The Bishop Candidate: The Reverend Canon Dr. Neal O. Michell

Neal O. Michell is Canon to the Ordinary in Dallas, having served for seven years as Canon Missioner for Strategic Development. He was previously a finalist in the episcopal search processes in the Diocese of Texas, the Diocese of Dallas, and the Diocese of Tennessee. He is an author of several books on church leadership and a well-known workshop leader, specializing in church growth and development. He is the author of, a website and online community for conservative Anglicans. His essay after the election in Dallas is thoughtful and sad, and well worth the read, for anyone who has suffered any sort of public loss.

But he is now one of the finalists in Upper South Carolina and we need to know if he is the one the Holy Spirit has chosen to lead us forward. His responses to the search committee’s questions give some insight into what he thinks and how and where he would lead. His management style, he says, is based on the communal vision of a learning community, visional, historically aware, accountable, and celebration. In other words, we aren’t the first ones in this race towards salvation, we need to share the vision of those gone before, we need to hold each other accountable and we need to learn to laugh once in a while. He deals with congregational conflict, he says, by listening and proposing solutions that will be more than a zero sum game. This is all good, well-written advice, under-girded by years of experience.

The problem with the answers to the questions (by all of the candidates) is that the Search Committee never gives them an opportunity to talk about spirituality, prayer, baptism, justice, ecumenical or inter-faith issues or any of the real things we need to know about a prospective Bishop. It’s as if the sole purpose of a Bishop is to settle congregational disputes and issue encyclicals on sex. (Yes, you’ve heard this before, sorry. I just am amazed, even yet. Okay, I’m done.) So we have to peel off the onion layers in order to find out what is really in the candidates’ minds.

The third question is the first opportunity we really have to look closely at Canon Michell. In his counsel to the theoretical priest wanting to bless a same-sex union, he would say that “the Church does not authorize the blessing of same sex unions. We are part of a larger family, not just of The Episcopal Church but of the Anglican Communion and a part of the larger Church catholic. As an Episcopal diocese we are committed to the apostolic faith and to apostolic order. Our commitment to apostolic faith means that we are not really free on our own to do such things as the blessing of same sex unions. Those are not the norms of the Anglican Communion, nor are they permitted among the churches of our ecumenical partners, namely the Roman Catholic churches and the Orthodox churches.”

Bishop Henderson has said as much so this is nothing new. Canon Michell would, as part of his getting to know the clergy, establish groups to begin to talk about their faith journeys, resurrection stories and to pray for each other. “I would call these same groups to study the Anglican Covenant, and then, I would have these same groups begin to study the whole sexuality issue: first by bringing in theologians to inform us and to lead us in conversation. I would then encourage the clergy to repeat this process in their own churches.”

Canon Michell is a strong supporter of the dubiously named “Anglican Covenant,” the Windsor Process “solution” to the Anglican Communion’s disagreements over human sexuality. The Covenant, first proposed at Dar es Salaam, Tanzania in 2007, has undergone several revisions, as recently as May 2009.

A little history is in order. The Protestant Reformers were big on covenants, confessions and statements of faith. The Church of England, on the other hand, refused to go beyond the Ecumenical Creeds (the Nicene Creed, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Athanasian Creed), believing that those had bound together the church for more than a thousand years, and thus had stood the test of time and the fires of schism and heresy. The closest Episcopalians come to anything like a covenant is the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral of 1886- 1888–and it’s really a covenant with ourselves. The quadrilateral is a four-point statement that says Episcopalians are willing to be in communion with any Christian body that accepts:

  • The Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the revealed Word of God.
  • The Nicene Creed as the sufficient statement of the Christian Faith.
  • The two Sacraments,–Baptism and the Supper of the Lord,–ministered with unfailing use of Christ’s words of institution and of the elements ordained by Him.
  • The Historic Episcopate, locally adapted in the methods of its administration to the varying needs of the nations and peoples called of God into the unity of His Church.

