Friday, October 30, 2009

An Open Letter to the Standing Committee of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh (Anglican Church in North America)

October 30, 2009

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Having recently expressed my concerns to the leadership of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh (The Episcopal Church) regarding their stance on Judge James’s decision, I feel it only consistent to note my opposition to the intent of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh (Anglican Church in North America), as reported in today’s Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, to appeal that decision.

Over the five years that I have been in Pittsburgh, I have taken as a given that the embrace of “miraculous expectation and missionary grace” was a sincere one, even as I learned – as one might reasonably expect – that perfect behavior in all things is for the Church Triumphant rather than the Church Militant. So often have I heard the wise advice to trust in God’s Providence and to refrain from fretting about the future. Concurrently, however, engagement in the legal process, employing the same types of legal argument concerning ultimate jurisdiction and property law as invoked by lawyers for The Episcopal Church, has continued.

Ultimately, at least from this historian’s perspective, there is no way to prove the original intent of Episcopal Church structures, not least because the first generation of church leaders carefully refrained from a single explicit declaration of the corporate nature of the church. All we have are moral claims, which are precisely those upon which the secular courts are unwilling to render an opinion.

It has been frequently asserted that the ACNA diocese has always been willing to negotiate in good faith and that defending against aggressive motions does not contravene the scriptural imperative against lawsuits among Christians. This seems to me like special pleading. If ACNA does indeed have a special purpose in God’s design, then it seems equally plausible that an initial failure in the courts is either a way of telling us that we must “let goods and kindred go” without complaint, or, alternatively, that God is providing an occasion for grace on the part of The Episcopal Church to reach an Overland Park-style resolution. If we are intended to be a new post-millennial, post-institutional body, then among the patterns of behavior that we must set aside is an American understanding of property of which many of us have been only recent stewards.

The future mode of ACNA is apparently to be a decentralized federation of churches (I’m still not sure how we reconcile the model Geoff Chapman described at the Sewickley pre-convention meeting with a catholic ecclesiology, but at least I can understand the reasons why it might be desired). Fighting so fervently on behalf of a lingering diocesan authority that we do not intend to retain in the future is not, to my way of thinking, compatible with that.

While I realize that my perspective is probably a minority one, in retrospect I do think it unfortunate that we never had separate votes – as was done in Virginia – on realignment as a principle and, separately, on recourse to the courts as part of the realignment strategy. Those opposed to court action and who make diocesan pledges to ACNA – as I do – are thus as obliged to see our money being used for a purpose of which we disapprove as are conservatives still in TEC.

I would ask that you carefully reflect and solicit views from a spectrum of people within the diocese before proceeding down the road currently contemplated. A future historian of ACNA would, I feel sure, much prefer to recount a story of a formative church beneath the trees than of one locked in courtroom conflict.

Sincerely, Jeremy Bonner, PhD, Trinity Cathedral

Saturday, October 10, 2009

An Open Letter to the Standing Committee of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh

October 10, 2009

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I write to express my concern about the tone of the recent letter released on the diocesan website. While I have always accepted that, at least from a purely legal point of view, both diocesan entities could make a reasonable claim to the endowment, I had hoped that a spirit of pragmatism would enter into any proceedings concerning parish ownership. A generous reading of the aforementioned letter suggests that a mediated process might lead to a transfer of parish property, but it is so hedged about with reservations that it might almost be better to have said outright that nothing short of a return to the Episcopal Church would enable realigned conservatives to remain in their property.

I am one of probably a rather small number who believes that ACNA's participation in the present legal case was unwise, not because realignment could not legally occur - I happen to believe that it could - but because getting involved in the first place has served only to distract attention from what ACNA claims to be about and prolong the bitterness. That said, the language of reconciliation employed here simply does not comport with reality. If you simply wish to reclaim all parish buildings, then say so. If you wish to extract a "fair market value," then say that.

