Bishop Robert Duncan is trading sacred places
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In his office at the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh (Anglican), Bishop Robert Duncan has mounted a Scottish broadsword, like that of the hero in his favorite movie, "Braveheart." It was a gift from a priest after the Episcopal Church accepted a partnered gay bishop.
The legend of "Braveheart" "is about somebody who rallies people to stand up against what is very wrong," Bishop Duncan said. "It's a two-edged sword, and the holy scriptures describe scripture as sharper than any two-edged sword."
Tomorrow in Texas, he is slated to become archbishop of the new Anglican Church in North America. Its 100,000 members broke with the Episcopal Church and Anglican Church of Canada, believing they failed to uphold biblical authority and classic doctrine about Jesus when they approved the consecration of a partnered gay bishop and failed to discipline another bishop who denied Jesus was God incarnate.
Sexuality was the most obvious issue, but not the most profound, he said.
"This battle right now isn't about sex," he said. "Everybody's got things they deal with. We're fallen. The thing to have battle over is whether the word of God can be trusted."
Some Anglicans see him as Mr. Duncan, a deposed bishop leading a schism against the 2.1 million-member Episcopal Church, one of 38 provinces in the 80 million-member Anglican Communion, a global body of churches that grew out of the Church of England. To others, he is one of the few U.S. bishops with the faith and courage to stand with bishops in the global South against hedonistic heresies of the West.
All agree that he leads a movement that could redefine the centuries-old Anglican movement.
"The Lord has called him to an extraordinary position of leadership and responsibility, one which I think he would much have preferred not to have been called to," said Bishop John Guernsey, an ex-Episcopal priest consecrated by the Anglican Church of Uganda.
But a retired Pittsburgh cathedral dean said Bishop Duncan followed his own agenda. "The only program he has kept to totally for the past 11 years has been developing this parallel universe and his position in it," said the Rev. George Werner.
Robert Duncan's roots
Bishop Duncan, 60, grew up in Bordentown, N.J. His mother was mentally ill and violent, he said, and he was raised mostly by his grandparents. At 11, his parish priest led him to life-changing faith in Jesus.
Two years later, kneeling at Eucharist, "The Lord said very plainly, 'You will be my priest,' " he said -- adding, "He doesn't usually talk to me with that clarity."
He met his future wife, Nara Dewar, at a diocesan youth event when he was 16 and she was 14. They married in 1969.
Five years after his ordination in 1973, he became a chaplain at the University of North Carolina, where he mentored an undergraduate, Jeff Murph, now rector of St. Thomas in Oakmont. The Rev. Murph recalled a Eucharist when the Rev. Duncan invited two men to announce Gay Awareness Week events. "I don't think that the gay issue is the big issue for him," he said.
Bishop Duncan sees no contradiction between his actions then and his stand that the church's approval of a gay bishop in 2003 was a crisis. The latter, he said, was official affirmation of conduct that scripture clearly forbids.
"Ministry with undergraduates is with people who are trying to figure themselves out," he said. "What the church did was to meet them where they were, to love them … believing that, if they knew the love of God, they would become more and more whole."
He disagrees with Christians who argue biblical injunctions against gay sex are cultural, not theological. Asked whether he could accept a gay bishop if other bishops hadn't challenged the divinity of Christ, he can't separate the issues. "The approval of that election is symptomatic of the deep theological distress and disorder in the Episcopal Church," he said. "It's not something that I think could have happened apart from an unraveling of the Christian tradition."
After 10 years as rector of a university parish in Delaware, he came to Pittsburgh in 1992 as "canon to the ordinary" -- the top aide to Bishop Alden Hathaway. The diocese was the center of conservative activism.
He helped each parish write a mission statement, with a five-year list of goals and objectives. He partnered strong parishes with weak ones. He recruited like-minded priests.
The Rev. Jonathan Millard, a priest in England, sent his resume to Pittsburgh in 1993. Canon Duncan called him about a dying parish in Washington, Pa. Five years after the Rev. Millard arrived, attendance had quadrupled and a new church was under construction. Canon Duncan had spent hours in prayer with lay leaders working on the mission statement.
"He listened to the people. He was a mentor to me and helped me pull the pieces together and think strategically," said the Rev. Millard, now rector of Church of the Ascension, Oakland.
In his three years as canon, the diocese grew 4 percent in membership, 11 percent in attendance, 13 percent in giving and 330 percent in money that parishes gave to help non-members. But when a search committee chose candidates for the next bishop, he wasn't on the list. Nominated from the floor, he led on the first ballot and won on the third. The cathedral erupted into a standing ovation.
"It was an extraordinary mandate," he said.
He became the bishop in September 1997. Over the next decade active membership rose from 14,785 to 19,001.
The Rev. Cynthia Bronson Sweigert, who knew him since the 1970s, kept a good relationship with him despite being rector of the Church of the Redeemer in Squirrel Hill, perhaps the most liberal parish in the diocese. He never interfered with her efforts to welcome gay couples, she said.
"He told me once, 'Cynthia, I would really like Redeemer to be Redeemer,' " she said.
The bishop offered to let liberal parishes seek oversight from a liberal bishop. Only one took him up on it. His goal was to bring similar measures to conservative parishes in liberal dioceses, a move many bishops deemed against church law.
