Friday, June 29, 2007

Appreciation for a Very Godly Priest...

... whom I have never met but have wanted to meet since I first read his blog three or four years ago. I'm thinking of Father Al Kimel, a former Anglican priest who swam the Tiber to Rome maybe two years back. Thanks to Stand Firm and the wonderful Sarah Hey for her heeartfelt post on Father Kimel's retirement from blogging (kudos to Greg, Matt, Jackie, et. al., as well, of course).

Even though we all have our different stories, Father Kimel's tale is one that should resonate with any of us who have loved the Episcopal Church and who have grieved to see it depart from orthodox faith and practice ... and go off the deep end.

Since Father Kimel so emotionally tells his last blogging tale with an appropriate quote from Tolkien, he got me reflecting on another quote from The Lord of the Rings that I think is appropriate here. Those of us who love Tolkien undoubtedly will remember Bilbo's walking song as revised by Frodo while riding through the Shire before meeting the elves on their way to the Grey Havens (since I'm typing it from memory, pardon any errors):

Still round the corner there may wait
A new road or a secret gate
And though I oft have passed them by
A day shall come at last when I
Shall take the hidden paths that run
West of the moon, east of the sun

That walking song was on my heart a few days ago while meandering through the streets of DC. While it obviously refers to death/eternity, it also is suitable for any closing chapter in our lives.

Namarie indeed, Father Kimel. But as you say goodbye, do know that your faithful service to our Lord and your work to renew the Episcopal Church have not been in vain. You have inspired people who you do not know and who have never met you to stay faithful to our Lord and Savior. We remember your work on the Baltimore Declaration. In your departure from TEC, our loss was Rome's gain. We thank you for providing us with, for a few years, one of the most spiritually sound, astute, and challenging blogs out there. And if our Lord ever leads you to take up blogging again, many of us will be grateful.

May our Lord grant the healing that you need, for "the hands of a healer are the hands of a king" (Tolkien again, rough paraphrase from memory).

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Clarity Here

A June 16 Richmond Times-Dispatch interview with Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori provides more clarity on the denomination’s stances on controversial issues.

*On the mission of the Episcopal Church: “The church’s role is to remember what God’s mission is and that’s the healing of the world.”

*On gay and lesbian issues: “The full inclusion of gay and lesbian people is part of our mission.”

*On opposition to a woman being presiding bishop and women's ordination: “Three diocesan bishops out of 110 in the Episcopal Church hold that opinion. . . . It's not apparently been a problem.”

*On why it’s exciting to be an Anglican today: “The very fact that we're having controversy means that … opportunities are enormous to grow individually and as congregations, as faithful people, to grow in service to the rest of the world.”

None of these statements is revelatory; they repeat either themes of Jefferts Schori’s tenure as presiding bishop or statements made by other Episcopal Church leaders. What is different here is that she has provided short, direct answers that cut through any confusion:

*Her reference to “the healing of the world” takes all of her themes concerning the “dream of God,” “coming home,” the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs),, and distills them down to five words.

*Her summary statement of the church’s stance on gay and lesbian issues probably is the most clear, succinct statement anyone has made to date.

*Her statistics regarding opposition to female bishops (and female clergy in general) focus only on bishops and ignore laity. Similarly, her descriptions of departing Episcopal congregations recently have focused not on the number of people leaving the denomination, but the number of congregations lost. In both cases, she chooses smaller numbers that boost her cause.

*She reiterates her oft-repeated view that dealing with controversial issues produces spiritual growth. She does not look at controversial issues in terms of how they go against Scripture or the traditions of the church.

Back in February at the Episcopal Urban Caucus meeting, Bishop Jefferts Schori predicted that clarity would prove forthcoming as to where the Episcopal Church stands on controversial issues. With the House of Bishops and the Executive Council at this point apparently agreeing in their lack of movement toward meeting Anglican primates' requests, and with Bishop Jefferts Schori making statements like these, "clarity" may have hit a new high watermark.

When Is a Church Building Like a National Park?

The property issues in the Episcopal Church continue to affect the news. On June 26, an appeals court ruled in favor of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles concerning the properties of four parishes that left the Episcopal Church. The ruling overturns a lower-court decision that proved favorable to the parishes. And just a few days earlier, the Rev. Jan Nunley of the Episcopal News Service (ENS) provided her take on the property issues.

In that blog entry, Nunley argues that even while parishioners pay money for their church buildings, the property is held in trust for the Episcopal Church as a whole. She compares the situation with taxpayers whose dollars go to funding national parks; they cannot take any part of the property no matter how much money they've contributed.

The problem is that taxpayers may well pay for parks that they never use, but parishioners pay for church buildings in which they worship. More: they not only pay for, but participate in, activities devoted to serving God in these buildings. They see their family members and friends grow up in, baptized in, and confirmed in these churches. They dedicate their money, time, and effort into refurbishing meeting spaces for youth and other groups. National parks, as wonderful as they are, normally are not connected with major life events -- or, more importantly, peoples' relationships with God -- as churches are.

