June 18, 2013

State of the Diocese of Pittsburgh

Progressive Episcopalians of Pittsburgh met last night at Calvary Church.The program promised A Panel Discussion on the State of the Diocese, which may have been an overreach, but, if not comprehensive, the program was at least informative.

Chancellor Andy Roman spoke mainly on the work of the Committee on Constitution and Canons, since his more interesting work of negotiating (or, at some point, suing) congregations that left the diocese is conducted in secret.

The chancellor indicated that the Committee on Constitution and Canons has been looking at “cleaning up” diocesan canons, and he cited a bad cross-reference in Canon XII and an out-of-date identification in Canon XXIX. It was not clear how the committee intends to fix these minor problems, but it is apparently unlikely that any major proposals will be offered to the 2013 annual convention.

The proposed revision to Canon II, which would have changed the allocation of deputies to parishes, remains in limbo after being summarily returned to the committee at the last convention. Roman made a plea for interested parties to come forth in its support.

Perhaps the most interesting idea the committee has been considering is an addition to the canons concerning the use of technology. The chancellor cited the use of the Internet for meetings and electronic records as issues to be dealt with.

Next on the program was the Rev. Nancy Chalfant-Walker, who represented the team that is administering the diocese’s sexuality dialogue. (See my April 2 post “Whither the Sexuality Dialogue.”) Although the early hope was that 500 people would participate in the program, just over 100 have volunteered so far, and there doesn’t seem to be much hope that that number will get much larger. The plan is to hold all-day Saturday sessions during the summer, beginning June 29. (Audience members raised the question of whether people who work on Saturday can be accommodated and whether participants can attend a session convenient to transportation.)

The sexuality dialogue team is facing a serious, though predictable problem. Of the people who have volunteered to participate, only about one-fifth self-identified as conservative. The rest declared themselves to be progressives. (If some did not choose a side, Chalfant-Walker did not mention it.) The structure of the dialogues requires participation by equal numbers of conservatives and progressives. The team hasn’t decided how to deal with this problem, which would appear to leave 3/5 of the volunteers with no one to talk to.

Chalfant-Walker suggested that there is anxiety about the dialogue among conservatives, resulting in a reluctance to sign up. Someone suggested that anxiety could simply be a product of uncertainty, whether about the dialogue itself or about the decisions to be made concerning the role of homosexuals in the diocese. From this viewpoint, of course, progressives should also be anxious. Someone else raised the possibility that there are simply more progressives than conservatives in the diocese, an interesting suggestion for which we have insufficient data to validate. (Personally, I believe that conservatives know they are on the wrong side of history and that their behavior is passive-aggressive.)

Next on the program was the Rev. Kris McInnes, a member of the Commission on Ministry and one of the priests working at St. David’s, Peters Twp. St. David’s’ property was returned to the diocese over a year ago. Although most of the congregation left to form a new church of the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh in Canonsburg, some parishioners remained to become the nucleus of a reconstituted Episcopal congregation.

After the 2008 split of the diocese, McInnes explained, no one was eager to enter into the process leading to ordination. That has changed, and 7 people have been ordained in the last year or so. There are 11 people in the process now, 5 postulants, and 2 nominees. Another half dozen people are potentially interested in entering the process. Of the postulants, 3 seek the vocational diaconate. (The diocese’s deacons largely left the diocese with Bob Duncan, which, given the relationship of deacons to their bishop, is perhaps unsurprising.) In response to a question, McInnes indicated that minorities are very much underrepresented, with women somewhat less so.

The Commission on Ministry is beginning to ordain deacons earlier, in the last year of seminary rather than upon graduation. This is an experiment, and the advantages and disadvantages were not made clear. McInnes spoke of his own experience of becoming a deacon and beginning his ministry at St. Paul’s, Mt. Lebanon. Although he was a deacon, he felt he was being expected to act as a priest. I cannot say how common this experience is.

I asked if there were any partnered homosexuals currently in the process. McInnes replied that there are but that he didn’t think that was a problem. Given the uncertainty concerning the attitude of Bishop McConnell about ordaining such people, I suggested that it certainly seemed to be a problem, but I did not press the point.

Although McInnes was not able to address the state of returning or restarted congregations generally, he had a lot to say about St. David’s, where he shares duties with other priests from St. Paul’s. Unlike many properties that have been returned to the Episcopal diocese, a small number of parishioners of St. David’s returned with the building. From that initial group of 20 or so, St. David’s now attracts 50–60 people on a Sunday, about half the pre-split attendance. Moreover, volunteers have been forthcoming for all functions needed by the parish. (When the church first returned to the diocese, St. Paul’s supplied altar guild members and other volunteers.)

Joan Gundersen, who administers property for the diocese, reported primarily on the 23 churches of congregations that left the diocese in 2008 but whose property is owned by the Board of Trustees. She noted that 3 properties were returned immediately. Subsequently, 9 buildings have been returned, 2 of which came with small remnant congregations. (St. David’s is one of the latter.) Two congregations returned with their properties, one of which held property in its own name. The diocese has not attempted to evict any congregations, which would require court approval.