While I recognize that the Standing Committee embraces a wide spectrum of theological opinion, those of you actively involved in the work of the pre-realignment diocese understand what drove realignment, even if you disagreed with the strategy.To say that "you do not wish to punish" is frankly patronizing (I fear there is no other word), particularly given the fact that such reassurance should be entirely unnecessary if you are simply carrying out a "fiduciary duty." More to the point, you know that for many in Pittsburgh the time for the accomplishment of "fruitful things" has long since passed. It may perhaps be achievable by the right people at the right place and time, but members of the realigned diocese are not the right people and this is not the right place and time for them.

Some of us had hoped to be able to create a framework in which there could continue to be relationships across the Episcopal/Anglican divide, perhaps the only place in the United States where conditions favored such a strategy. The severing of bonds between clergy who have worked together for years is particularly sad. I will not claim that there have been no statements or actions from the other side that have accentuated the present unpleasantness, but I confidently predict that a letter of this sort will formalize the divide in perpetuity. For some on Standing Committee that may be no great loss, but not, I suspect, for all.

Sincerely, Jeremy Bonner, PhD, Trinity Cathedral

Friday, October 09, 2009

"Force is not the Means by which We Lead or Govern"

Yesterday, in accordance with my duties as Trinity Cathedral delegate to two diocesan conventions (yes, dear reader, two; I suspect it must be some sort of record to be an accredited delegate to two rival conventions under such circumstances), I followed up my visit to Calvary Church for the TEC pre-convention meeting with a trip out to Sewickley for the ACNA pre-convention meeting at St. Stephen's Church. Of the Calvary meeting, I will say only that it was generally unremarkable (Judge James's ruling having yet to be delivered) and most of the discussion dealt with budgetary issues and revisions of the canons to bring them back into accord with the national church. For those intrigued by the emerging shape of the new province, however, I suspect some who were not there might find the matters discussed at the ACNA pre-convention to be of interest.

On Wednesday, delegates gathered in the shadow of the court decision. Archbishop Duncan was in sunny mood, however, a disposition no doubt enhanced by the knowledge that his audience was comprised of the faithful. Discussion of the budget - now dependent on assessment income alone - involved the proposal to move the diocese from mandatory assessments to a voluntary tithe. The latter is a plank of ACNA thinking on stewardship, embracing the biblical norm of giving, and Pittsburgh has set as a goal the giving of 10 percent of its income to the new province (leaders of the province have in turn promised to offer significant financial support to underwrite the office of the archbishop). As a first step, redirected giving by parishes - instituted in 1996 to allow congregations to refrain from giving to TEC - will be ended and parishes (and individuals) strongly encouraged to make the tithe the standard of giving. Next year's convention will then institute first reading of a change to the constitution that will make all giving voluntary. Sewickley rector Geoff Chapman commended these moves as helping to build mutual trust and greater interdependence and yet, as the archbishop acknowledged, this is obviously a step of faith for the leadership. Assessment income is down from a 2009 budget figure of $1,549,088 to $931,491 in 2010 (or $870,172 if every parish went with the tithe, since several large parishes are currently assessed at 11 percent). Later, in a discussion on elections to the new board of trustees, the archbishop cheerfully responded to a question on their function in a post-endowment world, by stating that they would be responsible for "the many things that will be given us."

Also reviewed were new guidelines for clergy compensation, including maternity and paternity leave (Jonathan Millard inquired if this was to be retroactive). The loss of access to the Church Pension Fund, Archbishop Duncan admitted, was a sore blow, given its defined benefits, especially for disabled clergy. Any new pension scheme will only reflect the level of contributions. At present the search is on for good disability insurance that will provide some degree of protection to clergy just beginning their careers.

Perhaps most fascinating was the report from Canon Hays on the admission of new non-geographic parishes. Present were a group from Church of the Transfiguration in Cleveland, OH, who together with Harvest Anglican in Homer City, PA; St. James, San Jose, CA, and Holy Trinity, Raleigh, NC, will be admitted into union at convention. The news provoked a question from Dennett Buettner as to why a parish in San Jose had not joined San Joaquin, to which Canon Hays responded that they had female candidates for ordination and that, after examining all the new dioceses, they considered Pittsburgh to be the best fit. A Silicon Valley-based congregation they had, she said, a desire to plant a new diocese in the Bay area! Tina Lockett then rose to ask the archbishop whether it in fact the case that "we're still not tied to geography" and that the possibility existed that even a Pittsburgh-based congregation could elect to seek union with another jurisdiction. Archbishop Duncan responded that while it had been agreed among the bishops that both must agree on transfers - San Joaquin had concurred in the San Jose initiative - he doubted if any ACNA bishop would seek to restrain a congregation that wished to "move" elsewhere. Something upon which to ponder!

