Thursday, May 01, 2008

Mark Harris Speaks on Baptism, Bishops, Politics, Mission

Mark Harris, priest of this church, author of the well-read blog Preludium, member of Executive Council and Canon of the Church of the Philippines, spoke on Saturday, April 26, at Trinity Church at the invitation of Fort Worth Via Media at an event sponsored by FWVM and Steadfast Episcopalians, a group of conservative Episcopalians.

Harris began by placing himself in context as all of the above, as an assisting priest at a parish in Lewes, Delaware that was formed in 1682; as a retired priest, and as a besotted grandfather. He has a Doctor of Divinity degree, but he uses no title on his business card as a way of breaking out of the “ranks” of Christians.

He spoke without notes for two hours.

He said that our church is in a struggle to maintain that baptism is the core, not merely an entry rite.

“Baptism is much more than that [an entry rite]. It unites us all at the core of what we are as Christians,” he said. If baptism is only an entry rite, then we end up with “ranks” of Christians, starting with the lowest – the laity – and ending with the highest – bishops, archbishops, popes.

In this system, “The more titles one gets the better, the holier one is,” Harris said.

In this way of thinking, baptism simply means, “You’re in.” The laity are “just baptized,” and do not have enough license to speak truth to the church.

But the license to speak the truth is for everyone, Harris declared. Baptism is what makes us part of the struggle.

If baptism is the core of Christianity, than that’s all we need. If baptism is the core, the “business of whether women can be priests is already solved”, as is the question of whether we ordain people with disabilities, or people with a homosexual orientation.

How can we be a church where people have different roles and give honor to our priests and bishops, but still don’t leave anyone out?

“I’m proud to be part of a church struggling with how to live into this,” Harris said. “`Laity’ means being the people of God. In a diocese like San Joaquin and Fort Worth, there is emerging a new sense of mission that is being developed by the people of God,” the laity.

“We honor our bishops because we put them there. Sometimes we have to take our lumps; we get what we get. This is part of the suffering and joys of life,” he said.

He said, “We need to be willing to a church that is political.”

He said that politics is not a dirty word or a bad thing, that politics is integral to our system – ‘we are not an absolute monarchy. We are a church that organizes itself along democratic principles.”

People having conversations about how it’s going to work – that’s what “political” means, he said.

“Politics is integral to what it means to be Christian. Politics becomes the way we work out how to become a Christian community,” he said.

He said he had heard a lot of the accusations made against Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, with whom he has worked on Executive Council.

“We don’t elect people who aren’t Christian to be the presiding bishop of The Episcopal Church. We might elect quirky people, or complex people, but they are all Christian.

“I feel good about our PB. I feel she’s a fine, upstanding Christian. She is complex and informed from all her roles in her life and her gender. I am astounded by her ability to stay focused.”

He pointed out that the buildings and the heritage held in trust for the larger church by local dioceses is part of the domestic mission of The Episcopal Church, also known as The Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society.”

Offices of The Episcopal Church have a missionary and a fiduciary responsibility to hold that trust, he said.

These local areas [dioceses] were first states, then as the church population grew, they broke into smaller areas. There will always be an Episcopal Church as a domestic mission here, not just some “hole” left after a bishop tried to take a diocese out of TEC.

Jurisdiction by a contiguous land mass is a residue from the English system, Harris said, which has civil as well as religious implications. The earliest bishops, including Hobart, determined that wherever there was a United States of America, there would be an Episcopal Church gathered in a diocese.

So TEC has a missionary impetus to be here.

“Even if all the property was taken, even if only seven people were left, TEC would be here. This would become, if necessary, a missionary district,” he said.

Then he reminded everyone, “God is not found in the shrines. God is found in the mission.”

“Think of yourselves as a religious community. The Episcopal Church is our answer to being Christian. We are here as a religious community and the mission of the national church is to see that we remain here,” he said.

For those who want to stay in The Episcopal Church, the question they should have for Bishop Iker is, “Bishop, do you care for us? If you do care for us, how that manifest?”

He reminded the audience, “We are people under authority, not raw power.”

Bishops have authority because we give it to them.

Once you decide the power resides beyond the people who work and pray together, there is a problem.

A bishop gets his or her authority from the laity, including the clergy. When they abuse that authority, or resort to raw power to enforce their authority, they lose their authority. Such a bishop has no authentic authority any more, just raw power.

[Canon 32 is an example of raw power being used to in this way.]

Additionally, there is nothing in the canons to support moving parishes from one diocese to another as a bishop-to-bishop agreement. It must be a General Convention decision. To date, General Convention has voted “for” this arrangement only if the churches were on the borderline of two dioceses or within about five miles or less.

[None of the above applies to St. Christopher’s, All Saints, Trinity and St. Luke’s Stephenville, the four parishes Bp. Iker is trying to force to move to the Diocese of Dallas.]

Harris pleaded with those who intend to remain in The Episcopal Church to continue to reach out to those who plan to leave TEC with Bishop Iker.

“Pray for them. We know them too well to abandon them,” he said.

And he ended with this reminder: “The first piece of mission is liberating the voice of the baptized.”

That is the mission of the lay people of the diocese of Fort Worth.

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