March 21, 2012

Walkabout Reflections

I attended the first walkabout with the Pittsburgh nominees to be the diocese’s next bishop last night. This took place at St. Brendan’s and attracted an impressive crowd. Attendees had about half an hour to mingle with and speak to the candidates and their spouses. This wasn’t quite the reception I had expected. Refreshments were few, the room was crowded, and the situation did not encourage serious conversation. More on this later.

The program began in the church, where the candidates were seated in chairs facing the audience. One-by-one, they stood to introduce themselves and their spouses. I was told that the candidates were more nervous about this performance than about the rest of the evening. Indeed, Scott Quinn, who spoke first, was rather wooden in his delivery of what seemed like a memorized speech, and he forgot to introduce his wife, Vera. The other candidates were more poised and informal, and Quinn’s apparent nervousness disappeared after that first minute of terror.

Video was made of this plenary session, by the way, and my understanding is that it will be posted on the diocesan Web site eventually.

The one-minute introductions mostly dealt in pleasantries. Quinn did establish his own theme of believing in miracles, however, chief of which seems to be his own rebuilding of his parish of nearly 30 years. Dorsey McConnell also quickly established himself as the biggest user of God-talk. Phrases like “foot of the cross” occurred frequently in his answers over the course of the evening.

Following the brief introductions, each of the candidates was given two minutes to answer each of the questions announced yesterday. (See  “Questions for Episcopal Candidates Announced.” The answers were brief but sometimes ran over the time limit.

Episcopal candidates at St. Brendan’s
Episcopal Candidates at St. Brendan’s: (L to R) The Rev. Canon Scott Quinn, The Rev. Ruth Woodliff-Stanley, the Rev. R. Stanley Runnels, the Rev. Dorsey W. M. McConnell, the Rev. Canon Michael N. Ambler, Jr. (Click on picture for larger view)

Question 1

The first question concerned small churches:
There are numerous parishes in the diocese which would be described as Family Size, that is, places where the number of people attending a Sunday service is 25 or fewer. Several of these parishes are in older communities or communities in transition; many struggle with limited resources and part time clergy. What skill set do you bring that could assist small churches to grow and/or move to a renewed sense of mission?
Quinn declared, “I have one of those churches.” He described Nativity, Crafton, as dispirited and bankrupt when he arrived. Twenty-nine years later, the building is sound, the congregation is healthy, and the church has a $1 million endowment. Each church can do this, he said.

Ruth Woodliff-Stanley said that people need to know and trust one another and that a bishop needs to be out in the diocese, rather than sitting in an office. She spoke of strengthening her current parish, her work with parishes in Northwestern Pennsylvania on behalf of the Episcopal Church Building Fund, and her work with Lutherans.

Stanley Runnels, too, emphasized that, as bishop, he would be “in the field,” not simply “calling and checking in” on parishes. He has served congregations of various sizes, he said, and all parishes must ask what is their vision and mission. He declared a personal focus on the Baptismal Covenant. He would help congregations explore their mission and search for resources, but warned that change does not happen instantly.

Dorsey McConnell lamented a perceived split between personal faith and social action. He emphasized lay leadership and spoke of going into a neighborhood, praying for it, talking to people, and developing a mission strategy. He explained that he has worked in many places and with many denominations.

Like Quinn, Michael Amber spoke primarily of his own parish experience. A nearby congregation had about 25 members, was served by a retired priest, and saw options as limited. Ambler is now in charge of both, and a full-time assistant has been hired. He described both churches as “teaching parishes”—apparently referring to the full-time internship mentioned in his profile on our diocese’s Web site—and said that lay leadership is also flourishing. Old models don’t work, he said, and Christians should share.


Question 2

The second question touched on hot-button issues:
The issues of partnered gay clergy and same sex blessings have been controversial in this diocese and the broader Episcopal Church. Where do you find yourself now on these issues and how have you worked pastorally with people of differing views?
Quinn answered that difficult questions have defined the Diocese of Pittsburgh in the past, and this is not a good thing. Currently, the Commission on Ministry seeks candidates who believe in Jesus and are called to ministry. Under a Bishop Quinn, it will continue to be the policy to ordain such people (presumably without regard to sexual orientation or other considerations). The policy on same-sex blessings should be decided by individual congregations.

Woodliff-Stanley admitted that it is well-known that she is “for it all” (partnered gay clergy and same-sex blessings). She spoke of working with people having different views, however, and declared that we are linked with those with whom we disagree. We should not define ourselves by single issues.

Mississippian Runnels observed that, in the past, The Episcopal Church has not always been as welcoming as it should be. People who love one another should be held up in that love, he declared. With his bishop’s permission, his own parish decided to perform same-sex blessings, and he described blessing the long-term relationship of a Korean veteran. We must listen to one another’s stories, he noted.

