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Rio Grande bishop tells colleagues he wants to become Roman Catholic

Bishops agree to MacDonald's resignation, restore former Montana bishop

[Episcopal News Service, New Orleans] On the last morning of the Episcopal Church's House of Bishops meeting in New Orleans September 25, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori officially informed her colleagues of changes in the community since their last meeting in March and asked for their consent to those changes, where it was required.

During an executive session which began the morning session, Rio Grande Bishop Jeffrey Steenson told the house that he wants to resign as diocesan bishop and then be released from his Episcopal Church ordination vows by the end of the year. He told the bishops that to remain in the Episcopal Church "may lead me to a place apart from Scripture and Tradition" and that God was calling him to join the Roman Catholic Church.

"It is indeed painful to lay down this ministry, but I realize that an effective leader cannot be so conflicted about the guiding principles of the Church one serves," Steenson told the house in a statement, which he later released to the media. "I hope my decision will encourage others who believe they can no long remain in the Episcopal Church to respect its laws and withdraw as courteously as possible for the sake of the Christian witness."

The Episcopal Church's Constitution and Canons require that a majority of the House of Bishops consent to the resignation of any diocesan bishop who has not reached the mandatory retirement age of 72 years or been declared incapacitated.
 
Steenson asked for the forgiveness of the house "for any difficulty this may cause and for anything I may have said or done that has failed to live up to the love of Christ."

"I hope you will not see this as a repudiation of the Episcopal Church or Anglicanism," he continued. "Rather, it is the sincere desire of a simple soul to bear witness to the fullness of the Catholic Faith, in communion with what St. Irenaeus called 'that greatest and most noble ancient Church.'"

In a statement released later in the afternoon, four bishops, said they were saddened to hear of Steenson's decisions because of his contributions to the church and because "we are diminished when any part of our body departs from us." They called the path he has chosen for leaving the Episcopal Church a "respectful" one.

The bishops who initially signed the statement were Mark Beckwith of Newark, Bruce Caldwell of Wyoming, Jack MacKelvey of Rochester and Dean Wolfe of Kansas.

"This is a church which seeks to make welcome a variety of theological perspectives and the vast majority of Episcopalians find themselves somewhere between the most extreme expressions of the Christian faith," they wrote. "Many of us have left other expressions of the Christian faith to become members of The Episcopal Church."

The bishops said the Episcopal Church's "unique contribution [to] our branch of the Christian faith" is a "reformed expression of catholicity [that] continues to draw those who seek an approach to the Christian faith which is both Protestant and Catholic."    

The bishops said they "respectfully disagree" with Steenson's contention that the Episcopal Church has, in his words, "rejected the discipline of the Communion." They also disputed "his belief that we have departed from our dependence upon Scripture and Tradition."

"Our life and worship is grounded in Holy Scripture and in the enduring traditions of Christianity," they said. "Our belief that our primary mission is 'to know Christ and to make Christ known' is simply irrefutable. We believe the commitment of The Episcopal Church to the love and care of all persons, including the gay and lesbian people in our midst, will, as the years go by, be evidence of our deepest commitment to Christ."

Steenson said that he had consulted with Jefferts Schori for her "counsel and prayers." She is due to travel from New Orleans at the close of the House of Bishops meeting to attend Rio Grande's annual clergy conference on the afternoon of September 26.

Steenson had told Rio Grande clergy in a September 21 letter that he intended to ask during this meeting for the permission he needs to resign.

The House did not act on Steenson's request because, according to the canons, the presiding bishop must inform all diocesan standing committees before seeking the consent of the bishops, Steenson told ENS.

During that part of the session the Presiding Bishop officially informed the bishops that Daniel Herzog and Clarence Pope had both "voluntarily renounced" their orders for reasons.

Herzog, former bishop of the Diocese of Albany, announced in late March that he was joining the Roman Catholic Church.

Similarly, Pope, former bishop of the Diocese of Fort Worth, announced in August that he intended to become a Roman Catholic.

In other business, the house reluctantly agreed to accept the resignation of Mark MacDonald as bishop of the Diocese Alaska.

MacDonald has become the bishop of the Navajoland Area Mission and National Indigenous Bishop in the Anglican Church of Canada.

When Jefferts Schori first asked her colleagues to consent to MacDonald's resignation from the Alaska see, the house shouted "no."

One bishop asked jokingly if MacDonald was resigning for reasons of mission strategy or advanced age, two resignation reasons listed in the Episcopal Church's Constitution and Canons (Article I, Section 2).

Jefferts Schori assured the bishops that MacDonald's resignation was for the former reason and not the latter.

The house also agreed to restore resigned Montana Bishop C.I. Jones to the status of "bishop in good standing" following a term of suspension for sexual misconduct that began in late 2002. The restoration does not allow Jones to rejoin the House of Bishops, Jefferts Schori said.

The bishops also learned that the necessary consents had been received for the November 10 ordination and consecration of Mary Gray-Reeves as the next bishop of the Diocese of El Camino Real.

They were also officially informed of the ordination and consecration of bishops Thomas Breidenthal in Southern Ohio, Shannon S. Johnston in Virginia, Laura Ahrens in Connecticut, Sean Rowe in Northwestern Pennsylvania, Edward Konieczny in Oklahoma, and Gregory Rickel in Olympia.

The house spend time in silent prayer for the lives of seven bishops who have died since late April including Robert Wolterstorff of San Diego, James Kelsey of Northern Michigan, Stephen Jecko of both Florida and Dallas, Frederick Putnam of Navajoland, Albert Hillestad of Springfield, Edward Jones of Indianapolis and Donald Davis of Northwestern Pennsylvania.

The bishops also recognized William Sanders of East Tennessee as the most senior bishop present in the house.

Sanders, 88, was consecrated as bishop of Diocese of Tennessee on April 4, 1962. Under his leadership the diocese was divided into three parts. In 1982, the Diocese of West Tennessee was created. Three years later, the Diocese of East Tennessee came into being, and Sanders chose to be that diocese's bishop.

-- The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is national correspondent for the Episcopal News Service.

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