Sunday, November 04, 2007

Diocese of Pittsburgh Convention, November 3, 2007

“What’s the difference between Jurassic Park and the Church of England? Well, one’s a fantasy land populated by dinosaurs . . . and the other’s a blockbuster film.” So Assistant Bishop Henry Scriven introduced his homily for Morning Prayer and lent one of the few moments of light relief to today’s proceedings. I find myself writing up the account of today’s proceedings with a rather different perspective from that of yesterday, and I am grateful to Henry for what he has contributed throughout this convention period.

Much of today’s agenda involved routine canonical changes to which few raised objections. A proposal to penalize parishes that failed to submit parochial reports by denying seats to their clergy and lay deputies was sent back to committee after several clergy protested that not every clergyperson in a parish was responsible for the parochial report. A change to clarify the role of the assistant bishop was approved unanimously, Bishop Henry abstaining! A revision of a very detailed canon on the roles of the diocesan archivist and historian to give more leeway to the diocesan leadership was approved despite objections from former members of the diocesan archives and historical commission. A proposal to require annual parochial audits was amended to assure delinquent parishes of seat and voice but no vote. Another proposal to formally define the standing committee as the ecclesiastical trial court (which it currently is under national canons) was sent back to committee on the grounds that a formula needed to be developed to ensure that standing committee did not end up filling the dual roles of judge and jury. Until such a constitutional amendment is introduced, however, standing committee must continue to perform that function. Also returned to committee was an amendment that would have defined a process for planting new churches that placed little emphasis on consultation with the leadership of existing parishes (at least in the eyes of critics) and left matters almost entirely to the bishop (who makes the final decision in any case) and the standing committee.

It was in the matter of the twenty-sixth (and final) recommendation that debate took an unexpected turn with a proposal that the right to request the ayes and nays on a proposition be subject to the approval of a majority of those present and not – as is currently the case – to the request of any ten clergy and ten laity. It was argued that in the current climate, voting decisions will be compromised by external pressures (including the possibility of legal action). After I had unsuccessfully recommended that the proposal be sent back to committee (and the objections were very vocal), I found myself joined by Harold Lewis of Calvary (not a surprise, though not precisely the ally I would have sought). Then, in one of those remarkable displays that periodically occur at our conventions, Bishop Duncan surrendered the chair and came down to address us directly. This, he said, was one of the rare occasions where he and the rector of Calvary Church agreed. The elections of people are secret and for good reason, but votes on matters of principle require us to stand for what we believe. We had found a way to avoid a roll call in this convention (and Father Lewis had concurred with this), but if a majority always got to decide roll call votes, it was likely that there would never be any.

Father Jeff Murph of St. Thomas, Oakmont, then offered as an alternative a modification of the existing rule of order to require that the twenty persons requesting a roll call represent at least five parishes. There followed a most revealing set of exchanges, with several of the leading Evangelicals present insisting that the climate of intimidation and threats against diocesan leaders necessitated a firewall for faithful leaders. Roll call votes, maintained Whis Hays were being used as a form of harassment by the minority. Even if votes themselves are not actionable, someone else pointed out, they may be used to show a pattern of conduct elsewhere. Those opposing the amendment fell into two camps: liberals and moderates who argued the need for it to be possible to show publicly their opposition to conservative innovations (one moderate clergyman argued that any ostracism that derived from such votes would be social in nature, not political or legal); and conservatives who argued that the majority’s support for the amendment seemed to be derived from a position of fear not of blessed assurance. Allowing the minority to go the extra mile was an essential part of the process in which we are currently engaged. Their voices did not prevail, and the amendment passed.

One of the more interesting presences at this convention was John Guernsey of All Saints, Dale City in Virginia, now a bishop under Uganda, who spoke at the Friday evening dinner and preached at the closing Eucharist. While I thought it an unwise move to bring a bishop of the International Convocation to a (still) Episcopal convention, I confess to being pleasantly surprised. His addresses spoke beyond the present divide and directly linked the works of the evangelism to the work of Christian service. “John Guernsey is the bishop I would like to be when I grow up,” Bishop Duncan declared to us.

At this point, I wish to switch from the strictly narrative to the personal. As has now been noted in my earlier posting, I was in error regarding the necessity of a two-thirds majority vote for Resolution One (I plead as my excuse that I heard someone with a track record in the Diocese remark upon it in my district meeting and took it on faith instead of consulting the canons.) I find at the end of two very long days that I am troubled. I am no more troubled about my vote than I was before; amidst a multitude of evils I believe it to have been the right choice. What concerns me is the temper that I see emerging among the majority, of which I still consider myself a member. It is a temper of loyalty at all cost, to person and practice as well as to principle. It is a temper that speaks to the solidarity of the elect and has little time for the more quirkish orthodox spirits that inhabit this Diocese. One almost wonders if the spirit of fear is less a fear of what those outside can do to us and more of how reliable our fellow conservatives will be.

I believe there are measures of orthodox Christianity and that they should govern our leadership choices. Sadly, it would seem, we are now demanding a ‘higher’ standard. As I listened to some conservatives speak today about the climate of intimidation, I couldn’t help but feel that they were missing the point of Bishop’s Duncan’s sermon yesterday in which he reminded us that Christians are called to suffering and ostracism and rejection. If a decision is ‘right,’ why should it alarm us to be called upon to state it? What price conscience, without cost? If our enemies behave badly – and some of them have done and are doing so – it does not exempt us from behaving well. I am loyal to my Bishop in large measure because I believe he has a better sense of balance than some of those who proclaim themselves to be his most loyal supporters. I disagree with some of his judgments, but I have never faulted his sense of pastoral care.

