclesastical one, I hear) in New York and his letter announcing his “sabbatical” has every hallmark of being a farewell letter that one might write upon resignation. Combined with the fact that the priest has not informed the bishop or the diocese of his contact information is itself prima facie cause to inhibit for abandonment of one’s cure.

  2. Ruidh writes:

    “… Combined with the fact that the priest has not informed the bishop or the diocese of his contact information is itself prima facie cause to inhibit for abandonment of one’s cure.”

    In fact, he was still living in the rectory; the parish secretary was answering the office phone; the wardens and vestrymen were still where they always were; and he had discussed his sabbatical in extenso with -Smith’s suffragan months ago.

    If, moreover, the sabbatical was arranged to avoid a situation where -Smith could inflict an utterly unsuited priest on a faithful congregation, it rather seems from the bishop’s choice of interim rector that their fears were well-taken.


  3. I suspect that the bishop didn’t have too many priests who were eager to step into such an explosive situation. It’s not that parishes always like their interims anyway. In fact, an interim probably isn’t doing their job if they aren’t shaking things up. It’s really not uncommon for an interim to be quite different from the previous incumbent. Recall that one of the outrageous demands of these six parishes is the right to call without any participation from the diocese.

    Unless the wardens of the parish think that the parishoners can’t be trusted to be exposed to dangerous ideas which might sway them from this self-destuctive course they’ve set for themselves. Now that’s a different situation which speaks to the need of some to control the situation.

  4. It is one of those situations where no one seems to be innocent, that is, everyone is guilty in some way or another. Yet, the bishop has been *given* a level of responsibility that the priests have not been given, and therefore the greater responsibility falls on his shoulders. Regardless of what the obnoxiousness may be of some – or all – of the so-called Connecticut Six, the bishop is not therefore given a license to be equally obnoxious.

    Sad that charity, before truth, should be the first casualty in ecclesiastical war/s.


  5. For clarity’s sake:

    I firmly disagree with the cause[s] for which Fr. Hansen and his colleagues are rallying against their bishop. I do, however, wish that they were accorded sufficient latitude to maintain their position that their stature could stand or fall based on the position itself, rather than on our perspectives (more or less informed) on intricate canonical maneuvering.

    I would not be astonished if Fr. Hansen and his congregation were, as has been alleged, endeavoring to wangle a replacement priest in a way that kept the bishop out of the process, in a way contrary to the spirit and the letter of Anglican custom. If so, I can only imagine that they are doing so because of a belief that they would not be permitted to call a priest who meets their sense of their identity. Such a situation would indicate a prior miscarriage of trust and mutual responsibility.

    I believe that an intrinsic part of sound spiritual leadership is the greater willingness to suffer injury than to inflict it; thus, where the facts are not clear and public, I tend to hold the episcopacy to a stricter account than I do to the parish.

    I believe that the same applies in every diocese, regardless of which “side” holds power, in whatever balance or lack thereof.

    I do not believe that it’s an interim rector’s job to disrupt a congregation. Sometimes, not often, disruption follows inevitably from a responsible interim’s unwillingness to collaborate in an unhealthy pattern of dependence and manipulation. More often, interims invoke the alleged necessity of disupting things in order to conceal their impatience and insensitivity to indigenous forms of ecclesiastical culture. Patience and respect better serve the truth than do coercion and condescension. Again, that applies to all concerned.

    I am not personally acquainted with Susan McCone, but until I have reason to do otherwise, I will ascribe to her only the highest degree of concern for St. John’s, only the most commendable motives of preserving and caring for the distinctive character of the congregation, and I will not rely on second-hand reports to deflect that commitment (not out of disrespect for such reports, but because the delicacy of the priest-in-charge’s responsibility demands that I attend to her position with the fullest possible charity).

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