Saturday, December 16, 2006

Commentary: Primates, Parishes and Politics

The past couple of weeks have not been a good time for The Episcopal Church (TEC) in the United States. On December 2, delegates to the Convention of the Diocese of San Joaquin in Southern California overwhelmingly endorsed a constitutional change that would, if confirmed at next year’s convention, declare their diocese to be an ecclesiastical entity in communion with the Anglican Communion but no longer Episcopal. [1] On the other side of the country, members of seven parishes in Northern Virginia voted this week on whether to withdraw from the Episcopal Church, a move to which the Bishop of Virginia, Peter Lee, responded with dire warnings as to the likely consequences of such action. [2] The marked shift in the stance of Bishop Lee – who had previously come to comparatively amicable settlements with departing parishes – was attributed by conservative commentator David Virtue to pressure from the eminence grise David Booth Beers, chancellor (legal advisor) of the national church, not to allow wealthy congregations such as Truro and the Falls Church to take their property with them. [3]

At a time when the situation changes on a daily, if not hourly, basis, it becomes hard to guess how all of this will play out. A parallel shift already seems to be under way within the Church of England, where some conservative evangelicals have proposed a covenant that includes a pledge to no longer be “constrained by an over-centralised and increasingly ineffective control that is stifling the natural development of ministry.” Respect for the authority and jurisdiction of church leaders will become contingent upon their commitment to the “clear teaching of the Scriptures either doctrinally (for example, on the supremacy and uniqueness of Christ) or morally (for example, on issues of gender, sex and marriage).” Money and ministry will be allocated where it is deemed to be most conducive to evangelism and support will be extended to those whose relationship with their appointed and elected leaders is compromised by the latter’s deviation from the Church’s teaching. [4] As Bishop Tom Wright of Durham, a staunch evangelical and an author of the Windsor Report, has already pointed out this covenant demonstrates the same hostility to the catholic nature of the Church that has become evident in the progressive camp and is potentially as destructive. [5]

As we witness the frenzied cut and thrust of the present conflict, we might draw some enlightenment from Allen Guelzo’s superlative account of the events leading to the establishment of the Reformed Episcopal Church in the 1870s. [6] I suspect that many liberal Episcopalians (and some not so liberal) see distinct parallels: a small group of perfectionist Evangelicals ranged against a broad spectrum of mainstream opinion, incorporating a wide variety of theological perspectives and willing to allow a spirit of diverse opinion to persist; a conservative leadership disdainful of the traditional catholic understanding of constituted ecclesiastical authority and so convinced of its own righteousness that it lacks the capacity for honest self-criticism; and a body of clergy and laity so wedded to notions of personal conversion that they neglect the corporate pastoral injunctions of the Sermon on the Mount and the Epistle of James.

As with all parodies, there are elements of truth to some of these characterizations. There is a tendency toward evangelical perfectionism, a distrust of authority structures (even conservative ones) and, on occasion, a reflexive objection to certain types of social action because they are understood to be icons of liberal Christianity. [7] The recent controversy over whether the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) adopted by the Episcopal Church in 2006 represent a substitute for a commitment to mission, have become a debate about the motives of the sponsors as much as about the virtues and limitations of specific relief initiatives in the Two-Thirds World. [8]

Where the analogy with the Reformed Episcopal Church falls flat is in the altered global context. When George David Cummins launched the final attempt to rally Anglican evangelicals against the high church tide, he did so entirely within the context of an American environment. Evangelicals had already lost the grip on the denomination which they had enjoyed in the first half of the nineteenth century, due in large measure to their preference for foreign missions, while the high churchmen focused on evangelizing in the domestic field. As parishes were planted in the west and missionary dioceses received into union, the balance of power at General Convention steadily shifted in favor of the more ‘catholic’ wing. [9] Moreover, establishment evangelicals, like Bishop Charles McIlvaine of Ohio, balked at joining Cummins, whose clerical following was consequently composed largely of the young and restless. [10] The transitory success of the movement in the United States gradually petered out and found little appeal in the Church of England, where evangelicals exercised greater control over the levers of power.

