February 10, 2007

High Anxiety in Pittsburgh

Anxiety is high in the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh, and the emotion probably cuts across any divisions in the diocese one might identify. The cause is the upcoming meeting of the Anglican Communion primates in Tanzania and its possible aftermath. What is in store for the Diocese of Pittsburgh and, particularly, for the loyal Episcopalians who are living within its boundaries?

Words from the Bishop

Recent concern about right-leaning dioceses leaving The Episcopal Church has focused mainly on San Joaquin and South Carolina, but Episcopalians in Pittsburgh are beginning to worry about their own post-meeting future. The diocese has just released a hitherto secret third request for alternative primatial oversight (APO) that seeks arrangements that would effectively remove it from The Episcopal Church. Pittsburgh’s bishop, Robert Duncan, has been invited to Tanzania by the Archbishop of Canterbury, where he will surely lobby for the radical measures requested of the Global South primates in that APO request.

What also deserves attention is a pastoral letter from Bishop Duncan released the same day as the APO document and intended to be read in all churches. This letter, while seemingly less newsworthy, is, nevertheless, telling. Its purpose is clearly to reassure Duncan’s supporters, which he does by associating his actions with the admonition from I Corinthians to be “steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (I Cor. 15:58, RSV). Translation: we’re doing the right thing here, and everything will work out just fine. A quite different message is to be found by those who are unsympathetic to Duncan’s program, but who are nevertheless parishioners in his diocese.

The bishop uses his pastoral letter to excoriate Calvary Episcopal Church yet again for pursuing its lawsuit against the bishop and other diocesan leaders. “Scripture,” the bishop observes, “teaches that Christians are not to take one another to court.” Calvary initiated legal action in 2003 to protect Episcopal Church property from alienation at the hands of the diocese by one means or another. A settlement was reached after two years, but not before Duncan had threatened to use an obscure local canon to expel Calvary from the diocese. The current action by Calvary alleges that the diocese has not abided by the settlement agreement. In his letter, Duncan pledges a “vigorous defense” against the latest legal moves, insisting that matters at issue are “theological and ecclesiastical,” having “nothing to do with the property of the diocese.”

It is difficult not to see Duncan’s protestations as disingenuous. He may well be motivated by matters theological and ecclesiastical, rather than by greed and lust for power, but the movement that he leads has repeatedly manifested its interest in removing both congregations and real estate from The Episcopal Church. (Skeptics should reread the infamous Chapman Letter and study the actions of the breakaway congregations in the Diocese of Virginia.)

It is in his discussion of property—which, supposedly is not the issue, remember—that Duncan’s pastoral letter becomes chilling, at least for the thousands of people in the diocese who continue to identify themselves as unabashed Episcopalians:
The property of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh will continue to be held and administered for the beneficial use of the parishes and institutions of the diocese. It is our continuing commitment to protect the interest the diocese has in its property—indeed to protect all that it is steward over—against any who would attempt to usurp that role, either from below (minority parishes) or above (national church).
As Progressive Episcopalians of Pittsburgh explained in a recent statement analyzing the APO petition to the Global South primates, the Diocese of Pittsburgh is seeking from the upcoming Tanzania meeting some temporary structure for the “orthodox” faction within The Episcopal Church until such time as a completely new Anglican province can usurp The Episcopal Church’s Communion membership. In the meantime, the diocese—and, presumably, the Anglican Communion Network and its allies—are seeking “cover,” which is to say, some protection against The Episcopal Church’s use of its disciplinary and property canons that it might reasonably be expected to bring to bear against the “orthodox” dissidents.

Le diocèse c’est moi

Those who have not studied Bishop Duncan’s statements and actions over the years may be puzzled by what is going on here; his words do not always mean what they seem to say. The bishop begins the section of his letter titled “Steadfast, Immovable” as follows:
Our position simply stated is this: We are the Episcopal Church in this place and we have no intention of standing anywhere except where we have always stood (“the Faith once delivered to the saints”) or being who we have always been (mainstream Anglican Christians).
This statement seems relatively benign, especially when compared to declarations of the Bishop of San Joaquin, who is clear about wanting to sever all ties between the Diocese of San Joaquin and The Episcopal Church. One needs to understand, however, that Bishop Duncan has embraced several “legal theories” that guide his behavior and inform his rhetoric. These theories allow him to talk like an Episcopalian and to behave like a revolutionary.

