October 16, 2009

Doing Things Differently in Pittsburgh

The first time I got involved in trying to influence legislation being brought before the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh’s convention was in 2002. Several months before the annual convention in November, it was learned that the so-called South Carolina Resolution was to be introduced in Pittsburgh. The resolution was a warning that the diocese would not accept certain decisions by the upcoming 2003 General Convention. In particular, the resolution expressed opposition to liturgies using gender-neutral names for persons of the Trinity, “unbiblical” morality, and “coercive canons” that could require dioceses to make possible the ordination of women. Bishop Robert Duncan described the resolution as creating a “firewall” between the diocese and the General Convention.

Alarmed by the news, the Episcopal Women’s Caucus mounted an organized opposition to the resolution, and various efforts were undertaken to write an alternative resolution. Even though I was not a deputy, I offered my own alternative to those who were working on a revision, but it had no influence. What I did not understand at the time was that the clergy who had introduced the resolution were not interested in compromise or achieving broader support; they were interested in staking out a position, an attitude that would lead to the Pittsburgh “realignment” six years later.

The resolution that was passed by the 2002 convention was different and shorter than the original resolution, but it was no less partisan. Referred to simply as Resolution One, it ushered in an era of conflict in Pittsburgh. At succeeding conventions, resolutions increasingly hostile to The Episcopal Church were introduced. Opponents of the bishop’s program, most notably Progressive Episcopalians of Pittsburgh (PEP), tried to moderate such resolutions and developed strategies to defeat them. It achieved little success, however, and even more radical substitute resolutions were sometimes introduced on the floor of the convention. As a “courtesy,” PEP leaders were occasionally informed of these substitutions by the bishop’s surrogates, usually less than 24 hours before the convention.

Today and tomorrow, the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh holds its first regular annual convention since Bishop Duncan and his followers split from The Episcopal Church to form their own “diocese.” The Episcopal diocese remains diverse in its church politics, since many conservatives chose to work with more moderate and liberal members of the diocese and to remain Episcopalian. There has been a general desire on all sides to avoid the bitter divisions of the past, but it was unclear what new patterns would develop.

Most of the resolutions to be voted on tomorrow originated with the Committee on Canons, which has three clerical and three lay members. As it happens, the committee is pretty evenly split between liberals and conservatives. Remarkably, conflict within the committee was largely confined to procedural matters, reflecting personality differences and professional experience more than theological orientation. The 10 changes proposed for the constitution and canons of the diocese undo changes made during the Duncan era and restore a healthy balance of power between parishes and bishop, among other things.

A diverse collection of additional resolutions will be offered to the convention, ranaging from thanking people who helped rebuild the diocese after the disastrous 2008 convention to urging parishes to study the proposed Anglican covenant. Although none of these resolutions offers an obvious liberal-conservative battleground, one resolution elicited strong positive and negative reactions. Resolution 4, largely sponsored by conservatives, proposed a task force to explore the possibility of merging the Pittsburgh and Northwestern Pennsylvania dioceses. Some people felt strongly that now was a good time to consider such a union; others believed as strongly that Pittsburgh needed to achieve more stability before considering such an idea. Resolution 4 might be a not-too-threatening test case of how the re-organized diocese handled conflict.

The author of Resolution 4 was the Rev. Bruce Robison, rector of St. Andrew’s, Highland Park. Bruce and I have known one another for a long time and have had many extended conversations. We seldom disagree on facts, but we often disagree on conclusions. Anyway, I am sure that Bruce received many comments, both positive and negative, on his resolution. PEP issued two briefing papers written by me on the resolution. The briefing papers pointed out a number of problems that PEP saw with it. (The briefing papers can be found here and here. The original Resolution 4 is reproduced under the heading “Supporting Information” in each paper.) Whatever the influences, by the end of the pre-convention briefing of deputies on October 4, Bruce had become convinced that his resolution, if nothing else, was premature. He asked if I would work with him on a revision, and I agreed to do so.

I had reservations, as our written positions seemed very far apart. As it turned out, we had little time to work, as Bruce was going out of town in a few days. It wasn’t long before I received an e-mail message from him proposing a revision. The revision showed movement but still, I thought, put too much emphasis on the Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania. I recast the proposal, reusing as much of Bruce’s text as possible, and adding ideas I though important. We went through—I hope I remember this correctly—two more rounds of increasingly minor changes. During this process, it became clear to one another—and perhaps to ourselves—just what we felt could not be negotiated away. I think we tried to respect what the other saw as most important.

The process proceeded quickly and resulted in a new resolution that can be read here. Bruce and I agreed to be the sole sponsors of this replacement Resolution 4. It was easy to convince the co-sponsors of the original resolution to withdraw their sponsorship, so the new resolution could replace the old without any debate on the convention floor.

I don’t know if the task force proposed in Resolution 4 will accomplish anything useful. I am hopeful that it might. It sends off a group of Pittsburgh Episcopalians to think creatively and to do so with people from neighboring dioceses. Perhaps Pittsburgh and Northwestern Pennsylvania will someday merge, but perhaps not. Perhaps other ways will be found to streamline diocesan operations and make our ministry more effective. If nothing else, I hope that we have found a different and better way to handle disagreement in the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh.

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