October 16, 2008

Stewards, Not Owners

Not surprisingly, the disposition of parish property of dissident Episcopal congregations repeatedly surfaces as a topic of conversation on The Houses of Bishops and Deputies e-mail list. It is a critical issue, since The Episcopal Church has no power to keep its members from leaving. If congregations want to depart, whether to join a different church or even to found a new church, there is nothing that can stop them, except, of course, if they want to take parish property with them.

I have written about the church property issue myself, in an essay that appeared in The Living Church, and elsewhere. I have despaired of writing (or finding) the definitive treatment of the topic, but I am always on the lookout for someone with something wise to say on the matter. This morning, a post on the e-mail list by the Very Rev. George Werner caught my eye, and I asked him for permission to reproduce it here, which he graciously granted. I have made minor edits for the sake of clarity, to correct obvious errors, and to display the text more attractively on the Web, but what follows is otherwise unchanged from what Dean Werner wrote:
I reluctantly, and with sadness, find I must reply to an argument being offered concerning the property of the Diocese of Pittsburgh. The claim has been made that the property belongs to those who are currently tending it. One of the clearest of principles in The Episcopal Church (and many others) is that we are stewards, not owners. It is a scriptural concept, that we are the temporary managers whose job description is to maintain and enhance (see Parable of the Talents, Mt. 25:14–30) that with which we have been entrusted and then pass it on to our successor.

It has worked brilliantly for centuries. Clergy are entrusted with Church buildings, land, chalices, vestments, linens, and other appointments of worship and community. Our generous forebears have left behind dedicated funds for music, for scholarships, for endowments, for personnel positions, and for maintenance of all the above.

Unfortunately, from time to time, some group makes the judgment that “this time is special” and that “we are more able, more effective, more holy, more scriptural, more just, or more righteous than others. Therefore, we must take ownership of that we once accepted in trust as stewards.” But I would think that such a self-praising judgment needs to be left to the One true Judge, who will separate the sheep from the goats and the wheat from the chaff.

I question neither the sincerity nor the commitment of such folk. I understand that I am a dinosaur who actually believes that vows should be taken seriously. At my Ordinations to Diaconate and Priesthood, not only did I respond orally and positively to accept the doctrine, discipline, and worship of The Episcopal Church, but I also signed the documents of that vow before the ceremony could be continued.

I believe in the Communion of Saints. For me that includes the hundreds and the thousands of wonderful lay people who gave so much of their time, talent, and treasure to build these communities and then passed them on to another generation. In both our sacred and secular worlds, there are too few voices of gratitude for those who have given us so much and too many shouts of “mine” in this difficult moment of God’s history.

This is my thirtieth year as part of this Diocesan family. When I arrived, we were just completing the last significant Diocesan fund raising for mission. Though other campaigns were proposed, none came to fruition. So the property and funds in question were the product of decades and centuries. (I was a steward for Trinity Cathedral for more than twenty years of Trinity’s twenty-five decades of history.)

Serving as a steward was a great honor and privilege for me and I never felt the need or desire to be an owner of such a treasured place and gloried history. But then, I am a dinosaur who believes in vows and commitments, and dinosaurs are best known for being extinct.

— George Werner, 31st President of the House of Deputies; Dean Emeritus, Trinity Cathedral, Pittsburgh

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