June 3, 2008

Resigned to Realignment

On Sunday, June 1, 2008, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, in the Highland Park neighborhood of Pittsburgh, held a forum and panel discussion on Bishop Robert Duncan’s plan for “realignment.” Duncan, who has been determined to have already abandoned the communion of The Episcopal Church and is awaiting a vote by the church’s House of Bishops on his deposition, is attempting to change the constitution of the diocese and to transfer the entire diocese from The Episcopal Church to another Anglican Communion province, most likely South America’s province of the Southern Cone. The only bishop ever to have tried this ploy, John-David Schofield, late of the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin, was deposed shortly after doing so. It is unclear whether Episcopal bishops will, this time around, shut the barn door before the horse gets out.

That a majority of diocesan clergy will vote for the transparently improper constitutional change that proponents claim will allow realignment has never really been in doubt. Indeed, the Diocese of Pittsburgh has become a magnet and training ground for militant Evangelical clergy frustrated by their apparently permanent minority status within The Episcopal Church. The majority of laypeople in the diocese are not necessarily committed to the bishop’s program, however, and divided loyalties in congregations are causing some clergy to have to make painful choices.

A round of district meetings was held last year, ostensibly to discuss realignment, but actually to sell the realignment plan to the laity. This year, formal meetings largely have been confined to individual congregations, to which Bishop Duncan repeatedly has taken his medicine show. The St. Andrew’s affair was an exception. Although held primarily for the benefit of the parish vestry, the entire diocese was invited, and the audience of 100 or so clergy and laypeople mostly came from other churches.

Sunday’s program was put together by St. Andrew’s’ rector, Bruce Robison, and, although a balanced presentation was certainly an aspiration of his, circumstances conspired against achieving it. Robison could not get the mix of panelists he originally sought, and the group assembled on June 1 represented a compromise of what must have been Plan C. Observers unfamiliar with St. Andrew’s or its rector might have concluded, erroneously, that the parish was at least nominally committed to realignment. It isn’t.

The Program

The program began with 10–15-minute opening remarks from four presenters. This was followed by a question-and-answer period during which the audience was invited to ask questions. Pittsburgh Assistant Bishop Henry Scriven and the Rev. John Bailey, secretary of Diocesan Council, spoke in favor of realignment. The Rev. Daniel Hall, while generally agreeing with the arguments advanced to justify realignment, urged that the diocese wait for a definitive ruling from the Anglican Communion that The Episcopal Church has chosen to “walk apart” before leaving the then-officially-discredited Episcopal Church. Only the Rev. Cynthia Bronson Sweigert disputed the need for realignment or its desirability. The Rev. Canon Mary Maggard Hays, who seemed to have come in a package deal with Bishop Scriven, joined the four speakers in answering audience questions. Robison acted as moderator and offered occasional remarks.

As I understand it, the speakers were given little direction concerning the issues they were to address; they were told simply to give their personal reasons for supporting or opposing realignment. It was not surprising that the panel, drawn exclusively from the ordained orders, spoke mostly of theological issues.

Graciously, Scriven conceded that not everyone who will be left behind in The Episcopal Church by realignment is a heretic. But he asserted that the church is moving in a direction he is unwilling to go, and he raised the usual charge that the church is “unclear” about the nature of Jesus (among other things), citing the Presiding Bishop’s “10 Questions For Katharine Jefferts Schori” interview in the July 10, 2006, Time and an August 2007 statement, “Already One in God,” a response to the primates’ Dar es Salaam letter from the leadership of the Diocese of Northern Michigan. Scriven’s strategy was a clever one to use in front of a potentially hostile audience, since it is much harder to refute someone’s distorted opinion of what might happen than it is to refute his distorted opinion of what has happened.

The bishop’s opening statement was followed by one from the Rev. Daniel Hall. Hall is a surgeon and an Episcopal priest serving in a Lutheran church. He was a signer of the January 2008 letter to the bishop declaring that “the best way forward for renewal and reformation of the Episcopal Church” is to stay in the church and advocate for the Windsor Report’s recommendations to be implemented. Hall emphasized his Evangelical heritage and expressed general agreement with the critique of The Episcopal Church offered by those wishing to realign. Surprisingly, he also expressed love of The Episcopal Church and of its 1979 prayer book, although he clearly would like to see both a different Episcopal Church and a different Anglican Communion. He enumerated the sorts of mechanisms available for holding Evangelical Christianity together—apparently, he does not much care what happens to other Christian traditions—confessional (the usual Protestant solution), magisterial (Roman Catholic), and conciliar (as advocated by the Anglican Communion Institute but, arguably, at odds with actual past practice of the Anglican Communion). In theory, Hall is looking for “mutual submission under Christ” among Anglican provinces. In practice, he seemed to think it wisest to wait until The Episcopal Church is thrown out of the Anglican Communion, so that realignment can be effected with greater moral authority. Those of us who believe that realignment is the moral equivalent of theft by deception were not cheered by Hall’s opposition to the bishop’s present scheme.