That was it, simple sweet and easy to digest. Of course, it never really got us too far down the road to ecumenism, but that’s another whole story. Now the authors of the Windsor Report want a radical change to the doctrine, discipline and worship of the Episcopal Church by insisting:

  • that Anglicanism is so fractured or ephemeral that a communal covenant is necessary to hold it together
  • that there are “Instruments of Communion”: the Lambeth Conference, Primates’ Meeting, and Anglican Consultative Council which must be given the power of a Magesterium to approve who is truly Anglican and who isn’t
  • that the role of the provincial Primates is judicial and quasi-papal

Now, I am sure that I have over-simplified the Anglican Covenant, and I might be accused justly of having caricatured it, but I supposed that you didn’t want too wonky an analysis. Let’s just say that the Anglican Covenant has not been, and likely will not be approved by General Convention. So it’s dead, right?

Not so fast. Canon Michell, (he’s a lawyer, by training) argues that individual dioceses of a Province may enter directly into the Anglican Covenant with the Archbishop of Canterbury, thus making them official members of the Anglican club, even if their Provincial assembly (like the American General Convention) rejects it. “It is the dioceses in The United States that are in communion with the See of Canterbury which comprise the Episcopal Church. It is their being in communion with the See of Canterbury that makes the individual dioceses collectively to comprise the Episcopal Church, not the Anglican province known as The Episcopal Church which authorizes individual dioceses to be recognized as in Communion with the See of Canterbury and, therefore, legitimately Anglican.”

In a 2006 interview with Upper South Carolina’s own Sarah Hey, ( one of the unofficial leaders in our Diocese of the “orthodox”–as opposed, I guess, to the heretics) on the traditionalist website Stand Firm in Faith, Canon Michell was questioned by Ms. Hey for what she considered the Diocese of Dallas’ insufficiently conservative stance on a number of issues. In that interview Canon Michell stated:

“We really are two different churches under one roof. We don’t really agree on what constitutes the mission of the church. We don’t have a common mind about what constitutes evangelism. We certainly have no common mind on what constitutes authority and whether past decisions are binding on the churches. There is nothing really wrong our core documents: the Prayer Book, constitution and canons, and so on. The de jure of our common life is fine. How we govern ourselves is a mess. I’m not sure the denomination is salvageable. An amicable divorce is probably in the best interest of all parties.”

Those comments are problematic. Back in 2006, Canon Michell felt that The Episcopal Church had perfectly sufficient core documents, but his answer to the Search Committee indicates that he now supports an Anglican Covenant as a core document of Anglicanism. Further, Canon Michell believes that dioceses should “go it alone,” without the support of the Province in they reside. Back then, he thought that the only solution to our divisions was “an amicable divorce,” and now he assures the people of Upper South Carolina that he is committed to staying in The Episcopal Church.

No big deal. People change their minds all the time. But Neal Michell is too fine a theologian to be this sloppy with his thinking, so I’m not sure what has happened to change his mind. Either we are insufficiently governed and need “Instruments of Unity” with police powers to make us more Catholic and less Anglican, or we need to just chop the whole thing up, align ourselves in ghettos of like-minded people and call Anglicanism an interesting theory, like global warming. (That was a joke. Don’t spam me!)

If we are making decisions on who gets ordained in our church based on the ephemeral dream of reconciling with Rome (as Canon Michell asserts), then that hope just received a death blow on Tuesday, when Pope Benedict XVI approved an “Apostolic Constitution” to accept Anglicans who want to convert to Roman Catholicism, either individually or in groups, while maintaining some semblance of Anglican worship. Both Canterbury and Rome tried to put their smiley faces on, but it is clear that Rome is no longer even interested in the fiction of a catholicity which includes Anglicanism. That only leaves Orthodoxy, but they are going to demand that, not only do we get rid of women clergy, but change that pesky little filioque clause in the Nicene Creed.(“Who proceeds from the Father and the Son”). If you think sexuality is hard, remember this was the centerpiece of the original Great Schism, and Humpty Dumpty never quite got glued back together.

At the very least, Canon Michell should explain why we need to kill Anglicanism in order to save it and in which of the “two churches” comprising the The Episcopal Church he wants to be Bishop.

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