They have left us. As is clear from the above quotation, Duncan maintains that he is not threatening to leave The Episcopal Church; rather, The Episcopal Church his left him and his diocese. Pittsburghers have heard this blame-the-victim argument since 2003. The decision of the 74th General Convention to consecrate a gay bishop was, even by admission of the Windsor Report, administratively proper. However, Duncan has argued that the preamble of the church’s constitution, which describes the church as “a constituent member of the Anglican Communion,” was violated by the 2003 vote to consecrate Gene Robinson. The nature of the violation has never been made—and probably cannot be made—crystal clear, but he has had great success selling it to his supporters. (Duncan asserted, in the September 2003 document “A Report, a Call and a Teaching for the Leadership”: “These actions also contradict the constitutional commitments of the Episcopal Church to constituent membership in the Anglican Communion and the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, as well as to ‘upholding and propagating the historic Faith and Order.’” The argument presumably involves the “teaching” on homosexuality of the 1998 Lambeth Conference, even though the Communion has never really had any official teachings, and the Lambeth Conference is authorized by no one to articulate them.) Whatever the logic, Duncan has used it as an excuse that releases him from his vows as a bishop and from his allegiance to the General Convention.

The Episcopal Church as a federation of dioceses. Just as the Southern states argued that the Union was a federation from which they could withdraw at will, a difference in understanding with the rest of the Union that required civil war to resolve, Duncan has argued that the church is composed of independent dioceses that banded together to form The Episcopal Church. A fragmentary knowledge of church history might suggest the credibility of this idea, but church historian Joan Gundersen, drawing on a variety of sources, has argued convincingly that the church has a unitary structure, with dioceses that are the instruments of the General Convention and bound to its governance in perpetuity by virtue of provisions of the constitution. Duncan, of course, using his “diocesan-rights” theory, has removed the accession clause from the diocesan constitution. Some would argue that this, by itself, is a violation of his ordination vows and a presentable offense. Duncan’s theory is being used both to dismiss the canon law of the church and to rationalize an independent existence for the Diocese of Pittsburgh apart from The Episcopal Church.

The diocese is where the bishop is. Duncan’s most bizarre theory is that, no matter what he does, he leads the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh. This notion is evident in the quotation above, which, significantly, uses the royal “we.” The utility of this idea is obvious; if Bishop Duncan leads the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh, then, tautologically, he cannot abscond with property kept in trust by that diocese. The theory hinges on a very Anglican idea, the Anglican predilection against creating parallel jurisdictions. Anglicans generally acknowledge a single bishop as having jurisdiction over a particular territory. Duncan is relying on the Anglican aversion to parallel jurisdictions, calculating that, if he can detach the diocese from The Episcopal Church and be recognized as a legitimate diocese of the Communion, then he is, in a sense, home free; his can be the only diocese in Pittsburgh and environs. Not only would such a development be contrary to the longstanding—and, we once thought, inviolable—prohibition of interfering in other Anglican provinces, however, but it would violate the constitution and canons of The Episcopal Church. Nevertheless, one has to admire the boldness of Duncan’s intention of removing the diocese from The Episcopal Church while maintaining that he continues to lead the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh, at once claiming all property for himself and denying that any rival diocese can exist to dispute his claim. The notion of an Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh that is outside The Episcopal Church requires serious doublethink.

Whither Pittsburgh?

It is cold comfort that neither the traditions of the Anglican Communion nor the constitution of the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC) nor the constitution and canons of The Episcopal Church will allow the creation of the sort of independent ecclesiastical entity sought by Bishop Duncan in the latest plea for APO. (Composition of the ACC, which, arguably, either reflects or defines the membership of the Anglican Communion itself, can only be changed by a vote of two-thirds of the primates. No one believes that the votes are available to make such a change at next week’s meeting.) The Anglican Communion has ceased to act as a fellowship, however, and increasingly acts through intimidation, if not outright coercion. It is therefore foolhardy for The Episcopal Church to rely on what the Communion “cannot” do to guarantee its integrity and independence. (This is not the place for speculation about what The Episcopal Church should be doing in Tanzania. For thoughts on that topic, see my essays of January 9 and 11 on my blog.) There is widespread talk among Anglicans about what the Tanzania meeting will, should, or must do. (See, for example, the analysis from the Bishop of Winchester.) In the current climate, almost any outcome seems possible. What will happen to the Diocese of Pittsburgh if Bishop Duncan and his allies are granted some independent status by the primates?