The Rev. John Bailey’s opening remarks, articulated at great length, were familiar: The Episcopal Church is going where traditional Christianity has never gone, and the need to defend the authentic Gospel—he told his audience that we are actually two churches with two gospels—justifies the militancy of realignment. The litany continued: the church is shrinking, but South Carolina and Pittsburgh (corrected through some appropriate statistical legerdemain) are growing; The Episcopal Church adopts ideas from contemporary society; loving your neighbor does not mean consenting to sinful behavior; the Presiding Bishop has denied the uniqueness of Jesus. The “truth of the Gospel,” Bailey said, is at stake. “Peacemaking”—he began by talking about peacemaking and asking, rhetorically, why we are fighting—“is not about everyone just getting along.” Realignment would mean that Evangelicals will no longer need to apologize for their church.

Last to speak was the Rev. Cynthia Bronson Sweigert. She suggested that generalizations were being made about The Episcopal Church that simply are not true, a point she illustrated, somewhat obliquely, by quoting from Progressive Episcopalians of Pittsburgh’s “Realignment Reconsidered,” which juxtaposes answers from PEP to questions and answers about realignment offered by the diocese. She suggested that dialogue in Pittsburgh is much like that from the pen of Lewis Carroll, in that words and ideas are bandied about with meanings different from their conventional ones. (“We are not leaving The Episcopal Church; The Episcopal Church has left us.”) While conceding that some division of the diocese seems unavoidable, she admitted to seeing no valid purpose for it. Groups breaking away from The Episcopal Church, she observed, do not have much of a success rate. Sweigert expressed excitement, however, about a future diocese free of the current strife, and she said that a group of clergy and laypeople, informally called the Across the Aisle group, is talking about how the Diocese of Pittsburgh can be reorganized in a way that avoids “the polarization of the past.” Sweigert said that she is in The Episcopal Church because of its comprehensiveness, and she noted, with sadness, that, in Pittsburgh, one never hears Queen Elizabeth’s remark about having no desire to make windows into men’s souls. She ended by observing that we need Christ and one another.

Details of the question-and-answer period that followed are not particularly important. Most of the questions were from opponents of realignment, but they were respectfully asked and respectfully answered. Particularly toward the end of the event—it actually lasted close to 2½ hours—the panelists seemed just as happy to let someone else answer a question, although Robison had suggested that each presenter should have an opportunity to respond to each question.

Analysis

What was striking was the contrast, particularly in the question-and-answer period, to the dialogue that took place at a similar meeting in the same space. One of the aforementioned district meetings (that for District VII) was held at St. Andrew’s. It, too, was well attended and was similar in format, though the presentations were even more weighted in favor of realignment. The audience was almost uniformly opposed to this point of view—only one of the questions could be considered at all sympathetic or neutral—and the session became progressively more acrimonious as it wore on, with questioners angrily hurling charges and posing questions designed to embarrass the presenters.

The mood on June 1, however, was one of resignation to some sort of division of the diocese. The first question, in fact, was about whether there is a way to part gracefully. The consensus was that there likely is not, an answer disputed by no one. Some perfunctory words were said about being gracious to one another and possibly sharing projects and resources, but the words seemed to lack conviction.

Perhaps most surprising was the absence, both in the initial presentations and in the subsequent questions, of discussion related to the canonical or legal propriety of realignment. There was little concern expressed for the effect realignment might have on the Anglican Communion, and no talk at all of the likely effect on The Episcopal Church. These concerns had seemingly become irrelevant, as if everyone was part of a Greek tragedy, and no one had control over his or her fate.

The program was, I suspect, the last great theological debate in Pittsburgh on the realignment question. (It was, perhaps, not a great debate, but theological issues were raised in the apparent expectation that someone would actually listen to them.) From this point on, however, I suspect that we will not bother to argue theology. Realigners and non-realigners will continue to plan for their individual futures. Everyone will play out his or her role, and what will happen will happen. A broad coalition of Episcopalians will inherit the current dysfunctional diocese and will try to make it work, while the lawyers will labor to return diocesan assets to their rightful owners.

May God have mercy on us all.

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