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Pittsburgh diocese votes to secede from Episcopal Church

09 October 2008

by Pat Ashworth

Steel resolve: a view of Pittsburgh from Mount Washington AP

Steel resolve: a view of Pittsburgh from Mount Washington AP

THE DIOCESE of Pittsburgh has seceded from the Episcopal Church in the United States, and realigned with the Province of the Southern Cone (News, 26 September). Voting at its diocesan convention on Saturday was 240 in favour, 102 against, and lay people were more divided than clergy.

The deposed Bishop Bob Duncan had been so confident of the result that leaflets had already been printed declaring: “We are no longer con­nected to the increasingly brazen departures from Christian orthodoxy by the leaders of the Episcopal Church.” Conflicts remained, the leaflet acknowledged, “as the diocese defends itself from expected attempts by the leadership of TEC to seize diocesan assets they have no right to.”

The action taken by the House of Bishops to depose Bishop Duncan before the vote is viewed by many as having backfired (News, 3 October). Deposition had been inevitable, but disciplining him at that point had “created enormous sympathy” for those voting to split, said the Revd James Simons, chairman of Across the Aisle, a theologically diverse group committed to remaining in the Episcopal Church.

The situation is different from that in San Joaquin, a small diocese that was the first to realign with the Southern Cone (News, 14 December 2007). Pittsburgh has 74 parishes, of which the second, third, and fourth largest are remaining in the Episcopal Church. Undecided parishes have two years in which to sign up to the Southern Cone or to remain.

Across the Aisle estimates that more than 40 per cent of parishes could stay: the realigners estimate that majorities in about 70 per cent of parishes will go with the Southern Cone.

A meeting — “Next Steps: Moving forward with grace” — has been arranged in Trinity Cathedral, Pitts­burgh, next Thursday for those wanting to remain. There is a special convention in November for those who have left, at which Bishop Dun­can is expected to be elected as the only candidate for bishop of the realigned diocese.

Dr Simons, a conservative, de­scribed the vote as “ironic and sad”, since the convention theme had been, “A house divided against itself cannot stand”. As the only member of the standing committee opposed to re­alignment, he will proceed to appoint other members to what the Episcopal Church now recognises as the ecclesiastical authority of the diocese.

“Personally, I am excited about the days that are before us. Twenty-five per cent of the parishes in the diocese have already contacted us about their desire to remain in the Episcopal Church, and we know that over the next months, more will follow. I see a diocese of Pittsburgh which will be diverse, vibrant, and, most of all, getting back to the work of pro­claiming the gospel of Jesus Christ,” he said.

The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Dr Katharine Jefferts Schori, said the vast majority of Episcopalians and Anglicans would be intensely grieved. “I have repeatedly reassured Episcopalians that there is abundant room for dissent within this Church, and that loyal opposition is a long and honoured tradition within Angli­can­ism. Schism is not, having frequently been seen as a more egregious error than charges of heresy,” she said.

Differences were transcended in the Church’s common mission to love and serve the world, she said. “Jesus weeps at the bickering of his brothers and sisters, particularly when they miss him in their midst.”

Although a majority is said to be committed to a charitable legal separation agreement with the minority, lawsuits over property are inevitable. In 2005, Calvary Episcopal Church sued the diocese over its preparedness to allow dissenting parishes to leave with their property.

The “Calvary lawsuit”, signed on behalf of all parties in October 2005, stipulated that property held by the diocese and the Episcopal Church should continue to be held and administered by the diocese, “regard­less of whether some or even a majority of parishes decide not to remain”.

The traditional view in the Episcopal Church is that a parish cannot remove itself. With regard to the removal of whole dioceses, canon lawyers in the US are addressing a situation that has no precedent. It has been suggested that there is no canonical or constitutional provision for the Southern Cone to receive, accept or “host” a foreign diocese, and that any constitutional amend­ment would have to be passed by the Provincial Synod, submitted to the Anglican Consultative Council for review, and approved by each of the dioceses.

A Church of England bishop, the Rt Revd Henry Scriven, a former suffragan bishop in Europe, has been assistant to Bishop Duncan since 2002, and has continued officially in that position since the Bishop’s deposition. He attended GAFCON and the latter part of Lambeth 08. He is returning to the UK in December to take up a job with SAMS.

Bishop Scriven, who will live in Oxford on his return, could not be reached for comment, but he has stated that his decision to move “does not reflect any change of heart regarding realignment or my confi­dence in the vision and leadership of the diocese”.

The Episcopal Church has 110 dioceses. The spotlight now turns on two others, Quincy and Fort Worth, which will vote next month on realignment with the Southern Cone. One resolution at the diocesan convention in Quincy, which has 2600 members in 24 congregations, seeks to “annul” the diocese’s rela­tion­ship with the national Church. Another seeks authority to contri­bute towards the budget of the Southern Cone.

Participants will be asked to expand the diocese’s boundaries “to include parishes and missions out­side the geographical boundaries of the diocese that has separated from another Anglican jurisdiction” and want to join Quincy.

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