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.

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