Cummins was not – at least at the time - overly concerned with the principle of episcopal authority. For him, as for many low churchman, apostolic succession was less one of the essential marks of the Christian Church later defined by the Lambeth Quadrilateral (1888), [11] than a form of church governance, valued but not essential. The nature of schism within the Episcopal Church was defined by the example of the Reformed Episcopalians for over a century. For the next 120 years, departures from the denomination (except where they involved a transfer of allegiance to another Christian body) resulted in independent structures that claimed a place in the Anglican family but were not recognized as such by the Archbishop of Canterbury, until recently regarded as the acid test of Anglican authenticity (the Anglican Communion being composed of those national churches in communion with Canterbury). [12]

Since the dramatic consecration of missionary bishops for the Anglican Mission in America (AMIA) in January 2000 by two primates of the Anglican Communion, [13] the whole modus operandi of the traditionalist (or conservative) minority in the Episcopal Church has shifted. Even though the AMIA was not recognized by the then Archbishop of Canterbury and is not recognized by his successor, as a body in communion with Canterbury, it functions under the auspices of primates in Rwanda and South East Asia whose provinces are regarded as in communion. As we have struggled through the turmoil of the last three years, which began with the approval by the 2003 General Convention of the election of Vicki Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire, those who have dissented from the current course have self-consciously identified themselves not with an indigenous purified Episcopalianism (the standard course pursued in the Protestant churches for much of the nation’s history), but with the primates. Most of the recent departures and new church plants have held aloof from AMIA – with its controversial origins – and requested direct primatial oversight. In 2006, following what was generally conceded to be an inadequate response on the part of TEC to the findings of the Windsor Report, a number of conservative dioceses followed suit. [14]

More heat than light has been generated by the seemingly endless exchanges among conservatives and liberals about who is in communion with whom, who is still Anglican and who is not, and what power the Archbishop of Canterbury has to change any of this. Much of it would have little meaning absent the related issue of title to parish property (this will be addressed below) but there is also an important philosophical dimension not only for those within the Anglican family but also for those outside it. A year ago, Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria, addressing the Hope and a Future conference in Pittsburgh, delivered his famous sally: “Are you Network or are you ECUSA?” While an effective rhetorical device for rallying the troops, it nevertheless posed a possible conundrum for those, including, it must be said, his local host Bishop Robert Duncan, who insisted that the conservative dioceses in the Anglican Communion Network continued to be part of the Episcopal Church. How, it might reasonably be asked, can such a circle be squared?

One answer may be found in The Fate of Communion, [15] the new work by Ephraim Radner and Philip Turner that makes the catholic argument for reform of the Church through institutional adjustment rather than impulsive separatism. Both authors make a plausible case for, as far as humanly possible, waiting upon the structures of the Anglican Communion – most notably the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Primates Meeting – to work through the process mandated by the Windsor Report. Until that has run its course and the status of the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada relative to the rest of the Communion has been formally determined, any alternative structure is premature.

Those liberals who feel that the decision of conservatives to remain within the denomination and yet not of it is disingenuous at best need to recognize the possibility that those involved are actuated by a belief that any departure must wait upon the Church Catholic to reach an appropriate determination. Equally, those primates who have been more than usually scathing about conservative American Anglicans who want to have it both ways should bear in mind that the primates themselves have yet to express a collective opinion about what they understand as the future shape of the Communion. To ask people to come out of the Episcopal Church completely, even if “goods and kindred” must be sacrificed, is one thing;, to ask them to come out with no clear indication of what ecclesiastical entity they are entering is quite another. In “The Humiliation of Anglicanism and the Christian Life,” Radner draws on the examples of the seventeenth century English Nonjurors and the “Refractory” Church of the French Revolution to demonstrate how renewal is accomplished less by purification of church structures than by “agony”:

This is the sort of thing, in other words, that we should expect to experience if “life in communion” is to be the church’s vocation and destiny in this world: purity was no guarantee of and granted no rewards; good motives did not preserve moral outcomes; organization led to schism, while confused confession maintained the marks of humbled flesh, “useful” to resurrection; faithful and simple labor, straight ahead, done in the face of persecution and rejection, is seed; holiness and patience is a flame; teaching and catechizing is a gift; where no one triumphs, God reigns. [16]

If the necessary course for some is to remain, what of those who have reached the point at which they feel that their ability to preach the Gospel is irretrievably compromised? As noted above, most of those who wish to retain an ‘Anglican’ identity have developed ties to the bishop of another province and are now members of the (non-territorial) Seventh Convocation of the Anglican Communion Network (whose moderator, Robert Duncan, is Bishop of Pittsburgh). Thus, in the same way that the Episcopal Church currently occupies a grey area within the life of the Anglican Communion, so the Seventh Convocation churches, while still under their extra-territorial primates, occupy a similar grey area on the American scene.

If the departing congregation – or portion of a congregation – simply removes bodily from its current premises, problems do not arise; the issue is when it seeks to retain its property. At the most basic level, it is clearly absurd to look into the original intent of the founders, as it is doubtful if most of those involved would have approved of recent innovations in church practice; appeals by bishops to the idea that property was bequeathed to the Episcopal Church ignore the fact that such bequests were for the Episcopal Church, as it then was. In the situation that we face today, the only safe ground is to deal with the community of faith as it currently exists. Parishes where the majority is narrowly in favor of secession are unlikely to want to contest the issue of property. Pragmatism and Christian charity alike dictate departure and in the case of an aging structure the new congregation will be freed from the burden of expending an ever-increasing proportion of its resources on plant maintenance.

