September 6, 2007

Agreeing to Agree

Ostensibly, the Diocese of Pittsburgh is engaged in a discernment process that will determine its destiny. In practice, the broad outlines of its future are clear, even if the path leading to that future is obscured. Anyone doubting this need only read the story in yesterday’s Boston Globe, which includes the following paragraphs:
Pittsburgh Bishop Robert Duncan, who came to Nairobi for the consecrations, said he expects to see a new Anglican province in North America that will replace the Episcopal Church.

“We are realigning,” said Duncan, who added he would attempt to pull his entire diocese out of the Episcopal Church, a move that would raise an unprecedented set of legal and financial questions about the ownership of parish buildings and diocesan property.
Make no mistake; Pittsburgh is a conservative place, and its Episcopal diocese is one of the least progressive in The Episcopal Church. It is led by the moderator of the Network of Anglican Communion Dioceses and Parishes, has petitioned for alternative episcopal oversight, and has unlawfully weakened the accession clause of its constitution. The diocese claims to have removed itself from its Episcopal Church province, sends no money to The Episcopal Church for the maintenance of the general church, and hosts Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry, perhaps the institution most responsible for what the Rev. Tom Woodward has called the “undermining of the Episcopal Church.”

Despite Bishop Duncan’s efforts, however, his diocese is not monolithic. It is home to Progressive Episcopalians of Pittsburgh, one of the more liberal of the Via Media USA groups, which has been opposing the depredations of the bishop for the past 4-1/2 years. It contains at least a dozen parishes, including some of the largest in the diocese, that have opted out of Duncan’s Network. Among these is Calvary Church, which, in 2003, sued Bishop Duncan and other diocesan leaders in an effort to protect Episcopal Church property from alienation.

It is therefore certain that Duncan will not “pull his entire diocese out of the Episcopal Church.” The question now is who will go and who will stay. Many Pittsburgh clergy are determined to leave, in many cases, along with their congregations. Fewer clergy seem committed to staying in The Episcopal Church, but many of these are proud to call themselves Episcopalians. This leaves a large group of clergy who despise The Episcopal Church but are not yet convinced that abandoning it is a good career move, particularly if their congregations are divided in their loyalties, as many are.

While Pittsburgh clergy meet over lunch in small groups to discuss whether to join the exodus or how to deal with its aftermath, Web sites are providing ammunition to the battle for the hearts and minds of Pittsburgh laypeople. It is laypeople, after all, who ultimately will determine whether Duncan leads a great throng out of The Episcopal Church or merely a dispirited band of malcontents. The diocese has created a site called Parish Toolbox to provide “resources” to parishes uncertain of the way forward. In principle, Parish Toolbox exists to offer materials from all points of view. In practice, its insistence on countering “progressive” material with “conserving” material has meant that the site has expanded slowly and, because it was launched with a substantial collection of resources from the diocese, balance, by any objective measure, seems unachievable in our lifetime. (A more proper characterization of the material—no binary classification can be completely adequate, of course—might be “schismatic” and “non-schismatic,” rather than “progressive” and “conserving.” A recent piece by a diocesan priest who is conservative, by any measure, had to be countered by a conservative, schismatic essay.)

Although the Progressive Episcopalians of Pittsburgh Web site contains a wealth of material that might be used by parishes, PEP, which is anathema to many in the diocese, has not made any special effort to compensate for the deficiencies of Parish Toolbox. However, loyal Pittsburgh Episcopalians seeking to appeal to a wider constituency have created a new site called A Pittsburgh Episcopal Voice, which is offering materials that, in an ideal world, might be expected to be made available through Parish Toolbox.

A Compact

On Tuesday, Parish Toolbox published “A Pittsburgh Compact for a Way Forward in this Season,” a declaration by “153 Pittsburgh Leaders.” I began reading this piece thinking it unusually irenic, but, by the time I had finished, I was asking myself what its purpose was. The signers, the compact explains, in light of the likely “fork in the road ahead that may divide our fellowship,” affirm three principles as guides to action:
  1. Believing: We will follow the leading and live in the faith of Jesus Christ.
  2. Belonging: We will work for the health and unity of the Church.
  3. Behaving: We will walk in humility and grace.
None of these principles seemed especially controversial. Therefore, they did not seem much in need of affirmation. The details were interesting, however.

