Sunday, November 06, 2011

Discerning the Promised Land: Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh Convention, November 5, 2011

“We are not in it to be right, to justify ourselves, or to look down on others.” With such words did Bishop Neil Lebhar of the Gulf Atlantic Diocese conclude his final teaching of Pittsburgh’s diocesan convention meeting on the grounds of St. Vincent’s College (a Benedictine foundation) in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. The warm welcome offered by St. Vincent’s Benedictine prior and the Roman Catholic Bishop of Greensburg, was only reinforced by tales of parishes that had surrendered their buildings only to receive encouragement and aid from sympathetic congregations of other denominations.

For Lebhar – whose Florida congregation was among the first to leave its church building – a willingness to surrender material security for reliance on God to provide should be part of the character of ACNA and he must have welcomed such testimony as that provided by members of All Saints, Rosedale, now happily worshiping in a local Methodist church. Or Paul Cooper of New Life in Mars, whose congregation meets in the local Catholic Church and whose 83-year old churchwarden has a list of eight congregations to be planted before he dies! Or Doug Sherman of St. James in Penn Hills, who reported that all but one congregant had joined the exodus, that the parish was doing much better financially and that “it’s awesome to have [the decision to leave] behind you.” All that was needed to underscore such accounts was the announcement by Chancellor Robert Devlin that this was the first convention that he had attended when the Anglican Diocese was not in litigation. As of the Pennsylvania supreme court decision, parishes whose deeds were in the name of the Board of Trustees no longer owned their property and that decision would not be appealed.

Much of the business of the day, however, was devoted not to existing congregations but to those in embryo, including two new parishes (St. Michael’s, Nashotah, WI, and Trinity, Yuba City, CA); eight mission fellowships (six in Illinois and one each in Iowa and Minnesota); and ten mission fellowships-in-formation (two in Pittsburgh, four in California and five in Illinois). Amid the inevitable presentation of Steelers towels to the out-of-town visitors, mission representatives spoke to the importance of the link with Pittsburgh, however fleeting it might ultimately be. From Sanctuary, Lawrenceville, came words of praise for the Archbishop’s flexibility in the models of mission that he is permitting. The priest at Holy Spirit, Folsom, CA (the town not the prison, as he hastened to add), described a congregation that began in a restaurant and moved to a funeral home chapel. His fears about the cost were allayed when, unprompted, the proprietor observed that “when you get to 100 people we may have to start charging for wear and tear.” Among the most inspiring, the reports from the Chicago greenhouse movement, among them two missions serving Spanish-speaking populations; Church of All Nations, deliberately planted in a low income neighborhood; and Heritage, whose mission is to multiply congregations in nursing homes!

Canon Missioner Mary Hays, in welcoming the new congregations, spoke to her personal experience of serious injury, which had obliged her to slow down and had led her to “hear” better what people were trying to tell her about spiritual and physical burnout. She spoke of a class she had taught at Trinity School for Ministry where even African clergymen had confessed to being “too busy” to pray. Space needs to be created in which God can act, in individual lives and in congregations. Jenni Bartling – celebrating her tenth anniversary as Congregational Developer for New Churches (more like a paid hobby than a job) noted how far the Diocese had come since Archbishop Duncan pledged in 2000 to plant ten congregations in the next decade. Today there was increasing emphasis on local mission; renewal of displaced congregations who, though not new, were now doing something new; and an increasing number of experienced church planters coming forward (as opposed to those embracing church planting because it was “cool.” Other snippets of news about the condition of the Diocese trickled out as the day wore on.

1. Our now customary ballot for diocesan offices with only enough candidates to fill the slots (which led the Archbishop to plead that “the purpose is not Soviet-style voting,” and to encourage anyone wishing to propose names from the floor).

2. The adoption of a resolution to base parish representation on Average Sunday Attendance rather than Communicant Numbers, since ACNA does not collect data on communicant membership.

3. A report that our financial situation has greatly improved since last year, with a small surplus. Particularly noteworthy is the fact that of the $920,000 to be raised from the Godly Share (the voluntary tithe that is now the standard for parish giving), $50,000 comes from parishes outside the territorial diocese.

