Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Parish Conversation Begins

Today we initiated the process which all parishes in the Diocese of Pittsburgh must undergo before diocesan convention meets forty days from now. In many respects, it was an instructive commentary on how our small parish family differs both from those parishes whose congregations are theologically coherent (either in a reappraising or a reasserting direction) and those that are focused solely on their parish life. While our clergy make no secret of the fact that they will preach and teach the "orthodox Gospel," the congregation includes ACN staff and seminarians from Trinity School for Ministry together with long-standing members who would count themselves committed to The Episcopal Church. It is debatable, however, whether it would be fair to call the latter's theology strictly "progressive;" for the most part, a Pittsburgh progressive would be viewed as a moderate or even a moderate conservative in most dioceses. And then there's the fact that, by virtue of being Trinity Cathedral, we are the bishop's church and dependent on the diocese (as currently constituted) for parochial upkeep. That we function at all is testimony to the sacrifices so many parishioners make to keep outreach and hospitality ministries afloat. For those critical of the bishop's present course it must truly be a sacrificial ministry to (for example) serve on the altar guild when Common Cause services occur, yet many of them do; in their place, I'm not certain I could do it with such grace.

Our provost discussed the amendments proposed for November regarding the accession clause to the national constitution (which include a progressive-sponsored amendment that would remove any qualification to our accession). She spoke to Trinity Cathedral's identity as a downtown church "open and accessible to all," a heavily pertinent phrase given the many homeless people to whom our clergy and laypeople minister. She emphasized that she would continue to recognize the diversity of viewpoints in the congregation but would not accept any clergy person onto her staff unwilling to uphold the "orthodox Gospel." She instanced a refusal to authorize any blessing of same-sex unions as one criterion for this - to which one member responded that this had never occurred at Trinity - while pledging pastoral care to any and all who sought it. She also noted that despite past tensions with the diocesan leadership, Trinity had benefited significantly from diocesan grants in recent years for a new sound system, support for her assistant and funds from Celebrate 250 for cleaning the exterior of the Cathedral. Discussion then proceeded to a paper prepared by the rector of Fox Chapel Church on the four options open to the Diocese ranging from absolute submission to diocesan departure (all, interestingly enough, likely to involve the loss of members and funds - there is no 'safe' option). The present lawsuit initiated by Calvary Church (an entirely local affair to which the national church is - as yet - not a party) is costing the Diocese $30,000 a month and is likely to run in the neighborhood of $500,000 by the time it comes to trial.

Throughout the discussion, a degree of civility was shown by all parties, which, one feels, could profitably be employed elsewhere in the Church. Of course, this may be because we are not really concerned - rightly or wrongly - with trying to convince the other side of deep doctrinal error, though we still pray for a miracle in the midst of uncertainty. One parishioner asked bluntly what reason there was - aside from a purely financial one - in trying to stay together when relations had become so bad. She noted that in the town in which she had grown up several of the local Protestant churches had divided over doctrinal issues and had emerged as independent entities better focused on their mission of saving the lost as a result. This is, of course, the classic American Protestant model and the present leaders of CANA and AMIA seem desirous of proving the truth of her statement. Whether it will turn out to be true in the long term remains to be seen. The founders of the Reformed Episcopal Church were similarly optimistic during the 1870s. Other members spoke to the importance of history and tradition in the Episcopal experience and to a commitment to catholicity in its widest sense as reasons why Christians might shrink from separation until the eleventh hour.

Some more conservative members of the congregation who are comparatively new to the Episcopal/Anglican scene warned against a premature rush towards schism. Setting up a new entity to preserve doctrinal purity, they said, was not always as effective at changing the surrounding culture as one might think. "There's got to be some middle ground," one remarked. The senior warden added that nothing currently going on outside the Cathedral was as important as what was taking place within it in terms of worship, fellowship and ministry, though this did not free us from making a decision when a concrete issue was presented. Such a decision would be one for every member as well as for the Cathedral as a corporate unit. All agreed with the remark of one parishioner, who has no desire to see the congregation divide, that the present divisions are not allowing us to move forward in mission, but the question remains as to how to break the logjam.

Given today's announcement of the pending resignation of the Bishop Steenson of the Diocese of the Rio Grande (over concern about the present course of The Episcopal Church) the prospects look far from promising. What I do believe - and said as much at the meeting - is that the rationale for seeking to retain buildings should be predicated upon a congregation's ability to maintain them independently. Absent a negotiated settlement (either diocesan or national), the ultimate obligation of Communion conservatives at Trinity Cathedral is to withdraw if matters look set to go to law. It is no part of Christian stewardship to go into court to try and retain a structure that we cannot presently sustain. The fact that it is the bishop's seat does not, to my mind, make any difference. Perhaps the plurality of Common Cause bishops is actually a good thing. With fewer congregations, bishops may be able to focus more on direct pastoral oversight as their administrative responsibilities decline.

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