McConnell said that the church needs a genuine conversation about how to maintain unity and freedom on conscience. He does not want to foreclose dialogue now, particularly because there are deeper questions about the authority and interpretation of scripture than must be dealt with. The mind of Christ is not divided, he declared.

Ambler, too, cited the need for honest conversation, but he said that, on judgment day, he would rather have made the mistake of letting someone in rather than of keeping someone out. In any case, he warned that the diocese should not define itself by this issue. In fact, the diocese should, for a time at least, follow, rather than trying to lead the church. If authorized by the General Convention, he would allow the blessing of same-sex unions but not not require any parish to perform them.


Question 3

In my previous post, I described the wording of the third question as “seriously strange.” It inquires into the candidates’ personal spiritual experience:
How have you experienced the Triune God in your life? How has that experience formed your understanding of mission and ministry?
Quinn focused on his choice made in high school, at which time he might have been drawn into the drug culture. Instead, he met someone in the Jesus Movement who told him to read the Bible. Over a year, he read the whole bible, but said that he did not read it well. He was told to read it again. This took three years, but—Quinn claimed this as another miracle—he really could read it one day. He was healed, he said, by the Holy Spirit.

Woodliff-Stanley said she cherishes the Trinity: the essence of God is relationship. Family provides a glimpse of God. She spoke of a closeness to God kneeling to pray as a girl. The “majesty and steadfastness” of Holy Week brings her closer to the Son. She sees the Holy Spirit in life in community—in forgiving and being forgiven, in the mission of sharing the gospel.

Runnels spoke of feeling God fully present at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer. He also described how God had worked through a homeless alcoholic who showed up at his church and became something of a fixture despite remaining a homeless alcoholic. The man, over two and a half years, was embraced by the congregation. Eventually, he was killed by a hit-and-run driver and drew huge attendance at his funeral. People, he said, had begun to experience God through this homeless man.

McConnell told an amusing story of being baptized at six. He had confused “christening” with “crucifixion” and anticipated the event with great anxiety. He was relieved when it was over and he was still alive. He was filled, he said, with “amazing love” and burst into tears, experiencing the blessing of the Father. Before he was married, he realized that he “was not a nice guy” and needed a Savior. He received mercy when he accepted the mercy of the Son. He said he understood the power of the Holy Spirit when, after failing to have children, he and his wife adopted a son.

Ambler answered by telling a story. He was leading a parish pilgrimage to the Holy Land and found himself where Jesus may have fed the 5000. (He noted that he believes the stories in the Bible to be true.) There was a mosaic at this place showing loaves and fishes. He knelt to pray, not quite knowing what he would say. He prayed to be made “enough,” as Jesus had made the loaves and fishes enough. God can take us and make us enough, he observed, saying that this is the work of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.


The Small Sessions

At this point, attendees retired to preassigned rooms and the candidates visited them one at a time. The questions that were asked had been submitted by the people in the room.

In my room, there were only four questions, although we had more than 20 people there. The questions were (I have to paraphrase here)
  • What is the mission of the church in the post-modern world?
  • What is your view on open communion?
  • What is your view on the Anglican Covenant and the Anglican Communion?
  • What have you learned about Pittsburgh that surprised you?
Because our room generated so few questions, we sometimes had time left over to ask other questions or to be queried by a candidate. I will discuss what the candidates said in the order that they visited our “Red” room. Since the questions were not always asked in the same order, the order of the answers below will be varied.

Scott Quinn

Quinn gave a quick answer to the first question: The mission of the church is to have people come to know who Jesus is, the same as always.

He said that open communion (i.e., allowing communion of the non-baptized) is more difficult. This could be allowed as a local option, he said, but it has not been thought about very much.

Quinn said nothing about the Anglican Communion, but suggested that the discussion about the Covenant has been a political debate. He said he thought our church would pass on the Covenant and the matter of the Covenant would ultimately be moot.

 Quinn suggested that there were two Pittsburghs—the prosperous, mostly East End churches, and other, less prosperous churches. The candidates, he said, had mostly seen the former, but both Pittsburghs need attention. Bishop Duncan, he observed, exploited the differences between the haves and have-nots, and he implied that the former bishop had changed his stated positions in order to do so.

Having quickly answered the questions posed by the people in the room, the floor was opened to other questions. Quinn was asked about administration and about making tough decisions. He said that the diocesan leadership is confident, but that there are divisions in the diocese as, for example, there were divisions over Morning Prayer versus Eucharist in times past. He noted that, at General Convention, he is a “young person,” and said that there is really no youth culture today, making youth ministry difficult. He will encourage churches to figure out their roles, which will be good for some churches, but not for others. Regarding decision-making, he spoke of questioning the actions of a priest who was doing “inappropriate things.”