4. The Anglican Relief and Development Fund has provided $4.9 million for 106 projects around the world.

5. A speaker from Christ Church, Plano, spoke on behalf of Anglican 1000, which, he stressed, is not the church-planting arm of ACNA – only bishops, clergy and lay leaders have the authority to do that. In the time between summer and fall of 2011, the number of church plants known to Anglican 1000 jumped from 130 to 180 (including ten from Cuba). Few dioceses though have the church-planting resources available in Pittsburgh and they should be utilized to the full. When Archbishop Duncan pledged in 2009 to plant 1,000 churches in five years, there was astonishment yet the present auguries are propitious as a new foundation for “biblical, missionary Anglicanism” is laid.

The teachings by Bishop Lebhar and his wife Marcia represented one of the high points of the convention. Conflict in churches, he told the assembly, is “a major problem for American Christians. We go shopping for non-conflict churches – good luck!” We are generally viewed as failures if we’re involved in conflict, and yet sometimes conflict is a necessary part of our spiritual growth. Often the problem is not so much with the information that we gather on a problem but how we interpret it, and it is in the white heat of interpretation that conflict flourishes. In a conflict situation, the default position for those who are afraid is to cling to the familiar rather than to trust in God’s power to preserve us from even the worst of situations. God’s purpose in difficult times is both to humble and to test. Often our preference is to relieve pressures rather than have the inner workings of our hearts revealed. Members of his Diocese were all obliged to go through a process of coming to terms with their lack of control and of learning to forgive their detractors.

Marcia Lebhar later took up the theme of trust with a reflection on the reality of the paucity of water in Canaan as compared with the Israelites’ experience in Egypt. The heart of idolatry is the insistence on a “Plan B” and God has prepared a new Anglican for ACNA that its members must expect on God’s terms. Finally, and at the close of proceedings Bishop Lebhar, introduced the imagery of the challenge posed to Judaism posed by the Romanized culture of Herod the Great’s Caesarea and the warning to the infant Christian Church given by the Epistle of Jude, namely of cultural surrender. “Many Americans,” said, “have become co-dependent on the culture.” His greatest fear for ACNA is that today’s vitality will weaken and acculturation make its way in, for if we acquiesce to the prevailing culture we cannot save those now imprisoned by it.

One curious postscript, a letter from former Bishop Alden Hathaway expressing his love and continuing prayers for Pittsburgh and seeking letter dimissory to the Diocese of South Carolina. Curious because the request was to the ACNA Bishop of Pittsburgh but in respect of the TEC Diocese of South Carolina, albeit in many ways a Diocese of one. Make of it what you will.

I’ve given up predicting when I will finally leave Pittsburgh, as perhaps my devoted readers have now realized. As long as I’m here I will keep the record, for whatever it may be worth.

I've noticed that dear David Wilson and Tara Jernigan have stolen a march on me this year, but I think I make up for it in quantity if not quality.


Bruce Robison said...

Thanks for this, Jeremy. Sounds like a great convention indeed. We missed you at ours, but I know that bilocation thing is something of a challenge. Interestingly, we also had a warm and affectionate letter from Bishop Hathaway, and Bishop Price indicated that he had requested Letters Dimissory to South Carolina. My guess is that at this point in his life and ministry Bishop Hathaway's focus is more personal, and that his desire in the "dual" request would be to be sure that his pastoral regard was felt equally by all. A note of kindness not surprising to any of us who have known and loved him.



Jeremy Bonner said...

Thanks Bruce,

Sadly I do lack the ability to be simultaneously present in two locations. While I take very kindly your regret at my absence, I somehow doubt that most of your colleagues feel the same way.

Thanks for the clarification on +Alden; those two sets of Letters Dimissory must rank up there with my several years of joint attendance at both the TEC and ACNA conventions.

The Rev Canon Dr David Wilson said...

An excellent report my dear Jeremy, much better than mine in both quantity and quality

Anonymous said...

A most comprehensive and eloquent report,Jeremy. Thank you for your diligent reporting.
Nara Dewar Duncan

Free Range Anglican said...

Always comprehensive and detailed, which is not usually my intention in blogging. Glad one of us has that covered. I did chuckle to myself as you spoke to the assembled Convention yesterday as I remembered you posting last year that you had no intention of being here for this year's Convention. Glad to have you, though. Glad indeed.