February 18, 2009

Coming Together

The December 2009 special convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh was called “Coming Together in Faith.” Its purpose was to elect people to positions vacated by those who had chosen to “realign” with Robert Duncan after the schismatic vote at the annual diocesan convention the previous October, as well as to declare certain changes made to the constitution and canons of the diocese inappropriate, and, therefore, of no effect.

That convention was neither the start nor the conclusion of the process of re-creating an effective Episcopal Church diocese from the wreckage wrought by Duncan, Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry, and their supporters over many years. Pittsburgh was fortunate in having a small cadre of diocesan leaders who did not wish to abandon The Episcopal Church. In particular, one member of the Standing Committee did not leave the diocese. (My understanding, of course, is that Duncan and his followers did not take the diocese out of The Episcopal Church, but left the diocese to form what our church called “an entity of unknown form” in its recent court filing—see “Episcopal Church Asks to Join Calvary Lawsuit.”) The diocesan constitution allowed that one Standing Committee member to appoint others to vacant positions.* The Rev. Jim Simons used this power sparingly, but effectively, to get the reorganization process underway immediately. Those people appointed by Simons, as well as an army of volunteers, somehow managed to determine everything that needed to be done and organized the special convention in two short months.

It is now two months on the other side of that special convention, and I am happy to report that the (real) Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh is well on its way to regularizing its operation as a functioning, diverse, amicable diocese of The Episcopal Church. I say this after having talked to a number of people involved in diocesan affairs and in response to reports given at a meeting of Progressive Episcopalians of Pittsburgh a couple of days ago. At that meeting, Joan Morris, president of Diocesan Council, and others, including members of the Standing Committee, reported on the ongoing progress of the diocese.

There seems to be universal agreement that the choice of the Rt. Rev. Robert H. Johnson to be assisting bishop for the diocese was a particularly good one. I have heard only positive reports about Bishop Johnson. His pastoral and organizational skills have received high praise, and they are much needed now. Most current diocesan leaders have either little experience working at the diocesan level or have experience that is less useful than one might like. Those with recent experience under the former administration know only a diocese in which the real decision-making was done by the bishop and his inner circle; those whose experience was years ago are unfamiliar with the mechanisms needed to run a diocese in 2009. Bishop Johnson is proving to be a good coach for the inexperienced diocesan team. He has also shown that there is no substitute for experience in dealing with the pastoral issues that invariably present themselves at the diocesan level.

Bishop Johnson came to my own church for confirmations on February 1, and the congregation of St. Paul’s, Mt. Lebanon, was quite pleased with his visit. The bishop has an unpretentious, yet reassuring manner. He took a special interest in the confirmands, preached a fine sermon, and very much seemed to enjoy his work. His down-to-earth informality was in sharp contrast to the attitude of our now-deposed bishop (and “archbishop-in-waiting”).

By now, diocesan elected and appointed positions are largely filled, although we are finding areas where new structures are needed: for communications, social justice, and parish life, for example. The job of building institutional infrastructure is certainly taking precedence over what is usually thought of as mission, but everyone expects this to be a transient phenomenon, rather than a persistent one. Bishop Johnson has made many helpful suggestions about running the diocese, and he plans to conduct monthly meetings of the members of the main diocesan bodies, which will help coördinate activities and build a more cohesive diocesan team. Recent practices under Duncan’s administration worked to connect people of the diocese to the inner circle of diocesan leaders and to discourage relationships among people from different parishes. There is a lot of getting acquainted and getting re-acquainting going on now in the diocese, and people are rejoicing in the experience.

People who have recently served on diocesan bodies report a very different experience since the departure of our former leaders. Members of Diocesan Council, for example, which includes both clergy and lay representatives from across the diocese, had become used to receiving an agenda that required them merely to rubber-stamp what had been decided by Duncan and his inner circle. Members report that there is much more work to do because the Council is now behaving like what it is meant to be, namely, the representatives of convention between its annual meetings. There is a new feeling of freedom to advocate for one’s own view of what needs to be done, though that freedom is accompanied by the responsibility of putting in the hours needed to make the Council an independent governing body.

Immediately after the October 4 “realignment” vote, the diocese established a small office in a church far removed from the city of Pittsburgh. It might properly have been called an outpost, rather than an office, and limited work was actually done there, in part due to its out-of-the-way location. The diocese did invest in a computer, cell phone, multifunction printer, and wireless router, however, which allowed a volunteer to do much of the clerical work needed to stage the December special convention.

Since that special convention, the diocese has rented an apartment and automobile for our half-time bishop, and it is getting ready to move into a suburban four-room office suite. Although the new office of the diocese will lack the luxurious appointments of our former bishop’s office on the ninth floor of a downtown office building, neither is it embarrassing for its Spartan simplicity. The new office has reasonable furniture, new computers and computer network, telephones, and attractive pictures on the walls. The diocese has hired a half-time director of administration and will soon hire at least one other person. The view from the large fifth-story windows does not match that of the Oliver Building, but the windows do enhance the ambiance and decrease the need for artificial lighting.

The diocese has not had many opportunities to celebrate or have fun as a community, but the recent Absalom Jones Day was encouraging. This is an annual event sponsored by the Commission on Racism. In recent years, however, there has been a diminished role in the event for Holy Cross Church, the major traditionally African-American parish of the diocese, and attendance, at least for clergy, had become something of a chore of political correctness. This year’s celebration, however, was held at Holy Cross, benefited from a choir whose members came from a number of churches, took its hymns from Lift Every Voice and Sing II, and had Bishop Johnson as the celebrant. It was a joyous occasion that one attendee described as “lots of fun.” The offering raised more than $1,000 for the needful physical plant of Holy Cross. I expect that the people of the diocese will be getting together for such events more often and enjoying a renewed sense of community and purpose.

Not all is well, of course. We lament those who have left the diocese, even though we admit that, spiritually, it was the right thing for some to do. Especially troubling are the congregations that have been split almost equally on the question of staying in The Episcopal Church or leaving it. Some such congregations have taken one road and some the other, and all the groups resulting from such fracturing will likely have a difficult future. Moreover, property issues, both of diocesan assets and parish ones, remain in legal limbo. Unlike other dioceses that have gone through “realignment,” however, property litigation was begun in Pittsburgh long before the alienation of property by dissidents became a fait accompli, and that litigation may be expected to run to its conclusion long before property matters are settled in San Joaquin and elsewhere.

Despite residual problems and uncertainties, there is a general sense of freedom and of exciting possibilities in The Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh. It may be some time before the diocese is ready to stand on its own financially, and it will surely be a while before it can, with confidence and goodwill, elect a new diocesan bishop. The legacy of Bob Duncan is one of mutual distrust of one another and of suspicion of bishops generally. The diocese is recovering from that legacy, but recovery is more difficult for some than for others. Many feel a sense of personal betrayal by our former bishop. Time, however, does heal old wounds, and the coöperation needed to get the diocese up and running is diminishing any residual anxieties about whether those of differing theological stripes can, in fact, work together in harmony.

The Diocese of Pittsburgh in The Episcopal Church is alive, well, and getting better. I invite your prayers as we strive to become what we have often called a “normal” Episcopal diocese. Pray, however, with joyful anticipation, rather than urgent anxiety. This diocese has a bright future ahead of it.

*In my original post, this sentence read: “Ironically, a recent canon change promoted by the former leaders of the diocese allowed that one Standing Committee member to appoint others to vacant positions.” I was reminded that the 2007 change I had in mind when I wrote this sentence involved, but did not create, that appointment power. The relevant constitutional provision was one of longstanding. There was, therefore, no irony in its use.

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