Stanley Runnels

Runnels expressed appreciation for the Anglican Communion but expressed concern for the “transformation taking place.” (He expressed cautious optimism that everything would work out, however.) He said he has read the Anglican Covenant over and over and, although he has no objection to a covenant abstractly, he believes this particular document on offer flies in the face of hundreds of years of Anglican polity. He accused the Covenant of being reactive. In saying he does not support the Covenant and noted that dioceses in the Church of England seem to be rejecting it in large numbers.

Runnels has just defended his doctoral thesis on dialogue with non-Christian religions. He referred to the report “Generous Love” prepared for the 1998 Lambeth Conference, which says that we should be open to the spirit respecting other religions. He said that reading and praying about his made him consider open communion. In his parish, he invites all to partake of the Eucharist, saying that he did not want to obstruct another from meeting God. He admitted that this is a violation of church canons and would not contest charges if brought against him. (Runnels and I had a discussion about this before he left, and we agreed that disobeying canons for any reason is problematic.) He said he would not demand open communion as a bishop.

The mission of the church, Runnels said, is to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8). He also spoke of ministering to “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40).

After a few words about the city, Runnels said that he found the people of the diocese forward-looking and hopeful, that they have come out of a crisis ready to move forward. He does not want to be a bishop of a diocese that does not offer a challenge, as does Pittsburgh.

Ruth Woodliff-Stanley

Woodliff-Stanley said that the Anglican Covenant does not have her support, although she found the process of engagement with it helpful. She studied it with Colorado’s General Convention deputation, which she described as a diverse group. She said she loved the first section of the document but found later sections getting away from a “balanced Anglican approach” and taking more of a “Roman approach.” This, she said, is not the best way. She was more positive about the Anglican Communion, which is about a relationship with Christ. She noted that some churches of the Communion involve challenges, unlike our own, that involve bloodshed. She offered that there is some value in reports that have come out of the Anglican crisis.

On open communion, Woodliff-Stanley said that she believes in “open baptism.” When people are leaning toward Christ, we should embrace them. She said that congregations should do as they think best, but that more theological conversation is needed on the subject.

As for mission, Woodliff-Stanley said that the gospel remains constant, though how we live together has changed. We must live the gospel, but how we do so must change. For some, getting people to church is “too great a [psychological] commute.” Citing Phyllis Tickle, she said that youth today want spirituality, but without corporate trappings. We may have to make shifts in how we spend our money and how we do liturgy.

Woodliff-Stanley, too, spoke of personal experiences with Pittsburgh. (She had made a college visit here with her son.) She said that she had learned about the faithfulness of the diocese. Everything seems open and can be remade, she suggested. We have an extraordinary opportunity to build a new diocese that is poised to be on the cutting edge of the church.

Michael Ambler

Ambler declared that he does not favor the Anglican Covenant. In trying to create a confessional church, it is inconsistent with what it means to be Anglican. He expressed ambivalence about the first sections of the document while rejecting Section 4. He described that part as being about kicking people out, rather than bringing them together. He likened the Covenant to putting a lid on a pressure cooker. Instead, we need to talk to one another. The Communion, on the other hand, is a good thing, he said.

The church has always said that baptism comes before communion, Ambler explained, though he said he would not discipline a priest for offering open communion. He, personally, will not prevent a non-baptized person from taking communion, but he will talk to that person about baptism when he can.

He described the post-modern mission of the church as the same as the pre-modern mission, namely to be the body of Christ and serve your neighbors. The question, he asserted, is one of strategy, not mission. Anglicans, he said, are in the habit of changing when they need to, a point he illustrated with the sixteenth-century introduction of liturgy in the vernacular. He suggested that the language of Rite I is like church Latin to many people. In our present day, people are used to getting what they want on demand, although he admitted that Facebook liturgies or iPhone apps are not the answer. We need to love the Lord and love our neighbors as ourselves.

Ambler said the obligatory nice things about Pittsburgh and admitted that the diocesan split had been more complicated than he realized. Most Episcopalians outside the diocese, for example, believe the liberals stayed and the conservatives left, which is not strictly true. There is diversity here, he said, and we are not called to be of one mind about everything. He suggested that there are differences between the clergy and laity. In particular, he suggested that many departures of laypeople “were not as voluntary as they seem to be.” He said he would want to reach out to these people, but he doesn’t yet know just how to do that.

Dorsey McConnell

McConnell expressed support for the Anglican Communion and described his work in northeast Uganda. He described the covenant process as being interesting in its probing who we are and how we are accountable to one another. Ultimately, however, he found the Covenant un-Anglican. “We don’t like documents like that,” he said. The Covenant has kept the conversation going, but there are big questions around it.