Resolutions setting the Jerusalem Declaration as the standard of belief and upholding the sanctity of human life were reviewed in short order, before a march began through proposed changes to constitution and canons. While many simply involved deletion of references to TEC, there were some more substantive alterations. Canon 1 sees a shift from membership in the Province of the Southern Cone to membership in the Anglican Church in North America, prompting they question of whether membership in the Anglican Communion continued to be assured by the fact that all ACNA bishops had seats in the house of bishops of other provinces. Archbishop Duncan confirmed this, at the same time noting with a twinkle that the Archbishop of Canterbury's letter acknowledging the formation of ACNA (addressed to the Most Reverend Robert Duncan) had managed to convey the impression that this was an ingenious arrangement to retain membership. Of course, the archbishop added, "he'll never say that publicly." Elsewhere, the Array (the court of ecclesiastical discipline) is to be reconfigured to provide a review committee and identify responsibilities and powers; parishes given more freedom to set up in close proximity (in case of eviction); the requirement to maintain full-time clergy for parish status is eliminated; and all parish property is now to be vested in the parish. Geoff Chapman here intervened to ask if every parish will have the ultimate right of disassociation from ACNA and was informed that the necessary change will be made next year.

The emphasis on subsidiarity was all to evident throughout the meeting. As the quote from Archbishop Duncan that heads this report clearly demonstrates, ACNA will in some measure revert to the model found in TEC throughout much of the 19th century. The test will come in a few years when a measure of stability has been achieved. It will also be interesting to see how it meshes with leadership models among ACNA's African allies and whether it will even come to shape behaviors across the theological divide. Congregational it undoubtedly is, but will its Anglican roots make it something more than that?

By the end of the meeting the archbishop was in upbeat mood. We've proved, he said, we can live without the endowments, so even if we choose not to appeal, we are secure. He pledged that even this year's convention will be different, with alternates and observers free to sit among the delegates. We may do some things according to legislative procedures, he concluded, but we're not a legislative body but a family. And in a sense he's right. Comradeship in adversity has welded together the inner circle of those who have worked with Bob Duncan since he first came to Pittsburgh and the wider body of believers in Pittsburgh who belong to ACNA. It's interesting for me that while I still identify with ACNA as much as I do with any institution, at neither pre-convention meeting did I feel myself to be wholly there. Perhaps I've just spent too long writing about a pre-realignment diocese. There are just too many missing faces (everywhere) for me to feel entirely comfortable. "We have the future," the archbishop insisted, while those in TEC "have only the past." What sort of future, I wonder.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

The Agony of Possession

For some while I have contemplated an articulation of my thoughts on the war for diocesan and parish property currently being waged in my home diocese and across the United States between the Episcopal Church (TEC) and the newly formed Anglican Church in North America (ACNA). Yesterday, Judge James’s decision burst on the scene, broadly supporting the position of the TEC diocese that they are entitled to the entirety of the diocesan endowment (parish property is not addressed under this ruling). While some on the conservative side are no doubt gearing up for an appeal (the fact that there appear to be conflicting bases for recent decisions against ACNA in Pittsburgh and Fort Worth even suggest that appeals could ultimately end up in the Supreme Court), I find myself wondering what such legal contortions have to do with the mission of ACNA itself.

I should perhaps preface my remarks with some explanation on my own experience of being an Anglican. In the course of thirty-eight years, I have been a member of four parishes: the middle-of-the-road Church of England parish of St. Cuthbert’s. Durham (1970-1992); the gaudily extrovert Anglo Catholic bastion of St. Paul’s, K Street in Washington DC (1992-2003); the equally high, but more down-to-earth foundation of Mount Calvary, Baltimore (2003-2004); and the utterly un-categorizable Trinity Cathedral in Pittsburgh (2004-2009). All have contributed to my understanding of what it means to be first a Christian and secondly an Anglican.

