November 25, 2008

A Tax Question

The annual letter requesting donations for the publication of Trinity arrived in the mail yesterday. Trinity has been the magazine of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh. It has been published six times a year and sent free to the homes of Pittsburgh Episcopalians. (Most laypeople in the diocese have never seen or heard of Episcopal Life.) I have responded with a donation to this solicitation in the past, but I have not done so in recent years, during which the magazine has been transformed from one about the diocese and Episcopal Church to one about Bishop Robert Duncan and his marvelous deeds and plans.

As usual, the letter was from Bishop Duncan, of the “Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh,” which is to say, those folks currently in control of most of the assets recently “liberated” by extra-canonical means from The Episcopal Church. (How long, I wonder, will I remain on this mailing list?) The letter seemed pretty much like those of previous years; it did not suggest that anything as remarkable as “realignment” might have happened recently.

Like most letters from charitable nonprofits, the letter emphasized that donations are tax-deductible. But are they really?

In the wake of the diocesan convention’s voting October 4 to leave The Episcopal Church and join the Anglican Province of the Southern Cone, it didn’t take long to determine which entity thereafter claiming to be the “Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh” legitimately represented a diocese of The Episcopal Church. Recall that, at the time of the convention, the diocese had no bishop, as Duncan had already been deposed. Ecclesiastical authority was therefore held by the Standing Committee. All but one member of the Standing Committee announced their departure for the Southern Cone, so the remaining Standing Committee member, namely, the Rev. Jim Simons, represented organizational continuity with the Episcopal Church diocese called the Diocese of Pittsburgh. On October 9, the Presiding Bishop acknowledged that Simons’ Standing Committee was indeed the ecclesiastical authority of the Episcopal Church diocese.

But what about the other guys? Whatever Duncan’s “diocese” is, no one, especially Duncan himself, has suggested that it is part of The Episcopal Church. Although Duncan registered a Pennsylvania nonprofit corporation called “Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh” earlier this year—see “Which Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh?”—he has claimed not to have transferred any assets to the new corporation and has not, as far as I know, received a determination from the IRS that it is a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt entity. I assume—admittedly without definitive evidence—that Duncan, who has emphasized the continuity of leadership among the realigners, is using the same tax ID the diocese has always used.

Therein lies a problem. The diocese seems never to have had a tax exemption of its own, but has used that of The Episcopal Church. Charities are listed on the IRS Web site, and the church appears there as “Episcopal Churches & Dioceses in the U. S. & Inst. Thereof.” It is associated with Deductibility Code 1, explained as follows: “Generally, a central organization holding a group exemption letter, whose subordinate units covered by the group exemption are also included as having contributions deductible, even though they are not separately listed.” If Duncan’s group is using this as the basis of its tax-exempt status, one has to question on what basis this is possible.

Perhaps there is another tax-exempt organization through which Duncan’s group might claim to be tax-exempt. There is an entry for the “Network of Anglican Communion Dioceses and Parishes,” for example, but I was unable to find any listing for, say, “Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh” or for any name containing “Southern Cone.” One could argue, I suppose, that the realigners are part of the Network, though one could point out that the Episcopal diocese joined the Network and that that diocese is not what Duncan heads. But, of course, my former bishop resides in the Anglican Neighborhood of Make-Believe. I think the IRS resides elsewhere.

Perhaps Duncan can validly claim that contributions to Trinity are deductible. Perhaps the Trinity letter is not actually a fraudulent solicitation, but neither does it seem a transparent one. Would you feel confident that your donation to Duncan’s magazine could be deducted on your income tax return? If so, you are more trusting than I.

November 19, 2008

Training at the Donut Shop

I have been doing some computer work for the reorganizing Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh, and this has required a few trips to Brackenridge, Pennsylvania. Brackenridge is—how should I put it?—out of the high-rent district. Anyway, about half a mile before I reach St. Barnabas’ Episcopal Church, where the office is, I pass a small strip mall under construction. At one end of the mall, a Dunkin’ Donuts shop has, invitingly, been taking shape.

