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Charles Bennison: "theologian" & "deep thinker" challenged by orthodox

Charles Bennison: "Theologian" and "Deep Thinker" challenged by orthodox parish

By David W. Virtue

PHILADELPHIA, PA. July 12, 2004--The following conversation took place between the rector, vestry and congregation of St. Luke's Church, a Forward in Faith parish in Newtown, PA and Charles E. Bennison the Bishop of Pennsylvania on July 8, 2004.

During their conversation, the bishop quoted chapter and verse from many scripture passages and used numerous Latin theological terms. He also told many stories. VIRTUOSITY obtained this abstract of that meeting.

Bennison opened the conversation by saying that there was a serious reduction in pledges throughout the diocese, and that some 70 out of 159 parishes had serious financial problems. He also said that the Diocese of Pennsylvania is over churched in terms of buildings since many parishes were built before modern transportation. He indicated that 40 parishes have less than 40 members.

QUESTION: Isn't the Episcopal Church losing members?

BENNISON: From 1992-1997 the Episcopal Church was the fastest growing church of the mainline protestant denominations in the US. We experienced a 2% yearly growth in members. There is a decline in some areas but growth in other areas.

QUESTION: Isn't the Episcopal Church following the spirit of the secular culture rather than the teachings of the Bible?

BENNISON: When King James I ascended the throne it was his decision to bring various competing groups within the Anglican Church of the time to produce a new Bible translation. I have just read "God's Secretaries" by Adam Nicholson. The new Bible translation was a committee effort by scholars from Puritan and Catholic backgrounds. King James forbade the use of explanatory notes in his translation because we all hear things differently when we read the Bible. We need to ask ourselves how we use the Bible and how we maintain the unity of the church.

QUESTION: Didn't you say the Church wrote the Bible and the Church can change the Bible?

BENNISON: I was misquoted. What I said was I was taught in seminary by Reginald Fuller: "The Church wrote the Bible. The Bible did not write the Church". This is what I was taught in seminary. We need to use the Bible pastorally. We should not use the Bile to condemn people. The Episcopal Church is a pastoral church. We live together in ambiguity. A pastor preaches the gospel to the community of faith as he perceives the gospel at work in the lives of that particular faith community. The gospel will sound different in every parish as it is lived out in the lives of the people and expressed by the preaching of their pastor.

The bishop then told a lengthy story about two African Americans who were struggling with issues that he believed were a result of present racism and past slavery in the US. He said the Bible condones and supports slavery. The church now rejects slavery.

QUESTION: Is Jesus the only way to salvation?

BENNISON: Yes. For us Jesus is the only way to salvation because He shows us God's love. Christianity is a unique religion. Through the Incarnation God is one for us. But is Christ God's final act? We can't say that because we cannot see the future. We don't know what God will do next to redeem us. The Bible tells us that the Kingdom of God has not yet come.

(Comment by parishioner. Perhaps the bishop has forgotten Luke 11:20)

The Scriptures are internally contradictory on the surface. Their interpretation varies according to the needs of the hearer.

Parishioner comments: The bishop quoted a number of scripture passages to substantiate his point. He contrasted different views of Jesus in the different gospels and said that the gospel of John represents the Church's post resurrection understanding of Jesus while Mark represents a pre-resurrection understanding.

QUESTION: How can you help us at St. Luke's meet our needs?

BENNISON: The Episcopal Church has a diversity of people and a diversity of needs. I am not asking you to believe as I believe. We all practice the faith differently. But, it is not good for us to enclose ourselves in a community of like-minded people. I was a seminary professor for 5 years and I met many students who felt marginalized.

PARISHIONER: We all feel marginalized in the church. Labels are destructive.

QUESTION: Aren't you using our concerns against us? Haven't you done that to the other Forward in Faith parishes?

