Wednesday, January 25, 2012

A Cautionary Tale from the Episcopal Church Wars

I had the great privilege of attending the Fellowship of Presbyterians(FOP) meeting in Orlando last week along with several other members of my church. I was moved and inspired by the incredible worship and amazed at the progress made towards birthing the new denomination: Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians (ECO).

The meeting answered a lot of the questions I had before attending and raised more questions as the details of the FOP and ECO are taking shape.

At the same time I am pondering the meaning of a cautionary tale that one of my relatives (let’s call him Calvin) has been relating to me regarding his experience of leaving the Episcopal church over doctrinal differences.

Here’s the story. A couple of years ago Calvin was a member of the vestry (lay governing board) of his church. The bishop of the diocese visited the vestry meeting and issued an ultimatum: either find a way to accept the changes in the denomination or leave, but quit complaining. The next week the vestry met again and more than half of them declared their intention to leave.

This is a very large Episcopal church. Several hundred families left, including Calvin and family, but a couple thousand members remained. The breakaway group established a new church that eventually affiliated with the Anglican Mission in America (AMiA).

In due course a new rector was hired with AMiA credentials. However, Calvin became concerned about the way the new church was developing. So he sat down with the new rector for a frank discussion. To his shock he learned that the AMiA does not ordain women, permit women to serve in leadership, or teach the Bible to men, and there are no elections only appointments by the rector. Calvin says he and many other members of the new church are dismayed that these policies were not revealed at the time when they voted to affiliate with this denomination.

Now the new church faces further division as those who disagree with these positions ponder leaving yet again. Calvin is deeply grieved and prayerfully seeking guidance about what to do next. He cannot return to TEC and finds AMiA equally uncomfortable. 
"I may suggest women and men sit on opposite side of aisle, force the women to wear burkas and call it a day." he said." Good grief, AMiA makes me feel like a screaming liberal! "
Since Calvin was also raised in the Presbyterian church, he visited one a couple of weeks ago and was encouraged by what he found. Until he asked me about the state of the PCUSA and discovered he could be jumping from the fire back into the frying pan.
What does this mean for us fractious Presbyterians?

Here’s my conclusion: for those of us who drawn to the FOP and perhaps pondering dismissal to ECO, thorough vetting of alternatives is imperative. Calvin's experience illustrates some of the pitfalls awaiting those who act precipitously.

For those in the PCUSA who embrace the recent change in  ordination standards and continue to press for change in the definition of marriage: beware the cost of divisive actions that will leave a remnant isolated from most  other Christian churches around the country and the world and drain resources away from the Great Ends of the Church. 

The Episcopal Church is intolerant of dissent from its progressive theology, takes a hard line on church ownership of property, and, as a result, is beset by numerous lawsuits across the country. Many progressives, moderates and evangelicals in the PCUSA recognize the danger of following this path and seek to avoid it. We must do better.


mibi52/ The Rev. Mary Brennan Thorpe said...

I grieve for Calvin's experience of such an intolerant TEC bishop - this has not been my experience as a layperson or as an ordained priest in TEC. My own bishop has been gracious to folks on all points on the spectrum of theological viewpoints.

Your words are wise. People should tread carefully before leaping into a relationship with a different/new denominational structure, because one might find oneself, as Calvin did, in a place where many of the values one holds dear are not accepted. That said, I'd be hard pressed to think of anyone who found a denomination in which they agreed with everything. Even my Roman Catholic colleagues, whose doctrinal positions are dictated by the Magisterium, struggle with this. It's hard for us all, in times of confusion. Thank the Lord for prayer!

One quibble: I do think that it is overstating things to say that "The Episcopal Church is intolerant of dissent from its progressive theology." In my own diocese and in many others I know of priests and laity who feel very differently on a number of issues with which we currently wrestle. Some dioceses may have greater expectations of everyone toeing a particular party line, but certainly not the several I have dealt with. Insofar as "hard line on church ownership of property," this is simply defending existing canons, canons which all the parties pledged to honor when they were ordained or when they were elected to lay leadership. Yes, there are a number of property disputes in the courts right now. It saddens me to see it. But in my mind (and feel free to shout me down on this one, for I claim no particular gifts of legal scholarship) this becomes a matter of separation of Church and State, and using the courts to adjudicate matters that were already established and agreed to by all parties seems an inappropriate solution. Amicus briefs were filed by several of the mainline denominations in support of the Episcopal Church in our litigation and in others. As these cases are wending their way through the courts, one by one, appellate rulings are supporting the position of the Episcopal Church.

Do I wish we weren't in this conflict? Of course. Is it new? Of course not. Conflicts over doctrine have raged since the beginning of the church. The church is still a human institution - of and by God, but a human institution - with all human frailties. I hope we can come to a place of love and mutual respect as we try to discern God's will for us.

Thanks for your thoughtful post.

Quotidian Grace said...

Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment. I appreciate your adding the viewpoint of someone in the Episcopal church.

I am not a supporter of strict enforcement of church property trust clauses and was actively involved in writing a "gracious dismissal" policy for my presbytery that would allow churches to leave with their property if they follow the procedures outlined therein. So you and I differ there.

I've read statements from Bishop Jefferts-Schori indicating that she even opposes selling church property at fair market value back to departing churches. If she was accurately quoted, I find that appalling.

Interestingly, the Texas Supreme Court recently granted a "fast track" appeal in a lawsuit between the Diocese of Fort Worth which seeks to leave the Episcopal church and TEC. In the past precedent in Texas upheld TEC's position. Fast tracks (meaning it skips the appeal to intermediate appellate court) are very seldom granted and usually indicate the court is inclined to make new precedent. We'll see if that TEC's position will be upheld. If not, it will have implications for PCUSA churches in Texas as well

I join in your prayer that we can all come to a place of love and mutual respect while trying to discern God's will for us. May it be so!

Thanks again for your comment!

Reformed Catholic said...

What your relative's church may want to do is affiliate with the other ACNA - Anglican Church of North America, headed by Archbishop Duncan of Pittsburgh.

They do ordain women without reservation.

Quotidian Grace said...

Guess his group got lost in the alphabet soup:-)

Seriously, I will pass that on to him. Maybe there is an ACNA church where he lives.

Robin said...

Well, we know where we both stand on this one. Fractious friends, I suppose.

But Calvin has an interesting contribution to make. Given my current physical situation, perhaps the burka is the perfect fashion statement!

Quotidian Grace said...


Fractious friends on a few things, but in accord on most!

Anonymous said...

I left TEC for the Cumberland Presbyterian church. I've since relocated to a region where CP churches are scarce, so we went ahead and joined a PCUSA church, with reservations. We left that church last year for many reasons, but chief among mine was the recent decision about gay clergy. We now find ourselves in a Methodist Church, which is a good fit for a cradle Episcopalian (they have a traditional service that a lot like the Anglican service). If Calvin lives in an area where CP churches are available (They're rare outside Texas and the upper South) I would recommend that denomination. I also have to say I really like my little Methodist church.

Maria said...

I too take strongly to your statement that TEC is intolerant of other views than its own. In my diocese of Southern Virginia there are many different views and the Bishop has been more than gracious in supporting all sides.
As to matters of property, I too wish it hadn't come to the fractious state it has, but that does not necessarily mean it is intolerant. Also, such posiirionsvare clearly outlined in canons that predate KJS and much of the current leadership. And, in some dioceses, such as Central Florida, the Bishop has allowed dissenting congregations to leave with their property.

I wish you all the best in this matter.