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.

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