May 19, 2008

Realignment Reconsidered

The various groups allied as Via Media USA are notable for quite different reasons. The Episcopal Forum of South Carolina, for example, has emphasized informational events. Remain Episcopal, whatever its past accomplishments, will forever be known as the organization most responsible for facilitating the rising from the ashes of the Diocese of San Joaquin. Progressive Episcopalians of Pittsburgh (PEP), on the other hand, is best known for its publications.

Lately, PEP’s efforts have been focused on working, largely behind the scenes, to forge as wide a coalition as possible to help in the rebuilding of a post-Duncan Diocese of Pittsburgh. (See “A Pittsburgh Conversation,” which reports on a small piece of this work.) Even this project, however, requires PEP to shift into document-production mode on occasion, and, today, PEP is releasing what we consider to be a very significant handout, “Realignment Reconsidered.”

Some background of today’s announcement: On April 22, the Diocese of Pittsburgh posted “Frequently Asked Questions About Realignment” on its Parish Toolbox Web site. That 8-page document distills the message Bishop Duncan has been delivering to individual parishes in his recent campaign to shore up support for his plan to remove the diocese from The Episcopal Church.

Reading “FAQ” is a visit to a looking-glass world in which facts and logic are, shall I say, malleable. For example, question 4 asks: “If the Diocese chooses to realign, what would the immediate consequences be for individual … clergy?” The answer offered by the diocese is the following: “Clergy would need to enter a new retirement plan and would be clergy of the province that the Diocese joins instead of clergy of The Episcopal Church.” Even John-David Schofield, bold as he was in engineering the “realignment” of the Diocese of San Joaquin, was not so presumptuous as to suggest that his diocesan convention could undo the ordination vows of individual priests or deacons.

There was no question that “FAQ” required a direct response. Within a few days, I had written alternative answers to several of the diocese’s questions, and I made a pitch to turn that preliminary work into a PEP publication. The idea was not a hard sell. The plan was to copy the diocesan document and add our own answers alongside the original ones.

It has taken nearly a month to finish “Realignment Reconsidered.” Like so many PEP projects, although it has a single, primary author—me, in this instance—it had many reviewers, and some people made significant contributions to particular answers. Because we tend to go through so many review cycles, it is easy to loose track of just who wrote what.

In any case, the scrutiny to which PEP subjects its publications is very good at smoothing the rough edges, and I believe the new document to be a very good one. Most typos get caught eventually, if not always quickly. Errors of fact are likely to be identified by someone, and it is often the case that a reviewer will be able to summon up useful information, unknown or forgotten by the author, that can be used to strengthen the text. Much attention is given to tone, and that was certainly the case for “Realignment Reconsidered.” We try to avoid name-calling, sarcasm, and unsupported accusations; it is all too easy to be carried away by one’s emotions, but a little self-indulgence can alienate a reader, particularly one unsympathetic to your viewpoint to begin with..

It is difficult to identify a question and answer from the new document as being typical, but an example will at least provide a sense of what the Diocese of Pittsburgh has been saying and how we have tried to correct the record. Question 5 from “FAQ” reads as follows:
Can a congregation “opt out” of diocesan realignment? What would happen to the a) parishes who do not wish to realign, and b) clergy who do not wish to realign?

a) Parishes would be given time to consider whether to leave the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh by changing the “accession” in their by-laws. The Diocese would work with parishes to make such a decision as conflict-free and charitable as possible.

b) Clergy would apply to the Bishop for letters dimissory (transfer letters) from the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh to whatever entity the leadership of the Episcopal Church sets up.

Our answer is the following (PEP answers are all set in italics):
It is clear from the experience of the Diocese of San Joaquin that any parish that wants to remain in The Episcopal Church need only declare that intention. Likewise, clergy who want to stay in The Episcopal Church will not need to execute any sort of transfer or require anyone’s permission to do so, especially not that of a bishop who no longer holds authority in the church. Failure of a parish to declare its intention to remain an Episcopal parish could be construed as indicative of an intention to leave the church and could expose it to litigation by The Episcopal Church to recover parish property.

It is the position of The Episcopal Church, supported overwhelmingly by diocesan chancellors and legal scholars, that a diocese cannot properly remove its accession clause from its constitution, nor can it remove itself from The Episcopal Church. There will continue to be an Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh that is part of The Episcopal Church, but it will have new leadership. There will be no need for any parish remaining in The Episcopal Church to amend its bylaws, since there would be no conflict in acceding to the constitution and canons of the diocese that remains in The Episcopal Church.

Legal precedent for the inability of Episcopal Church parishes to remove parish property from The Episcopal Church is strong. Such matters are largely governed by state law, and a recent Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision in the St. James the Less case—a case about which the diocese has largely been silent—gives little reason for realigning parishes to think that they can long remain in control of parish property. Changing parish bylaws will be unavailing.
PEP’s biggest challenge will be getting “Realignment Reconsidered” into the hands of those willing at least to consider arguments at odds with statements made by their bishop. Proponents of realignment have demonized Progressive Episcopalians of Pittsburgh at least as much as they have demonized The Episcopal Church, which makes it difficult for any PEP document to get a fair hearing in much of the Pittsburgh diocese.

Interested readers can find “Realignment Reconsidered” here. The press release announcing its availability can be found here.

