November 4, 2009

Gone But Not Forgotten

An Episcopal News Service story yesterday explained that 135 priests and deacons have been “released” from The Episcopal Church. The story follows the announcement to that effect on the Diocese of Pittsburgh’s Web site, “Diocese Completes Non-Disciplinary Release of Clergy.” As I wrote in earlier posts (“Is Pittsburgh Treating ‘Realigned’ Clergy Properly?” and “Once More on Departed Pittsburgh Clergy”), I believe that it is improper to “release” these clergy under the provisions of Title III; they should have been subjected to the disciplinary canons of Title IV, certainly many of them, in any case.

The objectives I have heard advanced as being behind the handling of clergy by the Pittsburgh diocese have included the following:
  1. To be pastoral, rather than punitive (and, as an added bonus, to get some good publicity for the diocese).
  2. To get the unpleasant business of dealing with “realigned” clergy behind the diocese as simply and as quickly as possible.
  3. To make it easier to receive the sometime Pittsburgh clergy back into the diocese at a later time and under changed circumstances.
I won’t repeat my canonical arguments here, but I do want to address the above objectives, particularly the third one.

As for being pastoral, one can surely find scriptural warrant for treating one’s adversaries with compassion. No doubt, many people who have read in the local newspapers how Pittsburgh has dealt with its departed clergy have found the diocese’s actions laudable. Those of us who have followed the ongoing traditionalist insurgency against The Episcopal Church, however, cannot help but worry that the Pittsburgh approach, canonical or not, sends the wrong message. We believe it both prudent and moral to temper mercy with justice. Why do we even have disciplinary canons if we are so reluctant to use them?

For the affected clergy, at least in the short run, it matters little how The Episcopal Church removes them from the clergy roster and the list of those eligible to contribute to the Church Pension Fund. Their ability to find employment in the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh or the Anglican Province of the Southern Cone or the Anglican Church in North America depends not a whit on whether they are released from The Episcopal Church with or without prejudice. Either way, our church has relinquished all authority over them, and recent events have led us to expect that its determination of fitness for ministry is not respected by other members of the Anglican Communion.

Do the released clergy care? Probably not. Ann Rodgers, in her story in today’s Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, describes the release as “an unwanted gift.” She quotes Canon Mary Hays as complaining about the use of the canons. Rodgers did not point out that the only canonical alternatives available were disciplinary. (There is a discussion going on at TitusOneNine tied to the diocesan press release regarding whether Pittsburgh is misusing the canons. It is, of course, but with good intentions. As I have said, the canons need to be amended.) Unlike Rodgers, I have not spoken to any of the clergy who have left, but I suspect that the Rev. Dan Crawford’s contemptuous comment on the Post-Gazette story at TitusOneNine is representative of the attitude of most of the former Diocese of Pittsburgh clergy:
I can’t begin to tell one and all how grateful I am that I have been “released”, but then I hadn’t been aware I had been held captive. Having retired from the Corporation several months ago, need I inform the Registrar of Recognized Ordinations that I have also been “released”? The gracious [sic] of an act done on my behalf without my consent is beyond words and even comprehension.
Well, no good deed goes unpunished.

As for getting the deed done and over with, it has to be admitted that charging the priests and deacons with abandonment of the communion of The Episcopal Church would have entailed some more work, and drawing up presentments—surely overkill under the circumstances—would have required a lot more work. Administratively, there was something to be said for the abandonment route, however. It would have required an extra round of letters, of course, as clergy would first be inhibited and could not be deposed for six months. Given that the painfully small diocesan staff was already overwhelmed with work related to the recent convention, however, I would have thought that stretching out the work would have been an attractive alternative. Moreover, the situation in Pittsburgh (and the Communion) can hardly be said to be stable. In six months, some clergy might actually have found it in their interest to repent and return to the diocese.

