I’m starting to feel like Frank Gilbreth, the father in Cheaper by the Dozen. While his wife took his twelve children to church, Mr. Gilbreth sat outside smoking a cigar and reading the Sunday papers. Since the consecration of Gene Robinson, openly and actively a homosexual, as Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire, I just haven’t felt much like sitting in our regular pew.
A lot of Episcopalians feel the same way. The Robinson consecration marked only the latest in a long series of fallings-away by the increasingly dweebish, peevish, leftish, and — it must be said — gay-ish Episcopal clergy. Many of us want to leave — not leave the Anglican communion, not leave Episcopal worship, or the prayer book, or the liturgy, or the hymnal, or our beloved church buildings and parish halls — and many of us do not want to leave our rectors, if we have good ones. We want to leave the Episcopal Church of the U.S.A., home to a mere 2 million of the 77 million Anglicans worldwide. We would then seek to join (or properly, re-join) the worldwide Anglican Communion. We want to do this even against daunting obstacles.
Not long before the Robinson consecration, the Rev. Donald Vinson of St. John’s Church in Huntington, West Virginia, stated the sanguine, even smug, establishment case in his local column:
As individuals, anyone, lay or ordained, can withdraw from the church; but as a group, they cannot take control of their congregation’s property. Even when a majority of a congregation want(s) to secede and affiliate with another denomination, they have to start a new church congregation within the new denomination. The remnant who remain in the Episcopal Church, however small a group, continue as the original congregation. In all states, courts have been extremely reluctant to intervene in matters of church doctrine, discipline, or politics. The secessionists continually lose these cases in court. I don’t believe there has ever been a case of a whole diocese wanting to secede from the Church.
Well, guess what. Within the past two weeks, the diocese of Pittsburgh, the whole diocese, has voted to leave the ECUSA. (It will take one more ballot to confirm the departure.) The diocese of Fort Worth, the whole diocese, has voted to bar any participant in the Robinson consecration from any church activity in Fort Worth. And virtually every week, if you follow web news, you can find a story about a parish deciding to leave the ECUSA.
As the Rev. Vinson points out, this involves property disputes, and money. Particularly in the East, where parishes and churches are old, church buildings and lands not only are owned by the diocese, but, being in desirable urban neighborhoods, represent substantial bucks. Churches live on the investment proceeds of endowments, and those endowments are deposited in ECUSA mutual funds, in many cases. (Some churches, like ours, use commercial fund providers, like Fidelity.) The pension assets of priests, including dissidents, are held in custody by the national church, and could not be removed or moved either until the priest’s retirement, or without legal action — and that particular legal action probably would not prevail, given the law covering pensions in the U.S. (ERISA).
We Episcopalians cannot just scarper, like Baptists. We cannot ignore our leadership, and simply go our own way. We are not congregational churches.
What to do instead? We faithful could seek to reclaim the body of the ECUSA for true doctrine, not false. It has become common, as a first step, for churches to reduce their diocesan contributions to a minimum, or to withhold them entirely. This step, in many states like Florida, North Carolina, and Texas, has reduced diocesan budgets by millions of dollars. That will get a bishop’s attention. Some 320 priests and 20 bishops have signed an Internet petition urging churches to withhold their contributions.
The website communionparishes.org sets out the various courses involved in re-taking the ECUSA, and carries the petition favoring withholding moneys. The headline issue right now on the site calls for the resignation of U.S. Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold.
Will the American faithful be able to oust Griswold and the rest of the ECUSA bishops who supported Robinson? No. The bishops, following form, will call for a study of the matter. And those of us fed up with the ECUSA leadership are also fed up with ECUSA’s slow-walking on moral issues. No institution can slow-walk like a church. We’re talking decades here. We can perhaps starve them into submission. But even that gets chancy. Too many people attend Episcopal churches precisely because they don’t have to follow rules they don’t happen to like — even rules in the Bible.
So the secession movement proceeds apace, too. An August 22 story in the Concord (New Hampshire) Monitor said, “The Rev. Charles Nells of the Canon Law Institute in Washington, D.C., has heard from New Hampshire churches wanting to know how they can leave the New Hampshire diocese but keep their church property. He’s told them it’s difficult but not impossible. He declined to identify the churches that have called, citing attorney-client privilege.”
On the communion parishes website, a message from the primates of the Global South (the rest of the Anglican Church in the world) calls on “those persons who have already placed lawsuits that further tear the fabric of our common life to withdraw their destructive worldly actions.”
We in the U.S. understand the world bishops’ position. We also know what it’s like in the United States. Sorry to say, it is very likely, whatever the opinion of the worldwide Anglican Communion, that the American church will end up in court, over and over again.
Enough already. Time to fight. One way or the other, probably both ways, it’s time to fight.
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