In the course of my seventeen years in the United States (more or less the same period of time that Archbishop Robert Duncan has served in Pittsburgh in a variety of guises), the configuration of Anglicanism – both in the United States and worldwide – has been transformed. Parallel jurisdictions, heavily influenced by a strongly countercultural brand of Evangelicalism, exist throughout the English-speaking world, filling a void created, at least in part, by the failure of successive Archbishops of Canterbury to articulate a vision of mutually dependent provinces that minimizes dramatic shifts in doctrinal belief and practice at a provincial level. In the United States, the pace of theological innovation – of which Bishop Gene Robinson is a symptom not the cause – has precipitated an alternative body for conservative Anglicans (ACNA) that currently occupies an uncertain position within the structures of global Anglicanism. All of this is amply documented, but would attract little attention in the secular world but for two factors: the prominent part that the debate over human sexuality has played in the conflict between liberal and conservative Christians and the struggle for ecclesiastical assets. It is the latter that concerns me here.

My experience of the property conflict is shaped by my five years in Pittsburgh, as much an observer of how the recent past has shaped the present as a player in the world of diocesan politics. I have no great stake in diocesan institutions one way or the other, although I have developed a number of spiritual associations and friendships for which I am devoutly grateful. There are others who stand to lose far more than I in terms of long-standing family connections to particular parishes or significant contributions to diocesan projects and endowment funds. That said, the following arguments have been advanced in favor of an aggressive legal strategy by the conservative side:

1. Preservation of parish property for the active worshipping community, which has sustained it with minimal input from the diocese and practically none from the national church.

The appeal to the rights of property holders is, of course, deeply buried in the American psyche. Practical congregationalism has very much been the norm in American religious life since colonial days, and while national church bodies emerged during the 19th century, they tended to be comparatively weak (a state of affairs heightened by the internecine strife that erupted in many Protestant denominations over the Fundamentalist Controversy in the 1910s). The Episcopal Church was no exception to this tendency, with a weak national structure that only began to solidify during the late 1950s (ironically about the same time that denominational numbers began their precipitate decline). The last thing that the Episcopal Church’s bishops desired was direct responsibility for the running of the parishes in their care. Bishops were responsible for missions (whose incumbents they could appoint or remove at will), but incorporated parishes stood very much on their rights. A bishop’s power was ultimately negative (a refusal to perform episcopal acts, such as Confirmation) and a refusal to license clergy from outside the diocese. Once a clergyman was canonically resident, however, an incorporated parish could call him even in the face of the bishop’s disapproval, as Pittsburgh Bishop Cortlandt Whitehead
discovered to his cost in 1912.A form of congregationalism upon which was superimposed an episcopal polity was thus the working norm.

A fair reading of the historical record, therefore, would seem to imply the virtue of a pragmatic distribution of parish properties according to the majority sentiment of their congregations, when serious doctrinal divisions arise, with the goal, as far as possible, of continuing an effective worshipping community in the sacred space. Rarely are decisions of this sort as overwhelming as they were in Northern Virginia in 2006, however. What does one do, for example, in the case of a 60%-40% split, especially if the 40% provide a greater proportion of the parochial income? What obligations do the “winners” have to the “losers” in such a scenario, if, as seems more and more to be the case, there is little appetite for negotiating a compromise? Should those with long attachment to the parish be granted rights to marry and bury and to hold periodic services in the church?

