June 26, 2008

Whither Pittsburgh?

In October, like the Diocese of San Joaquin before it, and, presumably, the Diocese of Fort Worth after it, the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh is going to vote itself out of The Episcopal Church and into the province of the Southern Cone. That, at least, is the plan. The followers of Pittsburgh’s Bishop Robert Duncan seem untroubled that he has no right to lead his diocese down this particular path, which, as in San Joaquin, will result in the bishop’s being deposed by The Episcopal Church, the diocese’s being reorganized under new leadership, and The Episcopal Church’s suing to regain diocesan and parish property. The litigation will last for years. In the end, Duncan will become the martyr he has always spoken of being, though a martyr to the cause of hubris and recklessness, rather than to “biblical faithfulness,” as he would have it.

Meanwhile, life will go on in the counties of Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Cambria, Fayette, Greene, Indiana, Somerset, Washington, and Westmoreland, which make up the physical territory of the Diocese of Pittsburgh. Those Episcopalians who choose not to follow their bishop into his brave new world of Anglican purity, will find themselves running a smaller and—it is greatly to be hoped—happier diocese of The Episcopal Church. Those remaining Episcopalians will comprise those who love the church for its progressive innovations, those who love or respect it despite those innovations, and those—this is not meant to be disparaging—who merely go along for the ride.

What will that new Episcopal diocese be like after “realignment”? Will the liberal/conservative feuds that characterize the present diocese be recreated in the reorganized judicatory? There is genuine reason to think not. Episcopalians on the left and on the right are talking to one another and to reprentatives of the Presiding Bishop’s office as to how they should deal with the schismatic vote at the annual convention and how they will structure and run the diocese of which they will become the inheritors. There is widespread resolution that the sins of the diocesan fathers should not be visited upon their sons and daughters.

A little history is helpful here. Progressive Episcopalians of Pittsburgh was formed early in 2003—before the episcopal election of Gene Robinson by the Diocese of New Hampshire, I hasten to add—in response to the perception that the Diocese of Pittsburgh was becoming increasingly hostile to moderate and liberal Episcopalians and to The Episcopal Church itself. Despite its leftist-sounding name—repeated attempts to change it, at my suggestion and at those of others have left “Progressive Episcopalians of Pittsburgh” and its more tractable familiar moniker, PEP, in place—the organization has always had the goal of making the diocese a comfortable home for Episcopalians of all varieties of churchmanship. (That traditional Anglican term seems quaint and sexist today, of course, but, aside from that, it is the proper term to use here.)

PEP has, since its inception, carried the flag for tolerance and moderation in its diocese, and has become known (and vilified) for its position papers and educational materials that, invariably (and perhaps unfortunately) opposed the plans and pronouncements of Bishop Robert Duncan. For many, PEP exemplified everything they considered wrong in The Episcopal Church. Although PEP saw tolerant conservatives as natural allies, it was not particularly successful in attracting them as members.

Although, from the beginning, PEP nurtured communications with the wider church, including especially Episcopalians in similarly ideological dioceses such as San Joaquin, only in 2006, in response to the diocese’s “withdrawal” from its Episcopal Church province (see “An Appraisal of the Diocese of Pittsburgh’s ‘Withdrawal’ of Consent to Inclusion in Province III”), did PEP reach out, and with some sense of alarm, for direct help from the parent church. PEP invited representatives of Province III to Pittsburgh for meetings and programs. Eventually, a group consisting mostly of PEP members began meeting outside the diocese with representatives of The Episcopal Church. They met first with Province III president Bishop Robert Ihloff, and, later, with the Presiding Bishop’s chancellor, David Booth Beers. As it became increasing clear that Bishop Duncan was determined to leave The Episcopal Church, participants were being told, though they did not need to be told, that they needed to build a broader coalition of Pittsburgh Episcopalians.

From its inception, PEP was an organization of both lay and clergy members, with laypeople in the most prominent leadership roles. Although no analogous conservative organization developed in the diocese, conservatives who did not want to leave The Episcopal Church were systematically discussing the developing crisis in the diocese. In January of this year, 12 right-leaning clergy wrote “to the people and clergy of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh” that they intended to work within The Episcopal Church, rather than leave it. This communication had been a long time in coming, and it provided the opportunity for the group that had been meeting with church officials in Western Maryland to invite the 12 priests and representative laypeople of similar persuasion to join the discussions about the future of the diocese.