Under “Believing,” signers agree to “repeatedly test all things” against “‘God’s Word written,’” quoting Article XX of the Articles of Religion. The view of scripture found in this article—it is a view only implicit in a proposition about the authority of the church—is simply not sustainable in the 21st century. No reputable scholar would hold either that scripture is formally consistent (the Church may not “expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another”) or that it is somehow dictated by God in the same literal way Muslims claim for the Qur’an. Signers declare that they live in “‘the faith once for all delivered to the saints’ (Jude 3),” a faith, no doubt, quite different in Christology and in many other respects when these oft-quoted words were first written. They affirm the creeds and pledge to listen to bishops and primates “whose leadership has remained true to the historic faith of the church.” Presumably, not all bishops and primates are included here—the lack of a comma is significant—and I suspect that “church” was meant to be capitalized.

The “Belonging” section, while offering the usual romantic mix of traditionalist motherhood and apple pie, does, eventually, confront present realities. Before doing so, however, it declares the Anglican Communion “a precious gift of the Gospel”—what does that mean?—and asserts that “‘clarity and charity’ go together”—I assume this refers to the love-the-sinner-hate-the-sin thing. (Of course, Anglicanism has maintained what signers call “health and unity” by studiously avoiding clarity.) After repeating the tired charge that The Episcopal Church is choosing to “‘walk apart’” from the Communion, the signers admit that some feel that God is calling them to leave The Episcopal Church, while others are called to stay behind to fight a rear-guard action against “an increasingly hostile ecclesiastical culture.” (“Traditionalist” clergy, a small minority within The Episcopal Church, seems as much bothered by their failure to be hired into high-paying jobs in big, moderate churches as they are by anything having to do with homosexuality. Laypeople should be unmoved by this complaint.) They agree to “respect, honor, and support one another” and to look forward to the advent of “a biblically-rooted, mission-minded jurisdiction,” presumably one encroaching on or replacing The Episcopal Church.

The “Behaving” section certainly does begin meekly enough, with the signers admitting that “our own hands are not clean” with respect to fostering division. They speak of “the pride that has too often accompanied our witness” and beg God for forgiveness. Then, however, we come to the last paragraph:
We are mindful of God’s weakness displayed in Christ’s Cross, and of the Apostle Paul’s consistent advocacy of the weakness of the Cross as the way of Christian life and ministry. Because of this, we forsake the spirit of condemnation and the opportunity for litigation. We look instead for clarity and charity towards all, and will work towards any prospect for just mediation. We pray to God for the heart to bear any difficulties with joyful grace, peaceful spirits, and confidence in His provision.
I'm not sure I follow the logic from the first sentence to the second, but, in this paragraph, I believe that we, at last, can see what the point of this compact is. First, it is clear that the unity being declared in the statement is not that of the Christian Church or of The Episcopal Church, but that of a group holding to a particular, radically Protestant, and not particularly Anglican take on the Christian message. The compact is not a watershed agreement between people who have major disagreements with one another, not a step forward toward a unified diocese. These people are simply agreeing to agree. Examining the list of signers is instructive here. Not only are all the signers either right-of-center or far-right-of-center, but a little checking around makes it clear that no clergy I would consider to be moderate or (God forbid!) liberal were even asked to sign. The compact is, in reality, a statement of solidarity against The Episcopal Church by those who will try to subvert it from without and those who will try to subvert it from within.

The key sentences in the whole compact, I believe, are these: “Because of this, we forsake the spirit of condemnation and the opportunity for litigation. We look instead for clarity and charity towards all, and will work towards any prospect for just mediation.” In the end, this compact is all about allowing congregations to depart with their property. Those called by God “to dissociate from the Episcopal Church” will, of course, try to do so with “their” parish property. Those behind agree not to engage in litigation to stop the theft. They will, presumably, urge mediation as an alternative to a spirited defense of its rightful property by The Episcopal Church. The Episcopal Church and the moderates left behind in the diocese, the signers no doubt hope, will be struck by the loving example of the remaining traditionalists who refuse to demand retribution and will, therefore, allow the schismatics to leave on favorable terms negotiated with the diminished diocese.

Sorry, guys—we’re talking mostly, if not quite exclusively, of guys here—it won’t work. The secret to avoiding litigation is to not give offense. Leave the keys on the desk, and turn out the lights when you leave. To do otherwise is to steal in the name of God.

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