Let us at least be clear among ourselves. We are witnessing the passing of something that was at the core of Anglican identity here in Pittsburgh and at the core of Anglican witness in the United States until now. The loss will not simply be the loss of liberal friends but will almost certainly be the loss of assurance and perhaps of the orthodox ‘diversity’ to which we have been so long accustomed. It behooves those who know that beyond the veil there is perfect freedom, to remember the rest of us who will walk that way certainly in uncertainty, perhaps in pain, because they know that to remain where they are is much the more perilous.

For my lords, it may well be that we shall perish utterly in a black battle far from the living lands;
so that even if Barad-dür be thrown down, we shall not live to see a new age. But this, I deem,
is our duty. And better so than to perish nonetheless – as we surely shall, if we sit here –
and know as we die that no new age shall be.


Anonymous said...

Schism is invariably clergy-driven.

A well-loved priest or bishop stands up and says, "You know, I have a real problem when the Episcopal Church..."

But some disagree; an argument ensues. Over time, agreeing with the priest becomes a loyalty test. "How can you say he doesn't know what he's talking about? Look at all the good things he's done!"

People's attitudes harden; so do their hearts. A few years later there's a vote on whether to separate. A popular leader seldom loses these votes.

But really, placing candles on the Holy Table is not a big deal. Go in peace, but be prepared to live with the consequences of your decision. They will be numerous and unpredictable. You suggest that many will be harmful; I agree. Schism is never the work of the Holy Spirit.

Jeremy Bonner said...


I think it would be a mistake to see this solely as clergy-driven. That the clergy are more solidly behind Bishop Duncan than the laity is true, but please don't imagine that lay leaders are incapable of making clear choices for themselves. You could equally argue that the members of Calvary Church are blindly following Harold Lewis.

For me, at least, the issue is not whether the pain is worth the cost; a majority of us have already reached that conclusion, for a variety of reasons. The issue is how we negotiate the divorce. Sometimes it is easier to be charitable to the losers in a struggle than to allies whom one deems insufficiently ardent. I know a number of people in Pittsburgh who fall into that category, many of whom are not in a position to speak for themselves. I do not have the same inhibition.

Unknown said...

Jeremy, what you've written so resonates with me. I have struggled to try to explain at BabyBlue and in conversations what it feels like - to desire reconciliation even to the last moment and be ready for it, and yet to know that one needs to stand firmly for Jesus and efforts to redefine him into some sort of what I call the "christ thingy" (where the word "christ" means sometime entirely different than Jesus Himself).

The result is a brokenheart, which we are reminded in scripture that God does not despise. It's the way of the cross, which is costly. It means loving Episcopalians and not the doctrine (and how does one work that out?).

Sandy Millar was at Truro last weekend and his sermon was a warning very much like what you've written in your post. Being Bishop Millar and British he speaks very gently, but we should make no mistake about what he says. It is a warning - aimed at the orthodox, not the liberals (which he is clear to say) for we are the ones most in danger, even at this moment, of losing our first love.

The text (and audio) of his sermon is here:

And my commentary is here:

But I think you are spot on. It does seem as though we are heading for the divorce courts, which in many ways describes the trial here in Virginia next week.

It may be necessary, we pray for reconciliation, but it does hurt. To pretend differently, to harden our heart, to look to who is the greatest among us - all issues Jesus dealt with amongst his own disciples(!) - is to deceive ourselves.

I think this is why the spiritual disciplines right now are so important, whatever worship style we find ourselves in. Prayer, worship, scripture reading, fellowship, fasting, solitude, silence - we may want to consider investing more into these disciplines. From what I understand, even Willow Creek is waking up to that fact. This is how we are trained. Otherwise, we start pointing fingers.

Bless you,

Richard Kew said...


Thank you for your insights which are gracious and helpful. I have been in conversation with a dear friend, a bishop, who has been ravaged on the blogs for the actions he has taken in an attempt to steer what he believes is a godly course through the maelstrom. He has tried not to be intimidated by either "side," and as a result has brought down stern wrath upon himself from those who say he lacks spine.

We both agree that the mess that is American Anglicanism in general, and the Episcopal Church, in particular, is a classic example of Christians (on all sides) behaving badly. It sounds as if some of that was happening at the Pittsburgh convention. It saddens me greatly.

After thirty-one years ministry in the Episcopal Church, most of which were a great joy and privilege, I was given the opportunity (by God) to return to England this year. I took it, because it also gives me the opportunity to spent my last years of active ministry doing something that will advance the Kingdom. I am not certain fighting over the tattered remnants of the Episcopal Church will allow for that.

Many, including some in the Diocese of Pittsburgh have been mad at me, and I understand their sense that I might have betrayed them. This is not so, but it reflects the antagonistic party spirit that now prevails.

I do not know you, Jeremy, but God bless you.

Anonymous said...


I think I might be the unreliable source of your misinformation about the (actually not) required supermajority for constitutional revision. I also had just "overheard" this bit of information in the moments prior to our district meeting--and so passed it along without having had the chance to verify. Apologies. Many thanks for your fine reporting and excellent reflections.