May 14, 2008

A Pittsburgh Conversation

With a vote construed as a mechanism to remove the Diocese of Pittsburgh from The Episcopal Church less than half a year away and a real possibility that Bishop Robert Duncan could be deposed before then, what I have called the enthusiastic and the reluctant supporters of The Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh are beginning seriously to talk to one another.

The contacts between these groups have had something of an ad hoc quality about them because of organizational asymmetry. Enthusiastic Episcopalians have, in Progressive Episcopalians of Pittsburgh (PEP), a nearly 5-year-old tax-exempt corporation of clergy and laypeople, whereas the anti-realignment conservatives are represented mainly by a small, informal group of clergy used to meeting quietly and in private. Despite this asymmetry, the forging of an effective coalition to move the Diocese of Pittsburgh into a post-schism era is moving forward.

As part of this coalition building, the Rev. Dr. Jay Geisler, a member of the group of conservative clergy that declared to the diocese and its bishop that they intend to remain in The Episcopal Church, was invited to be guest speaker at a PEP meeting last week, and his visit occasioned a useful exchange of ideas. Geisler, who is rector of a church once led by Mark Lawrence, now Bishop of South Carolina, brought a few of his vestry members along with him, thereby providing a rare opportunity for moderate and conservative laypeople of Pittsburgh to talk to one another as well.

PEP members were, I think, delighted (and probably surprised) to hear of Geisler’s passion for social justice. (He once landed in jail for his part in a demonstration.) I hope that he left with the impression that PEP people are generally orthodox in their theology, if very protective of their church and wary of their bishop.

During the presentation and subsequent Q&A, I listened especially for an answer to a longstanding question of mine: What do conservatives—for want of a better term—really want? Geisler never quite answered this question, though, in truth, I never quite asked it. He did say a few things that touched on the matter, however.

Acknowledging that conservatives have sought a place of “safety” within The Episcopal Church, Geisler offered his own solution, at least for the short term. As a mechanism to avoid schism and lessen conflict, he explained that he would like to see the establishment of a non-geographic diocese of conservative parishes within the church, led by a conservative bishop. He admitted that this plan is problematic. He did not say what effect he thought such an innovation would have on Pittsburgh, an interesting question, in retrospect, that no one pursued. He related that Bishop Duncan had discouraged him from advocating his plan because it would, in Duncan’s words, “weaken our position.”

This was an interesting revelation. I do not favor the non-geographic diocese “solution,” but not for the same reason that Duncan opposes it. (I will have more to say about this another time.) Duncan’s opposition, I think, is to any reconciliation or mechanism that gives even the appearance of unity, since such a scheme would ease tensions in the church and blunt his efforts to engineer a schism that ultimately could place him in the position of leader of his own Anglican province in North America.

Interestingly, Geisler did not articulate the complaint I have heard from other conservatives that they are discriminated against by liberal bishops when seeking rectorships. I have always been skeptical of this charge, but I never felt qualified to evaluate it. Geisler suggested a more credible “problem,” namely that bishops—it was not at all clear that he meant to limit his remark to liberal bishops—are wary of graduates of Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry, the alma mater of so many favoring “realignment,” because they are concerned that Trinity graduates will not long remain clergy in The Episcopal Church. In other words, discrimination against evangelical clergy may be less a matter of disqualifying candidates for their theology as for their schismatic designs against The Episcopal Church.

Our speaker had a few other things to say that most listeners probably found encouraging, whether or not they were in full agreement. Although Geisler passed up an opportunity to call his bishop disingenuous, he nevertheless took exception to Duncan’s contention that the current disagreements are, at root, about the “authority of Scripture.” Instead, he said that he thought the fundamental issue was autonomy, suggesting, in so saying, that The Episcopal Church has failed to be sufficiently respectful of the beliefs of other Anglican provinces. Geisler also made it clear that, in his mind, “realignment” is, in fact, schism. Duncan has avoided this conclusion by accusing The Episcopal Church of “walking apart” from the rest of the Anglican Communion or even of becoming non-Christian. Geisler’s view seemed more genuine and defensible.

The conversation failed to cover some of the essential issues that must be faced in Pittsburgh in the coming months. The Q&A period was not long enough, and the experiences of the audience in working in the diocese over the years, predictably influenced comments and questions, both in helpful and unhelpful ways. Nonetheless, the discussion seemed a useful part of an ongoing conversation that offers hope of reconciliation and a renewed sense of mission in the not-so-distant future of the (likely much smaller) Diocese of Pittsburgh.

May 9, 2008

The Ignorant Vote

Hillary Clinton is trying desperately to make the case that she is more electable than Barack Obama. I doubt this is true; Clinton had what pollsters call high negatives long before she announced her candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination. What that means is that there is a large fraction of the voting population that Clinton will almost certainly never win over. Many in that group are not ready to vote for Obama either, but they at least are not unalterably opposed to the idea. To be sure, there is a racist vote that will not support a black man, but Clinton supporters cannot dismiss misogynist sentiment, either.

Anyway, in supporting the case for her electability the other day, Clinton was bragging that she has more support than her opponent from whites who have not finished college. No doubt, this is a significant voting bloc, but one has to question Clinton’s boast that she is preferred by the ignorant. I wonder how she does with white supremacists and whether she is ready to tout her advantage with that group to superdelegates.