It’s dangerously easy to dismiss the gripes of the minority as those of “sore losers” but if we accept that the Church is not, in its essence, a democracy, then we should avoid putting too much faith in the democratic process as infallibly revealing God’s will. That sort of language has been all too evident at recent sessions of General Convention and it is not a positive development. Those looking to “come out and be separate” then, if they wish to make a claim to property, need to start with an assessment of the needs of those who will reject such a course, which usually includes both those who share their views but reject their strategy and those who fundamentally disagree with their views. A building and even a diocesan endowment fund are fleeting assets, as compared with the income secured from consistent and dedicated pledgers. More to the point, the notion that “they’re trying to steal our property” is now as rife on the conservative side as on the liberal one, even though the “property,” if we have our priorities right, is God’s to dispose of as He sees fit. This does not mean that one should be entirely passive in such matters, but it should make the legal approach (and that, at least to me, includes defending against a suit as well as initiating it) one into which you enter at great personal risk.

2. Preventing the exploitation of buildings or other assets by those who would use them to propound a “false Gospel.

A rationale now much in vogue in conservative circles is to ensure that monies currently under their control do not fall into the hands of heretics. Successive legal battles deplete the national church’s financial reserves until a point is reached at which TEC will have no choice but to capitulate and reach an agreement with their opponents. Again, providing the legal points being contested are genuine, this would seem to be a legitimate legal strategy.

But is it what the Christian life calls us to pursue? Although there is a fair degree of liberal commentary that describes ACNA as an “un-Anglican” body, it still largely remains the preserve of conservatives to describe their opponents as “non-Christians.” Frankly, I find it hard to accept this as a blanket designation. There is plenty of non-Christian behavior evident, but unfortunately that’s not unheard of in orthodox circles (even here in Pittsburgh). Within TEC, there is a worldview whose concessions to the prevailing culture have compromised its ability to proclaim the Gospel – and have brought us to the pass of realignment – but that doesn’t necessarily translate into assured destruction for all in the TEC camp. It is at least arguable whether preventing corporate (not individual) monies from the affected dioceses to pass in any form to TEC and its subsidiaries is something to be ensured by any and all means. Some TEC programs funded – especially at the diocesan level – will be positive or, at any rate, innocuous, while some, of course, will not, but there is a distinct difference between redirecting funds (as was the case in the early years of the Anglican Communion Network) and calculated asset-stripping.

3. Bringing public attention to bear on constitutional abuses of the polity of the Episcopal Church, most notably the infamous Dennis Canon, and forcing ultimate acknowledgment of the essentially congregational nature of TEC in matters of property.

We now come to the crux of the matter, namely that actions taken by TEC in recent months run counter to the very Constitution and Canons they have in place, the deposition of Bishop Duncan being a case in point. The voluminous writings of such legal observers as the
Anglican Curmudgeon provide extensive commentary on this point. It seems fairly clear that TEC is, in large measure, willing (in a paraphrase of the old moniker about the Supreme Court) to make the Constitution and Canons what the Presiding Bishop and the Executive Council say it is. That is undeniable; it is also not ACNA’s problem. It is a very real problem for conservatives within TEC and one with which they will have to wrestle in the years ahead, but for ACNA conservatives to huff and puff about the illegality of TEC practices seems misplaced. After all many have written – and continue to write – as if this was only to be expected, so surprise and outrage seem a little contrived.

More to the point, the whole basis of the new post-Constantinean model of “doing Church” has been predicated on ending any state interest in the affairs of ecclesiastical bodies. The present recourse to the courts is essentially an appeal to the state to resolve issues that the latter cannot begin fully to understand. We really need good divorce lawyers handling these cases, not experts in Canon Law. None of this is to say that I think TEC has a particularly good
moral claim to property (after all, while most of the 19th century men and women who helped create the major endowments wouldn’t have got on very well with the present ACNA leadership, they would have had even less time for today's liberal revisionists) but it does call into question whether a courtroom confrontation is the best venue for fighting such a battle. Property is becoming an encumbrance as people are distracted by litigation from doing the work of mission that ACNA’s leaders proclaimed at Bedford.

I close with another little Tolkien paradigm that seems apposite, just after Frodo has offered Galadriel the Ring and she has refused it. “I wish,” Sam Gamgee tells her, “you’d take his Ring. You’d put things to rights. You’d stop them digging up the gaffer and turning him adrift. You’d make some folk pay for their dirty work.” “I would,” Galadriel responds. “That is how it would begin. But it would not stop with that, alas!”

Are we listening?