In most of the returned churches, we have no Episcopal congregation. (We have had difficulty establishing a congregation at St. James, Penn Hills.) Nonetheless, all except one of these buildings, we were told, are occupied, largely by groups paying rent. Tenants include churches, daycare centers, and the like. As a result, the net cost of maintaining these buildings is only $25,000 or $30,000 per year. One building—it was not clear if this was counted as the unoccupied building—St. Christopher’s, Cranberry Twp., which is surrounded by hotels, is being sold.

The buildings to which the diocese holds title but which currently house congregations of the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh are being carefully monitored to assure their maintenance. We are encouraging the congregations to be good stewards of our property.

Gundersen also noted that settlements have been reached with three churches (St. Philip’s, Moon Twp., Somerset Anglican Fellowship, and Shepherd’s Heart Fellowship), each of which involved unique circumstances.

Finally, Linda Getts said a few words about the 2014 budget, which is still being developed. Without some drastic measures, it seems, the diocese faces a significant shortfall next year. Legal expenses are responsible for much of the deficit, but an end to the problems caused by the 2008 schism is nowhere in sight. As far as anyone not involved in legal strategy knows, there is no plan to press our Dennis Canon claim to property not owned by the diocese anytime soon, for example. I asked if any consideration had been given to increasing assessments to make up some or all of the deficit. I was told that the subject had not been raised.

I came away from the PEP meeting feeling better informed, having had a number of rumors confirmed and having been given more specific information about certain issues. (Joan Gundersen’s report was very helpful, although I would like to see a table indicating the current status of all properties of the pre-schism diocese.)

I have begun to wonder whether the sexuality dialogue is not only failing to achieve its objectives but is also casting a pall of uncertainty over the diocese. Already, sessions are being planned with less than the full complement of 12 participants, and the lack of conservative volunteers promises to exclude from the dialogue many of the people who have volunteered. The willingness of progressives to discuss issues and the unwillingness of conservatives to do so feels distressingly familiar. The feedback that the dialogue provides to the bishop seems, at least from my experience, poorly structured, and the collective meaning of it all may be difficult to discern.

No doubt, both progressives and conservatives are uncomfortable with the uncertainty regarding the status of homosexuals in Pittsburgh, and the resulting anxiety is greatest in parishes searching for new, progressive rectors. Conservatives are likely expecting the worst and might even prefer to get the decisions over with. Progressives, on the other hand, consider anything but permissive decisions on the part of the bishop unthinkable, and they worry that the unthinkable might result from an attempt to mollify reactionary elements of the diocese or, worse still, as a result of hitherto undisclosed belief of Bishop McConnell himself.

So, how healthy is the diocese? It is better than it might have been, given the depredations of Bob Duncan and his supporters. (The Calvary lawsuit and the work of Progressive Episcopalians of Pittsburgh are largely responsible for that.) It is significantly less healthy than it needs to be, however. Keep the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh in your prayers.


  1. We are doing the Blessing conversations parish by parish with the support of the diocese. Prayers for yours who simply can't deal with same sex relationships. I wonder if they ever think about how they were conceived. Perhaps they need to be reminded that sex is only a small part of life for most people of any orientation so what are they really thinking about? Surely not love.

  2. With thanks for this, Lionel. Sounds like a very interesting meeting, and I'm glad to hear the summary.

    In terms of your take on the "participation" issues, with only about 100 (roughly 70 self-identified "progressives," I gather from your statistics, and 30 self-identified "conservatives, out of a baptized diocesan membership approaching 9,000) signing-on for the conversations, I would also add some very helpful insights a friend composed a couple of years ago.



    Bruce Robison

    1. Bruce, I think the number of conservatives who have signed up is closer to 20 than 30. We were not given precise numbers, however.

      Thanks for the link to the post I had not remembered writing, but I am unclear as to just what point you want to make. Are you saying that we need to be doing a better job of selling the diocese? Perhaps leading with the sexuality dialogue is not the most enticing pitch. Or perhaps I have misunderstood your point.

  3. Thanks, Lionel. My point is that rather than to say "conservatives are being passive-aggressive by not participating in the conversations," it would be more accurate and possibly more helpful in the long-run to say that hardly anybody, conservative or liberal, seems very interested in participating. When you consider the census of the diocese as a whole, the difference between self-identified conservative sign-ups and self-identified liberal sign-ups fades to statistical insignificance. Everybody is staying away in droves.

    I don't have a particular interpretation of why essentially nobody seems much interested in participating, but I think your observations in the blogpost may have some relevance. There is I think a general war-weariness after the events of the last decade, and that isn't something that will go away simply because someone attempts a "better job of selling the diocese." It's going to take time--different for everybody, of course, but my sense is that for many the process may take years and decades, and it may be that the picture will in hindsight look more generational. It will get better, and people will re-engage, but gradually, incrementally. In the meantime, I think we probably should be a bit more realistic about expectations.

    Bruce Robison

    1. I think we are already seeing revised expectations regarding the dialogue. The original plan did not have a definite end date, and the team seems ready to continue sessions only through the summer. Also, since they cannot achieve balance and accommodate everyone, there needs to be some rethinking about how the sessions are going to work. (I suspect that, in the end, the team will not be able to accommodate all comers.) In the group I was in, one conservative was missing. I certainly felt bad about that, and the conservatives who were there probably did, too.

  4. I made one edit to my post. I said that the first session of the summer would be held June 22. There were not enough people available on that date, however, so the first session will be held June 29. I apologize for the error.


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