Unexpectedly, I found myself heading out to Brackenridge in mid-morning today. Since I clearly was not going to get lunch at my accustomed time, I grabbed a few scraps of a spiral-sliced ham I had in the refrigerator, filled my coffee mug, put a Fun-Size Snickers left over from Halloween in my jacket pocket, and headed out on the 28-mile trip. When I passed the donut shop, I saw lots of cars in the parking lot and conspicuous activity inside, so I made a mental note to stop by sometime. (Dunkin’ Donuts’ TV advertising has been wearing down my resistance, I suppose, but there is no Dunkin’ Donuts close to my house.)

It was mid-afternoon when I headed back to Pittsburgh, and I thought it might be worth stopping at the new shop for a donut and, perhaps, even some coffee. I pulled into the parking lot, parked the car, and headed for Dunkin’ Donuts. I was delighted to find the place rather crowded, though it also looked a bit messy. I stood in line behind three other customers. Well, I thought they were customers, but I wasn't quite sure. I was about to ask the person ahead of me if the shop was really open for business when a young woman walked up to me to explain that the place was actually opening Monday, and what I was witnessing was a training session. (It was about this time that I noticed that the “customers” had scripts in their hands that they were reading from and were paying with play money.) The young lady explained, however, that I could order something on the house if I would be patient with the new staff. I couldn’t resist all the luscious-looking pastries behind the counter, so I considered that a pretty good deal.

In the end, I came away with a blueberry cake donut and a medium cup of coffee. It was a bit like watching the Keystone Cops behind the counter, but everyone was good-natured and trying very hard to get things right. And perhaps I helped with the training, since I wasn’t using a standard script, and the people behind the counter seemed a bit vague about what Equal is and just how large is each size coffee cup. I walked out of the shop with a smile on my face.

Perhaps when I stop by next time, everyone will seem a bit calmer and more self-assured. I wish the new enterprise all the best.

You’ve got to be kidding!

David Virtue has posted a bizarre story about the retired Bishop of Eau Claire, William Wantland, who has been an assisting bishop in the now-“realigned” Diocese of Fort Worth. According to Virtue, Wantland, who now claims canonical residence in the Southern Cone rather than in The Episcopal Church, has written Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori to ask that he be given honorary membership in the Episcopal Church’s House of Bishops.

Virtue offers this quotation from the letter:
I am not resigning my Orders, nor am I abandoning the communion of The Episcopal Church, being a member of a sister Province of the Anglican Communion, in compliance with the provisions of Canon IV.9. However, because I am no longer a member of The Episcopal Church, although residing within its jurisdiction in Oklahoma, I am no longer eligible to be a regular member of its House of Bishops. I therefore request that I be admitted as an honorary member of the (TEC) House of Bishops.
The request, we are told, is made pursuant to “Rule XXIV of the House of Bishops.” The rule is one of the rules of order of the House (available here on page 10 of the PDF and numbered page 194), and the relevant paragraph is the following:
Any Bishop of an extra-provincial Diocese which originated in the Church or any Bishop of this Church who removed from the jurisdiction of this Church to the jurisdiction of a Church in the Anglican Communion may be continued in relationship to this House as an honorary member. Thirty days prior to each stated or called meeting of the House such honorary members shall give written notice of their intention to be present to the Presiding Officer of this House. Seat and voice shall then be accorded such honorary members, upon the nomination to the House by the Presiding Officer. No vote shall be accorded the honorary member.
Virtue characterizes Wantland as a “canon lawyer,” though he is perhaps better called a “Philadelphia lawyer” for his knowledge a deviousness with respect to law, canon or otherwise. Recall that Wantland, a longtime critic of The Episcopal Church, was the principal instigator of the infamous PECUSA, Inc., scheme, along with John-David Schofield, John Rodgers, Chuck Murphy, and others. (The attempt to co-opt the official name of The Episcopal Church led to a successful federal trademark infringement suit brought by Bishop Jack Spong. This is, no doubt, one of many reasons the Anglican right puts Bishop Spong in the same category as Bishop Pike and Satan himself.)