BENNISON: I was surprised when St. John's Huntingdon Valley notified me that they were leaving the church. They asked to buy their property and of course I refused. They left but there is now an active congregation there with a wonderful rector. We all believe in the Bible. That is not the issue. Each of the alienated parishes has its own issues apart from the authority of the Bible. St. James formed an illegal corporation to take the parish out of the diocese. Good Shepherd, Rosemont has not received the required Episcopal visitation for years. The bishop is responsible for the parishes in financial matters and clergy discipline. We are all accountable to each other in the Body of Christ. We are a catholic church. The bishop is the pontiofex - the bridge who unites the church.

QUESTION: What do we have to do to have permission for Delegated Episcopal Pastoral Oversight?

BENNISON: It is the same as it has been since 1998. Receive the diocesan bishop for a full Episcopal visit. The vestry welcomes the bishop, opens its books for examination, allows the bishop to preach, celebrate, baptize and confirm. The Diocesan bishop must visit more frequently than the visiting bishop. The parish must pay its full assessment. The parish must pay at least the voluntary 10% mission offering. The mission offering goes in thirds to the National Church, Diocesan Mission, Diocesan salaries,

PARISHIONER: Bishop that is not accurate, you have changed your requirements recently to include the 10 percent mission giving, but it was not part of your requires from 1998.

BENNISON RESPONDS: Maybe that was not part of the original requirement, but it's been there a long time, maybe 1998, 1999.

QUESTION: Are we required to pay the 10% of our income to the mission fund to qualify for DEPO?


QUESTION: Are we in compliance with all of the other provisions?

BENNISON: No. I have only visited you twice in the last 7 and a half years and the visit on June 20th didn't count since you did not present a confirmation class.

QUESTION: How can we be held accountable for not presenting a confirmation class? The confirmation class itself chose not to be confirmed by you. Are you saying that the people of the parish must accept confirmation at your hands?

BENNISON: The leadership of the St. Luke's unifies the parish in opposition to me. You treat the bishop as an enemy, encouraging a fight or flight response. You label me as a deviant.

QUESTION: Bishop, we welcomed you to the parish. You preached and celebrated at both Sunday morning services. There were no protests and some people received communion from you. No one told the confirmation class not to come forward. It was solely their choice. Don't you think it is unfair to say we paint you as the enemy? If that were true you would have been greeted by an empty parish.

BENNISON: I have been hasty. I withdraw my comment. The bishop is the center of unity. The DEPO process is about reconciliation so you really don't need another bishop.

QUESTION: Isn't it true that you are out of communion with many of the Anglican Archbishops in the world because of your vote to approve the consecration of Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire?

BENNISON: I am in communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury. So, we are all in communion.

QUESTION: Are you in communion with Archbishop Akinola?

BENNISON: (Bennison repeated the above answer, followed by a restatement of the question.) "I would probably say no."

QUESTION: How frequently can we have a visiting bishop?

BENNISON: Assuming you meet the requirements I just stated, once every ten years. You can do no better than to have me come.

QUESTION: Bishop, I believe the Bible is God's Word and is the guidebook for life. I am concerned that you do not accept the authority of the Bible. Is that your position?

BENNISON: The church during the Reformation rewrote the Bible by deleting the Apocrypha. Whenever we authorize new translations we re-write the Bible. The Bible is a rule book for life for some people; I read it as a series of narrative stories that give me spiritual insights.

QUESTION: You say you believe in Christ as your Savior. Can you share with us your personal testimony?

BENNISON: I am a once born Christian. I was baptized into the church as an infant. (There followed a lengthy narrative about his family religious practices as an Anglo-Catholic family.)

QUESTION: Bishop, when you speak of The Church are you speaking of the Episcopal Church in the United States?

BENNISON: Yes. I have always lived in the Episcopal Church. I have never had a burning bush experience. I have had multiple experiences of Christ in the Church.

QUESTION: Could you explain to us why you voted to consecrate a divorced man living in a relationship with another man as a bishop in the church?

BENNISON: (The bishop gave a long detailed description on the voting procedures at GC and discussion with other bishops of the HOB). The he said: "This was the mind of the church. The great majority of the church approves this. We were aware of some dissent. I was in awe of not knowing the result."