Even more: the church becomes home to a variety of groups/ministries throughout the week. What is to happen to all of the ministries when the whole parish departs if all of the parishioners must leave the building? These are real, heartfelt issues, and it's shortsighted to boil the issue down to a matter of payment.

There certainly are substantial arguments to be made on both sides of the aisle about property. There are also some serious issues to be dealt with individually and, if a parish or a majority of a parish leaves the Episcopal Church, perhaps collectively. How does your view on property relate to, and affect, your ecclesiology -- your beliefs concerning the church? If you believe that the church's property belongs to the congregation who paid for it, are you in favor of a more congregational mode of church government as opposed to a heirarchical one? Where do bishops and apostolic succession fit into the picture? Or, when a church espouses heresy, does that itself mean that congregations should fight for church buildings as a way of stopping the spread of heresy? Many orthodox Anglicans today answer that last question resoundingly in the affirmative.

There are questions for the denomination as well. Yes, past parishioners may have contributed to the parish expecting that it would have been available to future generations of Episcopalians, and that truly is a serious concern. But it's also fair to speculate that many of them would have opposed the Episcopal Church's drift from orthodox faith and practice, possibly to the point of agreeing with those who want to keep the buildings as they leave. Given that scenario, how valid is the "trust" argument?

My colleague Alan Wisdom argues that there are also other, less obvious, questions that people should perhaps consider. What impact should the reality of the communion of saints have concerning our view of to whom the property belongs? Can any piece of property be said to belong to only a parish or even a denomination? Does it instead belong to the communion of saints -- all Christians living today, as well as those now with God in heaven and those yet to be born? This line of thinking, while perhaps novel and too impractical for many, has some serious implications for many issues.

But church buildings are not like national parks. The investment made goes far deeper than money, and hits the hearts of people, some of whom have spent a large portion of their life at a given parish.

And the Episcopal Church, in its determination to retain its property, has shut down any attempts at a negotiated settlement (in the case of the 11 departing Virginia parishes, at least). The denomination has, in Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori's own words, resorted to "the big guns," supposedly because "the pastoral solution has failed." But what "pastoral solution" was even halfway attempted? In Virginia, the diocese cut off negotiations and scuttled the Protocol for Departing Congregations that had been in development by a diocesan special committee for nearly a year's time.

It also bears remembering that former Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold said that diocesen bishops are free to pursue what the Living Church magazine described as "an amicable settlement with a congregation that wants to leave the Episcopal Church and retain its building." But ever since Bishop Jefferts Schori assumed her office last November, the national church has taken a legal role in attempting to keep property.

There are serious issues here for the Episcopal Church: by not being open to negotiation with parishes, by demanding that orthodox parishioners leave property without negotiations, by calling them "dissidents" and pitting them rhetorically against "faithful" Episcopalians who stay, by declaring to the press that their leavetaking essentially is inconsequential ... what type of message is the church sending to the world and to those who are leaving? How is a lawsuit consistent with blessing people who leave, a task that Bishop Jefferts Schori has advocated? How is a lawsuit in any way contributing to the health of the Anglican Communion when the primates requested in their February communique that all lawsuits should cease?

For all of its self-professed "more gracious" view of Christianity (according to Bishop Jefferts Schori, at least), the Episcopal Church is now seen by most orthodox Anglicans as hostile toward orthodox faith and practice. Moreover, the denomination is seen to be uncaring and all too laissez-faire concerning orthodox parishioners and, perhaps even more so, parishioners who depart -- uncaring and laissez-faire, that is, except when it comes to retaining the property. One Virginia parishioner said to me a few months back (to roughly paraphrase from memory), "Whatever I may have felt beforehand, why in the world would I now want to stay in a denomination that is suing my parish -- that thinks so little of us as to sue us? You don't do that to your own worst enemy, and this is supposed to be a Christian church!" Where is grace?

It does not have to be this way. I know of a Presbyterian church that left the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) several years ago for a more conservative denomination. The presbytery reportedly told the congregation, in essence, "We don't want you to leave, but if you must, we'll sell you the property for a price." The original building had long been paid off and the congregation had paid for a building expansion not too many years earlier. Paying for the building in essence a second time (though at a greatly reduced rate) may well have seemed unfair to some of the parishioners. Nevertheless, an agreement that recognized the claim on the property by both the congregation and the denomination was reached peaceably and amicably. There's no reason why such a model couldn't work in the Episcopal Church.

But in Virginia recently, when asked about how to respond to congregations leaving, Bishop Jefferts Schori mentioned blessing them and telling them, "we'll leave the light on." That phrase (with the addition of "for you" at the end) may have been a humorous folksy sentiment for Motel 6, but in today's tense Episcopal Church climate it conveys flippancy (at best) instead of warmth. The Episcopal Church apparently cares more for its property than its (orthodox) people, and more for the perceived "trust" in those buildings than (orthodox) teaching and theology. Those perceptions undoubtedly will only encourage more orthodox Anglicans to leave the Episcopal Church. An analogy comparing church buildings with national parks sadly (if unintentionally) trivializes the heart issues involved with the painful choice of leaving a denomination.