The lines are drawn
In 1998, the bishops of the Anglican Communion declared 526-70 that gay sex was "incompatible with scripture." They also denounced efforts of conservative African bishops to take charge of U.S. parishes that rejected their own bishops. But the Anglican Communion has no international law or power. Gay ordination and turf wars continued.
The Episcopal Church's 2003 consent to a partnered gay bishop, Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, started a chain reaction. Bishop Duncan immediately led 19 bishops forward and called for the Anglican Communion to intervene in "the pastoral emergency" and help parishes that could not accept bishops who had voted for Bishop Robinson.
The Pittsburgh Diocese asked the Anglican global primates -- or top bishops -- to allow conservative bishops to oversee such parishes. The primates advised provinces to make "adequate provision" for such conservatives. Bishop Duncan was elected moderator of the Anglican Communion Network, an alliance of 200,000 conservative Episcopalians. And 22 of 38 Anglican provinces worldwide declared broken or impaired communion with the Episcopal Church.
Believing that the diocese was preparing for schism, Calvary Episcopal Church in Shadyside sued in 2003 to prevent Bishop Duncan from taking assets out of the Episcopal Church. Bishop Duncan threatened to expel Calvary from the diocese but didn't.
"We were prophetic," Calvary's rector, the Rev. Harold Lewis, said of the lawsuit. "He is a demagogue. People believe he can trump the canons and constitution and traditions of the church."
Those close to Bishop Duncan agree that he gave up on the Episcopal Church after a bishops' meeting in 2007 in Texas. He arrived hoping they would approve a plan he'd earlier persuaded the primates to endorse. That plan called for "alternative primatial oversight" for eight dioceses, including Pittsburgh, that had rejected the new primate of the Episcopal Church, Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori -- some because of her gender, some because she'd voted for the gay bishop.
But the U.S. bishops rejected the plan. Today Bishop Duncan calls that meeting "battering and hostile to anybody who dared to raise questions." Returning to Pittsburgh, he prayed, then called diocesan leaders together to say he no longer could stay in the Episcopal Church to work for reform.
"He went around the table, asking for our response. Some of us were very much in favor, some sat on the fence, and some said, 'We don't think we can come with you in this," said the Rev. Millard. "It was clear there was no way he could bring 100 percent of the people with him, but he was convicted, and convinced it was the right thing to do."
Pittsburgh diocesan leaders called for the clergy and laity to vote in November 2007 to secede from the Episcopal Church and join a conservative Anglican province in Africa or South America. A second vote was required a year later.
It was a shock to the Rev. Murph, who had stayed close to him for 30 years. Bishop Duncan had taught him that the church was the indivisible body of Christ. He could not follow his friend and mentor.
"I know he sees this in a global way, since he believes he will be connected to other parts of the Anglican Communion, and he may be right about that," the Rev. Murph said. "But within the American context, this still looks an awful lot like a split."
Bishop Jefferts Schori threatened to remove Bishop Duncan from ministry. Just before the first vote Bishop Duncan quoted Martin Luther, the Protestant reformer who refused to recant before a church court in 1521.
"Here I stand. I can do no other," Bishop Duncan said.
The first vote passed overwhelmingly. The Rev. Murph then joined 11 other conservative priests who declared their intention to remain in the Episcopal Church. The bishop wasn't vindictive, but their relationship suffered.
"I still pray for him. Perhaps he feels that I betrayed him, similarly to the way I feel he betrayed me. I don't have any anger about that -- at least most of the time. But I don't know how to put it back together again," the Rev. Murph said.
Two weeks before the final vote in 2008, the Episcopal bishops moved 88-35 to ban Bishop Duncan from all ministry.
"It was my mother rejecting me," he said. "I hadn't changed. It was my church that had been taken over by folks who had a new religion."
After the split
The act had little effect in Pittsburgh. He instantly became a bishop of the Southern Cone, the South American province into which the diocese was about to secede.
On Oct. 4, the laity voted 119-69 and the clergy voted, 121-33, to join the Southern Cone until a new Anglican province could be formed for North America.
Before the split the diocese had 74 parishes. The Anglican diocese now lists 55 and the Episcopal diocese has 28, with some parishes splitting amid the dispute. Calvary's lawsuit to keep him from taking assets roared to life.
"Basically, this is mutiny," said the Rev. Werner.
While founders of the new Anglican Church in North America share a belief that the Episcopal Church has gone astray, they disagree on much else, particularly the ordination of women. But Bishop Duncan had the skills and patience to bring agreement among them, said the Rev. Geoff Chapman of St. Stephen's in Sewickley.
"This is almost unparalleled in the history of Christian splits. It is not the kind of thing that can be achieved by somebody who majors in minors or is running only his own personal agenda."
The mission of his new church, he said, is to "reach out with the transforming love of Jesus Christ," Bishop Duncan said. "[Americans] need what the church did for me when I was a kid. It met me where I was and it loved me into a much better understanding of how to live life."
He will continue as bishop of Pittsburgh while serving a five-year term as archbishop. Then, "God willing, I will have a few more years to conclude my ministry as bishop of Pittsburgh, if that is what they still want."
First Published June 20, 2009 9:55 pm