Open communion is not allowed by the canons, McConnell noted. The initiation rite of baptism is important. At the same time, he described being drawn to the altar rail even when he had problems with much that was part of the liturgy. He spoke about not seeking windows into men’s souls and said that people may come to the rail to be fed.

McConnell described working with youth in confirmation class. He observed that children tend to think very concretely, which (presumably) is a problem when discussing theology. In any case, he said we have all experienced loss and have the same questions. The appeal of the gospel is that God cares for us and wants to draw us to himself. Post-moderns feel they can create their own destiny, yet they want relationship and don’t know how to find it. People need to come into community that gives life.

As did others, McConnell spoke of Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods and ethnicities. He also mentioned the presentation given earlier in the day concerning the recent history of the diocese given by what he called first-hand players. He described the history as unbearable but an amazing blessing, and said he saw hope that something new is beginning.

Some Thoughts on the Event

Overall, I though the event was well planned and run. The crowd was large, and it felt like the building could have been larger, but there wasn’t much one could do about that.

I did think that the reception would better have been held after the Q&A. People would have had more opportunity to ask meaningful questions based on what they had heard earlier, and members of the diocese would have had a good opportunity to compare notes. After all, everyone heard only 1/5 of the answers given in the small-group settings. (I was curious about a question about Trinity School for Ministry asked in another session, for example.) Also, the reception, particularly if held later, would have benefited from more food and drink. (I’m sure everyone could have used a little wine after the intense Q&A!)

As for the nominees, I think they all did well, and no one said anything truly embarrassing. I was pleased that there was no enthusiasm for the Anglican Covenant. (The question about the Covenant and the Communion was mine, of course.) Each candidate seemed ready to lead a diverse diocese without trying to extinguish that diversity. I will make a few observations about individuals, but these will be personal and tentative.

Scott Quinn’s answers sometimes seem brief and not as deep as those of other candidates, but he showed off his greatest strength, which is knowledge of the Pittsburgh diocese.

Ruth Woodliff-Stanley’s answers sometimes left me wanting to hear more, but I thought they were generally on target. I thought she did a nice job of the “Triune God” question.

Stanley Runnels seemed to give particularly insightful answers. I had found him less than effusive when I spoke to him at the reception, but he seemed much warmer in the small group.

Dorsey McConnell gave generally good answers, but his metaphors made me somewhat less comfortable than the speech of others.

For reasons I cannot quite put my finger on, I found myself less pleased with Michael Ambler than I expected to be. That said, his answers were very good, and I think he had a good sense of the Diocese of Pittsburgh. I liked his answer about the mission of the church.

I am not carrying water for anyone in particular, and any ranking of the candidates I might do now would be suspect. As it happens, I will not be able to attend any more of the Walkabouts. Anyone who does, however, is cordially invited to comment (even at length) here.


  1. Thanks, Lionel. A helpful overview and summary. I'm looking forward to attending the program at Holy Cross on Thursday. One thing I would expect and hope for, actually, is that the nominees will be listening to and learning from each other as these evenings progress. And that we will be listening to them not simply to learn about them but to learn about ourselves. Sounds to me like they all have some very valuable perspectives.


    Bruce Robison

  2. Pretty good account, at least of the 'plenary session'; I didn't stay for the 'breakout' sessions, although I will attend them at one of the other walkabouts. I have two comments, though: first, I understood Scott Quinn to say that he was suffering from a learning disability from which he was healed after reading the Bible through a second time. Your account didn't quite get that across. (Of course, I may have misunderstood.)

    Second, I think it's worth mentioning that Michael Ambler said that he had mixed opinions on the same-sex issues, and did not rule out a change in his own thinking on the subject at some time in the future.

    On the whole I thought there was very little difference between the candidates on their approach to the big issues, and that many deputies may end up voting for someone simply because of a gut feeling about someone. I don't know if that's good or bad! Perhaps differences will emerge as the week goes on.

  3. I don't guarantee that I was a perfect reporter, so the memory of others can help keep me honest. I was a bit perplexed by Scott's story. Philip may have it right.

  4. Why did you find Q3 "seriously strange"?

    [Disclosure: while I'm not sure I'd ask such a question myself, I sit up and take notice if it was! (The sort of question less likely to get pre-packaged responses)]

  5. I attended three of the four walk abouts. I passed on the last walk about in Ligonier. I thought all the nominees would make good Bishops.

    I have served under 6 Bishops, two have become Cardinals - Bevalaqua and Wuerl, one who became an ArchBishop - Duncan.

    To me the greatest issue is trust and how they use power. The Holy Spirit will have the final word as to who the Bishop will be.

    As for me, I could serve any of the nominees as Bishop. Canon Scott's humility, prayerfulness, and pastoral skills makes him unique among the
    nominees. I think the small parishes are most at risk and Scott Quinn has a geninue love for them. May God continue to guide us....


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