The problem arises with congregations that are products of the evangelical renewal movement that began during the 1970s. These can either be long-established traditional parishes that underwent a dramatic shift in orientation (such as Truro or St. Stephen’s, Sewickley in Pittsburgh) or plants like Christ Church, Plano, founded in 1985, which severed its ties with the Diocese of Dallas and TEC in September. All of these experienced dramatic growth in membership and material resources (which included a related benefit for the Episcopal Church until withholding in the 1990s reduced funding of the national church by evangelicals to a trickle) precisely by adopting methods of evangelization and spiritual formation in which most of TEC, whether by accident or design, expressed little interest. Part of the value of the church plants of these congregations reflects an active response to the Great Commission in which most Episcopal churches have failed to participate. At the very least, these congregations are entitled to compensation for the “value added” to their property by their labors.

The dissenting parishes do have obligations, however. First and foremost, is their obligation to the minority within their congregation, however small. If conservatives have been disappointed in expecting TEC to acknowledge its obligations to the Anglican Communion, they have no license thereby to disregard those who expected their congregation to remain within TEC. It will be essential to reach a settlement that provides for the latter’s pastoral care. Beyond this, are any financial obligations to their former diocese, all of which must assuredly be repaid. It would a gesture of good faith, finally, for congregations to make some commitment to their former bishop as to their future health as a community. Should they proceed to wither on the vine or dissolve into factionalism – the best measure of failure to keep the things of God clearly in view – then the bishop should have the right to reclaim the property.

What is evident is that most of the evangelical plants so described will go out en masse, and there is no bishop anywhere in the United States who has too many people and too few buildings. The watchword for the last thirty years from San Diego to Maine has been closing and consolidation of parishes. It seems almost certain that any bishop inheriting a property these days will, at best, keep it open for a year or two with a skeleton congregation and then will have no choice but to sell it. Unless one honestly believes that the seceders are not Christians as well as not Anglicans, the net result will be one Christian community fewer and the money raised is most unlikely to be deployed into the planting of a new parish. Perhaps those set to lose their property should try and force their bishop to commit either to keep the building open for at least ten years or to use any money raised solely for the purposes of church planting!


[1] For the text, see

[2] While many of the results will be announced tomorrow, after a week of voting, the lopsided vote from All Saints, Dale City of 402-6 (in a church of 500 members) suggests that the exodus in Virginia will be severe.
[3] See

[4] See
[5] See

[6] Allen C. Guelzo, For the Union of Evangelical Christendom: The Irony of the Reformed Episcopalians (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994).
[7] Bishop Wright’s critique cited in Note Five addresses these issues from an English perspective.
[8] On the MDGs, see Commentators on conservative blogs tend to see the MDGs as the Social Gospel minus evangelism. See Gregg Griffith’s comment on Stand Firm:

[9] George E. DeMille, The Catholic Movement in the American Episcopal Church (Philadelphia: Church Historical Society, 1950).

[10] One interesting case is that of Pittsburgh’s Calvary Church. On February 15, 1874, Joseph Wilson – its much loved rector - preached a sermon inviting his congregation to follow him into the Reformed Episcopal Church. Despite a supportive petition from many of the parishioners, the vestry immediately surrendered spiritual charge of the parish into the bishop’s hands and Wilson was forced to organize a separate congregation to which many Calvary parishioners – including almost all of the Sunday School – followed. When Wilson was called to other duties in the REC, however, the dissident congregation soon collapsed. Today, Calvary Church is amongst the most vocal opponents of Bishop Robert Duncan’s effort to uphold a conservative Anglican viewpoint, a course that could ultimately lead to the separation of the Diocese of Pittsburgh (though not Calvary Church) from TEC. How times change!
[11] See

[12] Some of these bodies are listed at
For discussion of the schisms of the 1970s, see Bryan V. Hillis, Can Two Walk Together Unless They Be Agreed? American Religious Schisms in the 1970s (Brooklyn, NY: Carlson Publishing Inc., 1991), 99-126.
[13] See

[14] On APO, see

[15] Ephraim Radner and Philip Turner, The Fate of Communion: The Agony of Anglicanism and the Future of a Global Church (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2006).

[16] Ibid., 273.


Anonymous said...

Christ Church Plano started as a plant of the Episcopal Diocese of DALLAS- not Texas, as reflected in the article. This is significant because Dallas is a Network Diocese (Texas is not). And Dallas claims to be an "orthodox" diocese with a "orthodox" Bishop but Bishop Stanton has seen more parishes leave (and 7 are currently in the process of leaving) than "liberal" dioceses.

Jeremy Bonner said...


You are quite right and I have amended the article. It just shows that you can review something several times and still overlook the obvious. Many thanks.