In any case, Canon IV.9 is the canon under which Bishops Schofield and Duncan were deposed for their actions in support of “realignment.” (The canon can be found here, on page 36 of the PDF and numbered page 154.) Section 1 of that canon begins:
If a Bishop abandons the communion of this Church (i) by an open renunciation of the Doctrine, Discipline, or Worship of this Church, or (ii) by formal admission into any religious body not in communion with the same, or (iii) by exercising episcopal acts in and for a religious body other than this Church or another Church in communion with this Church, so as to extend to such body Holy Orders as this Church holds them, or to administer on behalf of such religious body Confirmation without the express consent and commission of the proper authority in this Church; it shall be the duty of the Review Committee, by a majority vote of All the Members, to certify the fact to the Presiding Bishop and with the certificate to send a statement of the acts or declarations which show such abandonment, which certificate and statement shall be recorded by the Presiding Bishop.
No doubt, Bishops Iker and Ackerman will be deposed under this same canon. Bishop Wantland, who supported Bishop Iker’s bid to “realign,” is clearly trying to preëmpt similar charges against himself by suggesting that he is not guilty of acts that fall under provisions (ii) or (iii), though, by supporting “realignment,” he is, by analogy to Schofield and Duncan, guilty of acts characterized by provision (i).

Wantland’s move is like that of the boy who killed his parents and pleaded for mercy from the court because he was a orphan. He is out of The Episcopal Church because he is disdainful of it and wanted to be out of it, not because of circumstances beyond his control. If he wishes to be a member of the House of Bishops, he need only announce that he will stay in the church and not remove to the Southern Cone. I assume that the Presiding Bishop will see through this transparent scheme to escape deposition and will see to it that he is eventually also deposed under Canon IV.9. I find it interesting that Wantland seems to be hedging his bets in trying to preserve his ability to rejoin The Episcopal Church as a functioning bishop if “realignment” ends badly.

“Realignment” will end badly, of course, and The Episcopal Church will be better off for having gotten rid of Bishop Wantland once and for all.

Postscript. It did not seem appropriate to rehash the whole sordid story of PECUSA, Inc., here, but I recommend reading the collection of materials on the matter amassed by Louie Crew. In particular, read Bishop Wantland’s defense of his actions here. It will, I predict, produce a strong sense of déjà vu.

November 11, 2008

Lessons from an Overeager Buyer

What would you think if you tried to make a purchase on the Web and, after clicking the button to authorize the purchase, you saw the message below? (Click on the image for a larger view.)

Error message
I saw this page and could only think of two explanations for it: my credit card was declined or there was some failure associated with the charge-handling mechanism of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland Web site. It seemed reasonably clear that my credit card had not been charged, and I had not bought the two tickets to an event called “Healing and Hope for Our Times: An Evening with Archbishop Desmond Tutu.” My evidence for so believing was the following:
  1. The title of the Web page I was viewing was “Charge Error.”
  2. The page contained this sentence: “There was an error while charging your card.”
  3. The “message from the card processor” was listed as “AVS FAILURE AUTH.”
  4. Nowhere on the page was there any indication that I had completed my transaction successfully.
The page also contained this somewhat perplexing sentence: “Otherwise, please try again later?” I took this as an invitation to try to complete my purchase at some later time when, presumably, whatever glitch the Web site had encountered had been corrected. In fact, I tried again later with the same result. I even tried a different credit card—my debit card for my checking account, in fact, where I knew my balance could cover the charge many times over—again with the same result.

The tickets were a gift to my son and daughter-in-law, and my persistence was the result of anxiety on my son’s part that tickets might sell out quickly. I knew that time with Desmond Tutu was very special, and I didn’t want this opportunity to be missed.

Eventually, I decided to call the diocese. I explained the situation to the person who answered the telephone, and she transferred my call to the office administrator. The office administrator was apparently unavailable, and I had to leave a voice message.

Not having received a return call from the diocese by late afternoon, I dialed the diocese’s number again. The person answering the telephone remembered me from earlier, transferred the call again, and I again left a message. Last evening, I called my son to tell him that, although I had not yet bought the tickets, I was working at it. I decided that I would allow time this morning to receive a call from the diocese, but that I would make a third call if I had heard nothing by mid-morning.

Early this morning, I got an automated call from my credit card company. The call was clearly about my attempts to use the card, but after pushing numerous buttons on my telephone keypad, I was still clueless as to what, exactly, had prompted the call. I was getting anxious, however. Speaking to a person didn’t seem to be an option, so I hung up and called the customer service number on the back of my credit card. When I did talk to a real human being—this actually happened with reasonable dispatch—I was told that there were four charges for $50 to the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland on my card, and that there was a fraud hold on my credit card. The charges were being processed, I was told, and could not be disputed until they were actually posted to the account. I was told, however, that the diocese could probably issue a refund.

Seriously alarmed at this point, I visited my bank’s Web site to view the status of my checking account. There I discovered another four $50 debits pending. I called the diocese again.

I gave the person who answered the telephone the short version of what had happened and made it clear that I really wanted to discuss the matter with someone who could help as soon as possible. (I think I did not speak to the same person who handled my calls yesterday.) Everyone else in the office was in a staff meeting, I was told, and the meeting would not be over for about an hour. I was given the option of leaving a message for the person actually responsible for the Web site. Eventually, I did that, but not before raising my voice in order to extract a promise that the message would be communicated that I really needed a return call as soon as possible.

Just over an hour later, I received a call that was probably a response to my first two voice-mail messages. The office administrator was eager to fix the problem, and she assured me that ample tickets were available. It took me a few minutes to communicate everything I knew about the problems I had encountered. She asked me to fax the error page to the office, and I agreed to send to above image via e-mail, along with other information needed to clear up the mess.

So what went wrong? By the time I finally spoke to the office administrator for the Diocese of Maryland, I had learned, via Wikipedia, what AVS is. (I had not encountered the acronym before.) “AVS” stands for “Address Verification System,” a scheme that checks digits in the supplied address of a credit card user against account records. In the case of the Diocese of Maryland site, I suspect that the information I supplied did not check out. Since I am confident that I entered my own address correctly, either there was a problem with my Zip Code versus my Zip+4 Code—perhaps the Web site did not expect my full Zip+4 entry—or the site confused my address with that of my son, to which I wanted the tickets sent. Apparently, the Web site initiated an AVS check, which can return any of a number of codes indicating which digits matched and which did not. After the AVS check, the Web site should have decided either to approve the sale and display a success page to the buyer or to reject the sale and display some comprehensible error message on a failure page. My guess is that AVS code was something other than D or M (which indicate matches), but there was enough of a match to conclude that the transaction should go forward. The sale was completed, but the failure page (and no success page) was displayed.

There are some lessons to be learned here, and not to buy tickets from the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland may not be the most important one. The most distressing lesson of course, is that the diocese’s Web site suggests a way to scam unwitting Web shoppers—occasionally tell a purchaser that the purchase has failed but that they should check back later. They can be charged twice and might never notice. (I can think of ways to make this scheme even more effective, but my objective here is to protect consumers, not con artists.) The most important lesson is to verify that a Web purchase has actually failed when it seems to have failed. Contact the merchant immediately and do not try to complete the purchase a second time. My behavior was, in retrospect, pretty dumb, but I wasn’t expecting to be fleeced by an Episcopal Church judicatory.

Caveat emptor.

Postscript. I was never successful in purchasing my tickets on the Web. I finally completed the purchase over the telephone.

November 8, 2008

The Anglican Neighborhood of Make-Believe

Yesterday, deputies of the group that voted at the October convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh to leave The Episcopal Church elected Bishop Robert Duncan to be their bishop. The “Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh” issued the following statement:
Bishop Robert Duncan is once again the diocesan bishop of The Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh.

Clergy and lay deputies to a special convention of the diocese on November 7 voted to invite Bishop Duncan back into leadership of the diocese 50 days after the House of Bishops of The Episcopal Church voted to remove (“depose”) him.

“It is good to be back. God has clearly watched over the diocese and watched over me and Nara as we have walked through these challenging days together. God willing, I look forward to many years together sharing the good news of Jesus Christ,” said Bishop Duncan.

