On Orders and Renunciation

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.

2 thoughts on “On Orders and Renunciation

  1. Dr Adam,

    Following this has been an intriguing exercise, though expressing it that way makes it sound as though I’ve been less engaged with the anxiety this seems to have caused you than is the case. My prayers are with you as you sort through all this. The Episcopal Church’s (ECUSA’s) use of canonical language is unsettling, and insofar as it is a misuse of the language of renunciation, constitutes more than a little of the “Humpty-Dumptification” of language that plagues modern bureaucratic institutions. One should not need assurances, canonical or otherwise, that a phrase that reasonably and logically means one thing actually means something else entirely. If that be the case, then language is being used in an intentionally manipulative and (at least potentially) dishonest way.

    In the interests of full disclosure, I’m a member of an Anglican mission in the United States that was formerly affiliated with the Anglican Mission in America (AMiA), but which is now – as a result of the actions that separated AMiA from PEAR (Province de l’Église Anglicane au Rwanda – affiliated with the continuing missionary district of PEAR in the United States (thus, my bishop is one of only two bishops formerly of the AMiA not affected by this communiqué from the Rwandan HOB since they remain in communion with the bishops of PEAR). I appreciate the measured tone with which you’ve written about this situation, and that you’ve used the Rwandan communiqué to demonstrate a more forthright use of the canonical language of the renunciation of holy orders. Off the point, but simply for the sake of accuracy, I would point out that the majority of members in many (most?) AMiA or continuing PEAR mission churches in North America are not disaffected Episcopalians, contra what you’ve suggested above. In fact, out of an ASA of nearly 60 in our mission church, only fourteen of us were ever members of a parish in TEC/ECUSA. Most of our members have come from other, non-Episcopalian/non-Anglican traditions or were unchurched. This is also true of the larger church out of which our mission was launched only a few months ago, and of most of the other (AMiA/PEAR) churches with which I am familiar.

  2. Todd, thanks for the correction, which I gladly adopt. This is what happens when an outsider roughs out a picture of a landscape he hasn’t seen first-hand.
    I disagree (intensely, at some points, sorrowfully) with many of my sisters and brothers who have felt compelled to seek peculiar arrangements to maintain their fidelity to the gospel under circumstances they find inimical to sound faith. But I refuse to be separated from anyone in that situation; as I used to say when I taught at Princeton, and made numerous visits to congregations as part of a pro- and con- team of academic theologians, ‘We have to take this situation utterly seriously, for if I am wrong, I am found guilty of relaxing commandments that God established so that we might live by them; and if I am right, my colleague is making the little ones of God stumble, and would be better off at the bottom of the river with a millstone collar. So exactly because the situation is so critically important, I have to say that if I be judged righteous in this matter, I will not enter the kingdom of heaven without you; and I pray that if I am condemned for my error, you will intercede on my behalf.’
    I see two great tragedies at play in our current crisis: one, that the churches put children of God in the position of sensing that they must lie about themselves and their lives in order to draw near to the Body of Christ assembled among us (and I understand that others may see an opposite tragic force working); and two, that our deep convictions on this point estrange us from one another just when we most need collective, collected wisdom.
    Returning to canonical language, I see the Rwandan (and, to the best of my recollection, the former US Episcopal) way for framing this matter as sounder and clearer. It sounds like a truer ecclesiology, a sounder theology of ordination. But I’m not on that committee, as my grandmother used to say.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *