Where ECUSA's right is heading
Posted: 02 Nov 2006 @ 00:00
Conservative Episcopalians in the US are running out of patience: 'Onincentive to remain is to avoid battles oveparish property'
The Episcopal Church's 74th General Convention in 2003 was a turning-poinfor conservative parishes - especially for those who consider the Church'sexuality debate as the most visible symptom of a deeper theological conflict
The Revd Christopher Leighton, Rector of St Paul's, Darien, Connecticutsays that the Convention's actions clarified his church's conflicts with thdiocese of Connecticut - in the same way, he jokes, that Samuel Johnson saithat an impending hanging clarifies the mind.
As one of the "CSix" - six Connecticut priests who face possible inhibition - Mr Leighton ione of the most visible conservative priests in the Episcopal Church (ECUSA;). Another of the Six, the Revd Mark Hansen, wainhibited and removed from his parish in July 2005.
"It was nothe straw that broke the camel's back," Mr Leighton says of the 2003 meeting, but it nearly did." He says his congregation and the Bishop of Connecticut, thRt Revd Andrew Smith, had discussed their differences in the years before th2003 Convention. But that Convention, in approving Canon Gene Robinson as thBishop of New Hampshire, and in describing blessings for same-sex couples as within the bounds of our common life", heightened the parish's sense oalienation from Bishop Smith, who had become the diocesan in Octobe1999.
"We did not feel cared for," Mr Leighton says of how thparish and Bishop related after 2003. "We felt instead pushed to capitulate tthe actions of General Convention."
The Six applied to thArchbishop of Canterbury's Panel of Reference, and five of the priests latefiled a civil suit against Bishop Smith. The Panel of Reference recently seaside the Six's application, citing its policy of not considering cases wheeither party has sued the other (News, 26 May). The panel's decision led to duelling press releases abouwho was delegated as the liaison between the Six and thpanel.
Amid these tensions, Mr Leighton says he wants to remain aEpiscopalian priest. "I don't want to be thrown out; I don't want to bdefrocked." He has sometimes seen his job as gently encouraging St Paul's tremain a congregation of the Episcopal Church.
Episcopal Life, the Church's national newspaper, has reported iits latest edition that dioceses have removed 11 congregations from their rollsince the 2003 Convention, and that "about three dozen other congregations havsucceeded in obtaining episcopal oversight from outside the Episcopal Church.When a congregation has obtained such alternative oversight, in most cases, thbishop has deposed the clergy of that parish.
Episcopal Lifestimated that departing parishes amounted to half of one per cent, baseon there being about 7200 congregations of the EpiscopaChurch.
The American Anglican Council says that it is aware omore than 200 parishes that have left the Episcopal Church since 2000, and thaat least half of those have been since 2003. Whatever the exact figuresconservative departures from the Episcopal Church have not become a masmovement.
Instead, conservative congregations generally havaffiliated with the American Anglican Council or the Anglican CommunioNetwork. Some congregations, such as the remaining five of the CT Six, havmanaged to remain Episcopalian, despite severe tensions with theibishop.
Other parishes, such as members of the Anglican Alliancof North Florida, have left the Episcopal Church, although their bishop is lesliberal than Bishop Smith of Connecticut, but not conservative enough tsatisfy those congregations. The Bishop of Florida, the Rt Revd Samuel JohnsoHoward, was consecrated after the 2003 Convention. He says he would not havgiven consent for consecrating Bishop Robinson, and he has not authorised gablessings.
One incentive for conservative congregations to remaiin the Episcopal Church is that remaining avoids costly battles over parisproperty. A church law adopted in 1979, widely called the "Dennis Canon", aftethe bishop who championed it, states that parish property belongs to thdiocese, and, by extension, to the Episcopal Church (Comment23 July 2004). Most secular courts that have considered disputes oveEpiscopal property have ruled in favour of diocesaownership.
Three congregations that left the diocese of LoAngeles have so far enjoyed favourable rulings from an Orange County judge. Thdiocese is taking the cases to the Fourth District Court oAppeal.
The Presiding Bishop, the Most Revd Frank Griswold, saiin mid-May, during a visit to the mostly conservative diocese of WesterLouisiana, that the Dennis Canon does not prevent bishops' reaching amicablproperty settlements with departing parishes. He said that the Episcopal ChurcCenter becomes involved in property disputes only at the invitation odioceses
In one instance that avoided a court case entirely, Christ Church oOverland Park, Kansas, reached an agreement with the Bishop of Kansas, the RRevd Dean Wolfe, to buy its property from the diocese over a decade. Thaproposal required approval by the diocese's standing committee and ChrisChurch's members. The church's members approved the proposal on a vote of 87to 211.
Conservative parishes have varied widely in their approacto property issues. At the first national gathering of conservatives after thGeneral Convention of 2003, leaders of the American Anglican Council encourageparishes to prepare to protect their property rights - by investigating thparish's founding documents, for instance, or expanding the facility anacquiring a costly mortgage - if they were inclined to leave
At the same meeting, the late Diane Knippers, a highly regardeconservative activist, quoted Martin Luther's advice: "Let goods and kindrego." She suggested that parishes should be willing to walk away from theiproperty if they were convinced that was the price required to obeGod.
In some cases, such as St John's, Tallahassee, Floridapriests have left a diocese, launched a mission, and made no effort to fighfor parish property. "Several people have been to see me to suggest that I waga legal battle for the property of St John's," the Revd Eric Dudley wrote this parishioners in October 2003. "I have made clear many times over that would never do this, not because such a battle could not be won legally, bubecause to enter such a battle is not only unscriptural, but would leave us allosers spiritually. It is my heart's desire to leave St John's respectfullylovingly, peacefully."
The Revd Mark Eldredge of the Church of the Epiphany in JacksonvilleFlorida, is fairly sure that his congregation will leave the Episcopal Churcsome time after the General Convention, but he is less focused on propertquestions than on keeping the parish's focus on mission.
"The onlthing that would keep us in, at this point, would be actionable repentancemeaning that Gene Robinson would no longer be a bishop," he says - "which meanwe're leaving."
Mr Eldredge agrees that Epiphany is setting thbar higher than the Windsor report has. "We're beyond the point of waiting fosome direction from abroad. For our health, for our unity, and for our missioon the west side of Jacksonville, we've got to do something."
MEldredge says that average Sunday attendance has improved in the parish sinc2003 - growing from 140 just after General Convention to 219 in May - and hcredits the parish's emphasis on both the Great Commission and the GreaCommandment. Like Mr Leighton in Connecticut, Mr Eldredge has encouraged hiparish to exercise patience. He has warned against imitating Jonah, whultimately did not want the people of Nineveh to repent.
MEldredge attended the General Convention in 2003 as a volunteer with thAmerican Anglican Council, and he says that being there transformed hithinking. He began thinking he would spend the rest of his vocation attendinConvention every three years, hoping to make a difference. By the end, he hadecided that activism of that kind would make little difference. "I was thereI saw, I listened to the debate in both Houses. I had this first-hand view owhat I would call the depth of the heresy, the depth of the depravity"
One of the most sobering moments, Mr Eldredge says, occurrewhen he sat as an observer in the House of Bishops, and saw the Bishop oWashington, the Rt Revd John Chane, consulting with the Revd Michael Hopkinswho was then the president of Integrity, the Episcopal Church's lesbian and gacaucus. (Mr Hopkins served in Bishop Chane's diocese at the time, and BishoChane subsequently blessed Mr Hopkins and his partner.)
"I and mpeople don't have the patience for that any more," Mr Eldredge says