For the past several years, votes taken at Pittsburgh’s annual convention have become increasingly lopsided in favor of whatever its bishop wants to do. The polarization has likely gone about as far as it can go, with a dozen or more parishes opposed to the bishop’s program and perhaps four times as many parishes playing the role of loyal followers. Whether precipitated by the Tanzania meeting or by some future development, the expectation is that most of the diocese will happily follow Robert Duncan wherever he leads. There may be some surprises, but no one is expecting many of them. Parishes committed to being part of The Episcopal Church face an uncertain and surely less happy future.

Duncan apparently plans to rid himself of these troublesome parishes. At a Diocesan Council meeting on February 6, he explained that, should his diocese be granted some status independent of The Episcopal Church, “those choosing to remain in Province III will no longer be in the Diocese of Pittsburgh.” (This quotation is taken from the notes of a member of the Council. Recall that the Pittsburgh convention voted to leave Province III of The Episcopal Church last November, although I have argued elsewhere that this action was improper.) Loyal Episcopal parishes in the diocese have repudiated Network membership and sent funds to The Episcopal Church, something the diocese no longer does. In light of the recent diocesan action distancing itself from Province III, some of these parishes have reaffirmed their membership in Province III, as well as in The Episcopal Church. Progressive Episcopalians of Pittsburgh even sponsored a meeting in Pittsburgh for parish leaders and leaders of Province III. Seemingly, Province III affinity will mark a parish as in or out of the diocese, however. (It was mistakenly reported two days ago that the bishop planned to expel such parishes. Essentially, he has said that they will have removed themselves from his diocese.) My own parish, St. Paul’s, Mt. Lebanon, recently wrote the bishop reiterating our membership in The Episcopal Church and in Province III. If we are declared not to be a part of the diocese, where are we? The diocese might argue that the property of parishes such as mine, property that, after all, is held in trust by the diocese, should revert to the diocese. This is surely the worst fear of Calvary Church and its attorneys.

If Bishop Duncan is offered status as head of some entity independent of The Episcopal Church, it is not clear that the loyal Episcopal parishes of the Diocese of Pittsburgh can save themselves. The Episcopal Church must come to the rescue. It should, in such an eventuality, be obvious that Bishop Robert Duncan will have indeed abandoned the communion of the church in which he took his vows. This will be a major test for the church; its disciplinary mechanism is of no avail if its leaders are unwilling to use it even in response to egregious rebellion.

The church will also have to focus on the diocese itself. An objective reading of the church’s constitution makes it clear that a diocese is not a member of the church, as Duncan’s schemes require that it be, but an integral part of it. If Duncan is the head of some entity that claims not to be that integral part of The Episcopal Church in that region designated by church canons as the Diocese of Pittsburgh, then the see is vacant. All property, real and otherwise, will remain a part of the diocese and The Episcopal Church, not part of whatever it is that is headed by the former Bishop of Pittsburgh. The real Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh will comprise only those congregations and parishioners who wish to be members of The Episcopal Church. It will be up to The Episcopal Church to enforce its rights, however, and it is a fair guess that the civil courts, and perhaps even the criminal courts, will have to be enlisted in the effort.

A post yesterday on the diocesan Web site announced that “Bishop Robert Duncan requested today that all in the diocese who are able undertake to pray for the Anglican Communion, its leaders and its future between February 11 and 19.” Episcopalians in Pittsburgh will surely be doing that. We will also be praying for the Presiding Bishop, for The Episcopal Church, and for sanity, charity, humility, respect, and lawfulness to be returned to the Anglican Communion. We will be praying that the Presiding Bishop has both a plan for next week and a bevy of talented lawyers ready to deal with whatever chaos the primates might create.

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