Leaders representing a majority of the world’s Anglican Christians, as well as many inside and outside The Episcopal Church in North America, never accepted the validity of The House of Bishops’ decision to remove Bishop Duncan from leadership. In spite of the decision’s deep defects, Bishop Duncan and the diocese elected to submit to the purported “deposition,” so long as the diocese was part of that denomination.

The Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh was able to invite Bishop Duncan back into leadership after it voted to leave The Episcopal Church and temporarily join the Anglican Province of the Southern Cone on October 4. The diocese made the decision after years of disagreement with the leadership of The Episcopal Church over basic Christian beliefs about the authority of the Bible, the unique role of Jesus Christ in salvation, and Christian moral standards. At the conclusion of that diocesan convention, the Standing Committee of the diocese, led by the Rev. David Wilson, announced that there would be a special convention on November 7 for the purpose of electing a bishop.

With the election complete, clergy and laity from around the diocese are participating in the “Moving Forward in Mission” conference at Trinity Cathedral in downtown Pittsburgh on November 8. The conference features the Rev. Mike Breen, who has done extensive work helping parishes effectively make new Christians in their local communities.

“The most important thing now is to move beyond our conflict with the leadership of The Episcopal Church and turn all of our energies toward living as Christians and effectively sharing the good news of God’s love and mercy for all people in the places God has put us. I am looking forward to hearing what Mike has to say to us tomorrow,” said Bishop Duncan.
This is pure propaganda that deserves more analysis than I have time to devote to it just at the moment. I cannot resist offering a few actual facts that provide some context for evaluating this statement, however.

The “deposition.” Bob Duncan was actually deposed by The Episcopal Church. The canons were followed, though it is surely true that, like scripture, the church’s constitution and canons must be interpreted and implemented by actual, sinful people. There are checks in our church polity against misapplication of canon law, and none of those checks were subverted. Bob Duncan was actually deposed by The Episcopal Church. It was not a universally applauded decision. It is disengenuous, however, to call the deposition a “deposition” just because one does not like the result. I believe the Supreme Court erred when it declared recently that the Second Amendment articulates an individual, rather than a collective right to own guns. I believe the Court’s decision was wrongheaded, politically motivated, and destructive to the Republic. I take a step toward insurrection and anarchy, however, if I call the decision a “decision” and suggest that, because I think it was wrong, it is somehow illegitimate.

“Realignment.” “Realignment” is not a righteous revolution but is simple theft. The diocese’s voting to leave The Episcopal Church and to attach itself to the Anglican Province of the Southern Cone is like the executives of the Lincoln-Mercury Division of Ford Motor Company voting to leave Ford and become a division of General Motors. The Diocese of Pittsburgh is as much an integral part of The Episcopal Church as Lincoln-Mercury is an integral part of Ford. Unilateral “realignment” by the diocesan convention is simply beyond its competence to effect. (Much has been written on this topic that need not be repeated here. See my own “Unqualified Accession” and Joan Gundersen’s “History Revisited.”)

“Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh.” In the heady days of the dot-com bubble, a practice developed that became known as “cybersquatting.” In its simplest form, an Internet-savvy group or individual would register an Internet domain name before a corporation or organization that would be the logical holder of the name thought of doing so. An exorbitant price could then be demanded of the corporation or organization by the cybersquatter for the use of the domain name. Alternatively, the domain could be utilized in bad faith by the cybersquatter to trade on the good name of the the other party, potentially besmirching that good name through deception of cybercitizens. Bob Duncan did something very much like this by registering “Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh” a few months ago as a nonprofit Pennsylvania corporation, taking advantage of the fact that the real Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh, a judicatory of The Episcopal Church and a longstanding, albeit unincorporated entity, had not formally protected that name. (See “Which Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh?”.) We now have two entities calling themselves the “Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh,” one of which represents the continuation of the Episcopal Church judicatory and one ecclesiastisquatting on the name to deceive Episcopalians, the public, and, most importantly, the courts.