QUESTION: How could you ignore the decision of the last Lambeth Conference and the pleas of the Archbishops of the Anglican Communion as well as concerns of the Orthodox, Roman Catholics and Evangelicals?

BENNISON: Bishop Griswold was aware there was some concern expressed. There has been some sadness expressed. Everyone recognized this was an important moment. No one has sought to see this as a victory or a defeat. The Holy Spirit was at work.

PARISHIONER COMMENTS: The bishop also explained that the concerns were not taken seriously because of past experience on other issues such as the ordination of women, when people did not follow through on their concerns - that very few people had left over such divisive issues.

QUESTION: Wasn't this decision contrary to Scripture?

BENNISON: How we use the Bible is fundamental. Do you oppose women's ordination? Should women keep silent in the church? Is it right to own slaves? It is all about interpretation. The main symbol for the early church was a loaf of bread, not the cross. The Romans stamped all bread with the imperial seal to remind people who was in charge. The church placed that bread on a table to share the Eucharist, the real presence of Christ in the community. - to say they have a new king. We believe the same thing about the sacrament. It is the medicine of immortality. Paul described this as remembering the Last Supper. John described this as the indwelling of Christ in the Lord's Supper.

PARISHIONER COMMENTS: Bishop, I agree the Eucharist is the meal of unity with Christ and therefore with each other, but in the Early Church converts were not admitted to the Eucharist until the community was certain that they held unity of faith in Jesus as the Christ and the only means of salvation. The Eucharist expresses unity, it does not create unity. It's as though you are expressing what you think we want to hear, but what you're saying tonight is different from what you've written and said in the past.

BENNISON: For example?

RESPONSE: Such as what you wrote in your Easter message for 2003, or what you said in your sermon here on June 20.

BENNISON: What did I say in my sermon? What was the text?

PARISHIONER: Jesus' question to the disciples "who do you say that I am?" You said that Jesus was not sure who he was whether he was the Messiah or not - that he had to turn to those around him to discover his identity.

BENNISON: Yes, that's the new thinking...

ALTOGETHER: Loud groaning from the vestry and congregation.

QUESTION: You seem to suggest that scripture contradicts itself rather than complementing itself. Is that what you believe?

BENNISON: That is what I was taught in seminary. John's view of Jesus is that He is the way, the Truth, and the Life, the only way to salvation. That was true for him then. But God may choose to act in another way. Who are we to limit God?

QUESTION: I'm confused about how you are using Scripture. You seem to mix matters pertaining to the salvation and sanctification of souls with pastoral concerns for how people feel about themselves. Is that true?

BENNISON: That is an interesting insight.

QUESTION: If Jesus is not the only way to salvation then why are we here? Why should the church exist and you have a job? I believe the Bible and I trust Christ for my salvation.

BENNISON: Hallelujah. Thanks for sharing your story. We all have different stories. All are valid.

PARISHIONER: Bishop, I've said nothing till now, but you indicated at the start of the meeting that you had been misquoted about "man/church wrote the Bible - we can rewrite the Bible" but you said that to me sitting at a table in a restaurant during a luncheon meeting, and I know you've not been misquoted.

BENNISON: No response.

QUESTION: To summarize your understanding of our DEPO request. You believe our differences are minor and there is no need for us to have a visiting bishop?

BENNISON: Yes. I believe our differences are minor. I want to thank you all for sharing your stories with me. I am more than willing to continue the dialogue. I'll meet with you as often as you like. Nothing is decided. I may change my mind, I've done it before. YOU CAN ALWAYS HAVE BISHOP SPONG AS A VISITING BISHOP.

PARISHIONER: Bishop, the "offer" of Spong was not funny the first time you said it to me, and it's not funny now.

BENNISON: O ye of little humor.

PARISHIONER: Can you supply us with a statement in writing of your requirements for us to have a visiting bishop?

BENNISON: Yes, I'll send something to you. I look forward to our next meeting.

FOOTNOTE. The offer of continuing meetings was perceived by the vestry as a technique used by the bishop to change nothing, but keep us participating in a discussion until we give up in frustration, tolerated his difference, or accept him and his teachings as valid.


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