The Larger Implications of the Redding Controversy

It's easy in the midst of the controversy concerning the Rev. Ann Holmes Redding (the Diocese of Olympia clergyperson who considers herself to be both Muslim and Christian) to get so engrossed in the trees that you lose the bird's-eye view of the forest. Yes, her bishop's apparent (according to the Seattle Times) acceptance of her dual faiths is dismaying. But both Redding and the inclusive “local option” for dual faiths among clergy have a deeper significance: they are perhaps the most telling illustrations of where the Episcopal Church at a whole is now with relation to its place in the larger Anglican Communion.

Just as Redding views her conversion to Islam as a “calling … very much … about my identity and who I am supposed to be,” the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church recently told the Anglican Communion, “in truth the only thing we really have to offer [to the communion] is who we are.”

This statement came from the council’s June14 letter, “The Episcopal Church’s Commitment to Common Life in the Anglican Communion,” issued near the end of a June 11–14 meeting in Parsippany, NJ. In the letter, the Executive Council—as the House of Bishops did in a resolution last March—communicates its desire to maintain relationships with other Anglicans. The primates of Anglican Communion provinces have given the House of Bishops in the Episcopal Church until September 30 to assure the rest of the communion that in the future (a) the House of Bishops will not consent to the consecration of any bishop living in a same-sex relationship, and (b) bishops will not authorize same-sex blessings.

The council goes on to describe the denomination as a “community” of sincere Christians seeking God’s will who “cannot tell our brothers and sisters with certainty … where the Holy Spirit will guide this Church.” But without a radical reversal of direction, and with more and more orthodox Anglicans leaving the denomination (thus giving progressives even less opposition than they’ve encountered in the past few decades), the Episcopal Church’s direction toward increasingly heterodox theology and social witness seems abundantly clear.

That direction is clearly marked out by the Episcopal Church’s actions over the last four years:

* "Who we are”—the church that consented to the consecration of Gene Robinson as bishop and approved same-sex blessings as a local option partially as a reaction against the 1998 Lambeth conference, which upheld normative Anglican teaching concerning sexuality and marriage

* “Who we are”—the church that not only consented to Robinson’s consecration but proceeded with it even when many primates warned the denomination ahead of time that doing so would cause “tear the fabric of our Communion at its deepest level”

* "Who we are”—the church that insisted at its 75th General Convention in 2006 that it had only “strained” relationships in the Anglican Communion (the primates chose a very different word in their February communiqué, substituting “damaged” for “strained”)

* “Who we are”—the church whose House of Bishops in March of this year identified gay and lesbian rights as an essential part of its “gospel”

* “Who we are”—the church that continues to ignore the requests of the primates as same-sex blessings continue at the local level

And the council concludes its letter with these words: “We believe [t]he Episcopal Church can only offer who we are, with openness, honesty, integrity, and faithfulness, and our commitment never to choose to walk apart.”

Aye, there’s the rub. Implicitly, the council is arguing for the Episcopal Church as a local option in the Anglican Communion—a local option that is free to pursue its own path and continue to go against the mind of the larger communion. It is not asking for other Anglican Communion provinces to take the same path at this time, but it wants to be accepted for “who we are.”

Of course, the council does not want the Episcopal Church to “walk apart” from the Anglican Communion in the sense of consciously choosing to disassociate from the communion. (Orthodox Anglicans hold that the Episcopal Church already has “walked apart” by departing from Scripture and traditional Anglican teaching, and by failing to respond sufficiently to the rest of the Anglican Communion.) Doing so would mean a loss of both worldwide influence and mission. Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori has argued in recent months that the church can better influence the larger Christian body by staying within the Anglican Communion.

But neither does the council want the Episcopal Church to curb its sense of progressive justice. There is no mention in the council’s letter of any change for the good of the larger Anglican Communion or the larger body of Christ. The best that the council offers is assurances that the primates have been heard and taken seriously, and that “[t]he advice of the larger community will continue to find reflection in the actions we take.” But when has the Episcopal Church in the last four years truly heeded the primates’ “advice,” much less their “requests”?

The end result of this identity crisis seems to be a church where almost anything can go at the local level, a church that pursues (from a progressive point of view) ever-new revelation from God without the boundaries historically maintained by orthodox faith and practice. It’s a church where, as seems true for Rev. Ann Holmes Redding, a conviction of a local call from God trumps the understanding and faith of the wider body of Christ. Under such circumstances, both Redding and the idea of dual faiths as a local option for Episcopal clergy provide a picture-perfect illustration of the Episcopal Church’s own identity quest as a local option in the Anglican Communion, one consumed with"who we are."