That the procedures employed by the diocese make it easier for realigned clergy to return must be considered, at best, problematic. Imagine, improbably, what would happen if all the clergy and all the congregations that left the diocese decided, for some reason, that they wanted to come back. (This might be for pragmatic considerations. Surely many of the realigners could not be expected to have a change of heart absent something as momentous as the Pentecost experience of Acts.) Suppose, further, that the diocese actually took them back. The Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh, which has been transformed from a nasty, contentious jurisdiction in which a majority exercised unchecked power with a take-no-prisoners attitude to one in which people of divergent views are working to get along and seek reconciliation rather than victory—see my post “Doing Things Differently in Pittsburgh”—would be in danger of falling back into its old dysfunctional ways.

Do not misunderstand me. I prayed that as many congregations as possible would choose to stay with The Episcopal Church. But, although Bishop Price won’t say it—he may not believe it—I will: there are some congregations (and certainly many, many clergy) that our diocese is better off without.

The insurgency within The Episcopal Church is driven by priests and bishops. There are laypeople as militant as the worst of the clergy, but many ordinary parishioners are along for the ride. They want to continue worshiping where they have for years, and, when extremist priests lead their congregations, they go along with the new leadership, they become radicalized, or they leave. I had hoped that, when we experienced “realignment” last year, more of the going-along laypeople would have suddenly thought better of it and fought for their parishes. Clergy, even clergy who are not well liked, have a strong hold on their congregations, however, and the hoped for defections were fewer than I might have expected. At least one priest even stayed with his realigning congregation rather than leave it leaderless. In one closely divided congregation that realigned, Episcopalians drifted off to other congregations awaiting the day when they would be allowed to return from exile.

No doubt, there are congregations that now or at some future time could be re-incorporated into the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh without destabilizing the recovering diocese. All things being equal, their potential for rehabilitation will decrease over time. Other congregations can never be. The same can be said of individual clergy, some of whom are guilty of much more serious infractions than simply walking away with property and parishioners. They should never be taken back under any circumstances.

What if a realigned congregation sought to rejoin the diocese and did so with its rector? What should the diocese do? Clearly, the answer depends on the circumstances. It would seem suicidal on the part of the diocese to readmit a congregation with the same priest in place that had preached against The Episcopal Church and goaded parishioners into leaving the diocese for the Southern Cone. If everyone comes back, what should be done with the priest? One can imagine a situation in which, if one accepts my suggestion that extremist priests must be separated from their congregations, the diocese could have, on one hand, leaderless parishes, and, on the other, unemployable clergy. I don’t know how to handle this situation short of creating Episcopal re-education camps for clergy.

Perhaps these musings are what have sometimes been called baroque worries. The situations about which I have serious concerns seem improbable. Who knows what will happen, however, if the Anglican Church in North America collapses, diocesan assets are handed over to the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh, and the diocese begins claiming parish property? Our new provisional bishop and other diocesan leaders should think twice before erecting the “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You” sign without any fine print.

3 comments:

  1. I really don't care about the clergy - they've made their choice and are (one prays) smart enough to have thought it through. But as a former businessman and lawyer, I am adamant that they can't take the real and personal property with them. That's theft, pure and simple and no matter what pieties the realigners mouth, it's still wrong.

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  2. Well considered and well said. However improbable some of the eventualities may be, the new leadership must not be caught by surprise. I fully agree with Fr Craig, and I am equally adamant that the effort to take real and personal property is theft, and any attempted justification is rank dissembling. The diocese must avoid the temptation to give away parish property, in part due to the precedent it would establish. If parish property is recovered, then many of the congregation may well want to return with their church. When this event in turn occurs, then the Diocese will be facing the improbabilities that Lionel has explained. Thank you again Lionel for your thought and your effort.

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  3. You know, we send people who have been trained at non-Episcopal seminaries to one of ours for a year to be "Anglicized". Perhaps that's what we should be doing with returning priests.

    Not that I think thsi is anyhting but a theoretical exercise.

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