The Southern Cone. As he has done for the Diocese of Recife in Brazil, for the Diocese of San Joaquin, and for a motley collection of other church entities, the Primate of the Southern Cone, Presiding Bishop Gregory Venables, has welcomed the “realigned” Pittsburghers as a diocese of the Anglican Province of the Southern Cone. In Anglican Communion practice, this is highly irregular, and the Archbishop of Canterbury has given every indication that he will not acknowledge the legitimacy of such encroachments on the autonomy and exclusive franchise of a member of the Anglican Communion. To do otherwise would, in fact, invite similar encroachment into the jurisdiction of the Church of England. (The erstwhile bishop of Recife was not invited to Lambeth, for example.) More to the point, however, the constitution and canons of the Southern cone do not allow for the inclusion of a Pittsburgh diocese in the Southern Cone.

The Diocese of Fort Worth, which intends to follow Pittsburgh into the looking-glass world of Bishops Venables, Schofield, and Duncan, has conveniently provided an English translation of the constitution and canons of the Southern Cone. (One wonders if the average pew-sitter in “realigned” churches has considered the implications of being under the authority of a church headquartered thousands of miles away that conducts its internal business in Spanish.) Article 2 of that constitution, titled “Membership,” reads as follows:
The Anglican Church of the Southern Cone, which shall henceforth be called The Province, is composed of the Anglican Dioceses that exist or which may be formed in the Republics of Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay and which voluntary [sic] declare themselves as integral Diocesan members of the province.
How does the Diocese of Pittsburgh, “Episcopal” or otherwise, qualify as a diocese of this South American church? Clearly, it does not. Moreover, Article 4 sets out a procedure to amend the constitution that, like any such provision in a fundamental governing document for an organization, is complex and time-consuming. (Incidentally, Article 3, “Rules,” declares: “Where one Diocesan Constitution differs from the Provincial Constitution, the Provincial Constitution prevails.” That is ironic, in that the first constitutional amendment proposed by Bishop Duncan to chip away at the accession clause in the Diocese of Pittsburgh constitution declared that the constitution and canons of the diocese supersede those of The Episcopal Church. This amendment was the subject of the very first briefing paper of Progressive Episcopalians of Pittsburgh.)

“Diocesan Bishop.” Finally there is the statement by the “realigners” to the effect that “Bishop Robert Duncan is once again the diocesan bishop of The Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh.” Since the thing that Bob Duncan now supposedly leads has absolutely no respect for established rules, I suppose that Bob Duncan can indeed be declared its “diocesan bishop.” After all, the entity nominally operates under the rules of the former Episcopal Church diocese, whose constitution it improperly amended. It has “adopted as advisory policies” the constitution and canons of The Episcopal Church, which nevertheless “should in no way be interpreted to suggest that The Episcopal Church has any authority over the Diocese, any Parish of the Diocese, or any Clergy of the Diocese.” (See page C8 of the 2008 Pre-Convention Journal.) Apparently, it was too much trouble to write real rules, since the entity’s sojourn in the Southern Cone is intented to be only temporary.

So, is Bishop Duncan “once again
the diocesan bishop of The Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh”? Well, not if “The Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh” is in the Southern Cone. (As we have established, of course, it isn’t, but both the “diocese” and the Southern Cone’s primate are pretending that it is.) The problem is that episcopal elections, like episcopal elections in The Episcopal Church, must be ratified by a wider constituency than a diocesan convention. Canon 2.2 of the Southern Cone addresses the election of diocesan bishops. It includes the following:
Once an election has been completed in a Diocese, the Diocese shall communicate the results to PEC [Provincial Executive Council] and the Bishops in the Province, and shall send them documents considered appropriate about the Bishop-elect, and finally the Diocese will provide the necessary information that will permit the other Bishops of the Province to ratify or reject the Bishop-elect based on extensive knowledge of the person.
All the bishops of the province and the members of the PEC have a role in accepting or rejecting a newly elected bishop. The details are not important for our purposes here, the point simply being that Bishop Duncan’s election does not make him, ipso facto, anything but a pretend bishop-elect of a pretend diocese of the Southern Cone.

Welcome to the Anglican Neighborhood of Make-Believe. Isn’t it appropriate that it should be headquartered in Pittsburgh, the home of Fred Rogers?