The Rev. Canon Ellis E. Brust, COO of the AAC
Bishop Smith meets with St. John’s, Bristol
Observations of July 17, 2005 Meeting
The Rev. Canon Ellis English Brust
Chief Operating Officer
American Anglican Council
I was in Bristol, Connecticut, last weekend to support an American Anglican Council (AAC) parish as its theological dispute with Bishop Andrew Smith escalated. On Sunday I was invited by the senior warden and members of the vestry to attend a hastily called meeting between Bishop Andrew Smith and the congregation of St. John’s. Just days before, on July 13, Bishop Smith--joined by a squad of diocesan staff, locksmiths, computer hackers, and security guards--seized control of the building despite protests of the parish secretary and senior warden. Bishop Smith locked out members of the congregation, issued an inhibition of Fr. Mark Hansen, and forced a revisionist priest-in-charge on the orthodox congregation. In an emotionally charged atmosphere, Bishop Smith tried in vain to “rebuild trust” (as he claimed) between himself and the 150 or so people in attendance at Sunday’s meeting. I am thankful I was there to both assist this beleaguered congregation and witness first hand the diocesan twisting of canonical and ecclesiastical authority.
Before the meeting, Bishop Smith and a staff member were fidgeting with flip charts inside the chancel, and some of his entourage were scattered around the pews while others – including two security guards – controlled the parishioners entering the nave. There were two satellite trucks and other reporters in the parking lot who had been given clear instructions to stay outside by Diocesan Communications Director Karin Hamilton. Ms. Hamilton approached me less than 30 seconds after I took my seat to inform me that this was a meeting between the bishop and members of St. John’s and asked me to leave. I declined, reminding her of the state’s “sunshine laws”. The bishop similarly tried removing Anglican Communion Network Dean Bill Murdoch, who also declined. A few minutes past 7 p.m., the Bishop called the meeting to order, introduced his entourage (lawyers, staff members, the purported priest-in-charge), and again asked all others (there were only the two of us, myself and Bill Murdoch) to leave. The congregation erupted in protest stating that we were their representatives at the meeting. The bishop acquiesced.
Bishop Smith then invited Robin Hammeal-Urban (an attorney who works part time as the bishop’s Pastoral Response Coordinator) to explain how the meeting would be run. This was the typical crisis-management, psycho-babble guidelines used in most dioceses when the convener wants to avoid being cornered: make “I” statements; speak one at a time; we’re here to listen to your questions and concerns; we’ll attempt to respond to some, but not all of your questions; this is a conversation and an opportunity to build trust. Again, the parishioners pushed back, and after several minutes, she quickly retreated to one side of the chancel as it became clear to all that this parish meeting was not going to be scripted. The bishop was forced to abandon his well-orchestrated meeting plan and deal with a legendary New England town meeting.
Dr. William Witt was the chosen spokesman for the vestry (see the AAC Blog for the full statement). The bishop attempted to recapture the agenda by repeatedly interrupting Dr. Witt and instructing him “to write down your questions one at a time,” but he was forced by the group to endure the vestry’s questions. At one point, the bishop moved from the chancel (where he was in the direct line of sight of the parishioners) to the middle of the nave. Although Bishop Smith was generally controlled (if not scripted) during the evening, there were several times he seemed uncomfortable, his face became flushed, and sweat appeared on his brow.
During the next 90 minutes, the congregation returned to the key points of their concerns: we are a theologically conservative parish in a revisionist diocese. How is it, therefore, canonically possible or legal to take over a building simply because we disagree with you on theology and have requested alternative oversight? Are we the only parish in the Diocese of Connecticut a few months behind in our assessment payment? Are we the only parish in the diocese having financial problems? If he was pastorally concerned for Fr. Mark and the parish, why did Bishop Smith inhibit our priest, lock us out of our building, and attempt to force a revisionist priest on our parish with no consultation?
Throughout the evening, as he attempted to answer their direct questions, the bishop seemed remarkably unfamiliar with the canons of the church as well as their proper application and limitations. I have served as a Canon to the Ordinary and have never seen a bishop as apparently uninformed about basic canon law as was Bishop Smith on Sunday night. His invocation of Title IV, Canon 10 (abandonment of communion) as the basis for all his actions was repeatedly challenged by the laity present. When his chancellor attempted this same un-canonical approach to explain the lock-out of the parish, he must have realized the weakness of his approach and quickly switched tacks, trying a “landlord/tenant” relationship as a justification. When it was pointed out to him that any landlord/tenant laws require due process before eviction or a lock-out, he used a third approach: the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. He claimed that the diocese’s actions fall within the First Amendment, which gives certain freedoms and a correlating loss of some other freedoms. He then sat down. It was clear to even a casual observer that Bishop Smith had decided to invoke “abandonment of communion” for the inhibition of the priest, as well as using it as justification of the hostile takeover of the building, leaving his chancellor to explain the un-justifiable. But, according to Bishop Smith and his chancellor, the First Amendment provides the Constitutional basis for their actions.
Nearly 75 minutes into the two-hour meeting, Bishop Smith finally admitted that the grounds for his actions against Fr. Mark Hansen and the parish were based on Mark’s being a co-signatory to a letter earlier in the year calling the bishop to recant his theology, understanding of Scripture, and certain votes at General Convention--a letter also signed by the five other Connecticut Six congregations. He stated that this letter, along with Mark’s taking a sabbatical which “falls outside of Diocesan policy”, provided grounds for abandonment of communion. Since their priest has, according to the bishop, abandoned communion, the bishop had to take over the building and put a new priest in place. When commotion ensued, the bishop raised his voice exclaiming that all his actions were predicated upon Title IV, Canon 10 and yelling: “Let me be clear, you have to work with me.”
A handful of members expressed concern about the conflict, indicating they just wanted to see the church family come back together. However, overwhelming support of the parish’s stand for the historic, biblical Anglicanism only highlighted the pastorally insensitive nature of Bishop Smith’s appointment of a revisionist priest for St. John’s. The Rev. Susan McCone fought back tears as she spoke of not forcing her theology on any parish and asking for a chance. She lost the majority of listeners when she said, “I’m not even sure what ‘orthodox’ is anymore,” and added that she just wants to demonstrate God’s love to all. This fits with Bishop Smith’s thoughts when he described the Bible as a “divine gift” not to be read as a “rule book”, but something which “along with the Spirit points us to the way to know that Jesus is love.” He explained that he believes one way based on Scripture, while others gain another perspective from Scripture, and that the thing we take from Scripture is Jesus’ commandment to love one another. When asked how any of his actions could be construed as “loving”, Bishop Smith seemed confounded and turned on the people saying that he would have to work on trusting them as they would have to learn to trust him. Amazing. Bishop Smith’s cavalier approach to the canons may come from his cavalier approach to Holy Scripture.
The meeting ended at 9 p.m. with Bishop Smith’s leading all in the Lord’s Prayer. The diocese’s Director of Communications invited participants to exit through the rear door so that they could avoid being confronted by members of the press – whose ranks had grown by at least one more satellite truck in the intervening two hours. Most parishioners went out the front door. I’m sure the bishop heeded the advice of his press officer and avoided the microphones.