The group that had been meeting with church representatives in Maryland, joined by conservative clergy and an increasing number of conservative laypeople, began conversation tentatively and with some mutual suspicion. Initially, the group deliberately remained nameless—thereby avoiding a potentially divisive discussion—though it has come informally to be called the “Across the Aisle” group. Although there is some reluctance to use the terms, the part of the group that developed from the original PEP-initiated discussions is known as the “Gospel side,” and the group of more-recently-added conservatives is known as the “Epistle side.” Happily, these terms are being used less and less, as the “sides” are increasingly concerning themselves with the mechanics of reorganizing the diocese so as to discourage the divisiveness that has characterized Pittsburgh in the recent past.

PEP has perhaps become known for its rhetoric because its marginalization within the diocese provided little opportunity for it to accomplish very much, at least through diocesan institutions that have been firmly in the hands of the bishop and his supporters. The Across the Aisle group, on the other hand, sees a realistic opportunity to gain power only a few months from now, and it has neither the time nor the established mechanisms to articulate for the wider diocese and church what it intends to do with that power. The increasing harmony and dedication of the group to the task at hand, however, is quite encouraging.

Not long ago, discussion among PEP board members led to a consensus that PEP needed to counter what we considered the misrepresentations of the diocesan leadership concerning realignment. Eventually, PEP published “Realignment Reconsidered,” which addresses the reassurances of the propriety and safety of the bishop’s plan point-by-point. PEP board members also thought that a one-page statement of a more irenic Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh, probably from the Across the Aisle group itself, would be useful in clarifying the group’s objectives and in attracting Pittsburgh Episcopalians who are tired of the constant battles and angry rhetoric that have become characteristic of our life together.

I was skeptical that a reasonable vision of the reorganized diocese could be captured on a single page, in part because I thought it would have to deal with the many theological issues that vex our common life. I challenged myself to draft such a statement, which I managed eventually to produce. I offered it to the PEP board for comments and, based on the responses I received, I produced a second draft that I hoped would be appropriate for the Across the Aisle group itself to consider as a possible basis for the proposed statement.

Helpful though a statement about our future might be, both for achieving internal consensus and for offering hope for a better future to others in the diocese, it is clear that getting its development on the agenda of the wider group is simply impractical—there is too much other pressing work to do. I have faith that the reorganized diocese will be one that facilitates our Christian mission rather than one that perpetually fights about it, and that is good enough for now. Besides, the leaders of the new diocese eventually will have to articulate their own vision of what they are about.

I do believe, however, that my document captures the spirit with which the Across the Aisle group is approaching its task, and, with that particular leap of faith in mind, I offer my latest draft below without further editing or, in fact, explicit feedback from the Epistle side. Though “unofficial,” it can perhaps suggest a brighter day for the Diocese of Pittsburgh to those frustrated with our present diocesan leadership. In many respects, we are all looking for a diocese that, for want of a better term, is simply “normal.” A PDF version is available here.

A Vision for the Episcopal Church’s
Diocese of Pittsburgh after Realignment
Members of our diocese have to make a decision about realignment. They deserve to know what vision we who will remain members of The Episcopal Church have for our diocese after the realigners leave.
We are followers of Jesus Christ, whom we accept as our Lord and Savior. We will continue our worship according to the Book of Common Prayer. We will recite the creeds with enthusiasm and without irony. We will be thankful for the people next to us and will not need to know whether their theological understanding exactly matches our own. We will join them at the Lord's Table. We will continue to love God and our neighbor, and to share our faith with all those who will listen, though listening is not a prerequisite for neighborliness.

We will build a diocese that sees its primary job as supporting local congregations, which it does
  • Directly, by helping congregations find clergy appropriate for them, offering loans and grants, and providing additional services;

  • Indirectly, by connecting congregations with each other for mutual support; by offering training, education, and other resources to individuals and congregations; by providing common fellowship and worship opportunities; by sponsoring mission projects too big for individual congregations to undertake; and by being a good steward of common assets.
We will build a diocese devoted to figuring out how we all can work together, not how we can "win" battles with our diocesan brothers and sisters. We will welcome back into our church any who wish to rejoin us on our mission journey.

We will build a diocese that shows concern for the poor and the downtrodden, that has a passion for a just society, and that respects the dignity of every human being.

We will build a diocese that participates fully in The Episcopal Church and seeks to make it better through its democratic mechanisms.

We will elect a bishop who shares our values, as outlined here. When that bishop retires, we expect him or her to be celebrated for having had an exceptionally successful episcopate.

Draft by Lionel Deimel, 5/28/2008 (ver. 2.3)

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