More than 70 people attended the Progressive Episcopalians of Pittsburgh (PEP) event in the parish hall of Calvary Church last night to hear and question Bishop of Pittsburgh Dorsey McConnell. Starting time was 7:30 PM, but the program was preceded by refreshments and lively conversation among the early arrivals.
Joan Gundersen, one of PEP’s vice presidents, presided. After an opening prayer, she explained that the bishop had a particular topic he wanted to address and that we would discuss that matter before moving to a question-and-answer session.
What Bishop McConnell wanted first to explain was where the diocese stands in light of the recent court decision declaring the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s same-sex marriage ban unconstitutional and Governor Tom Corbett’s announcement that the decision would not be appealed. The topic was a welcome one for the audience, as there had been some consternation over the bishop’s failure to at least indicate his approval of the altered legal landscape. Bishop of Northwest Pennsylvania Sean Rowe, who is also provisional bishop of the Diocese of Bethlehem had made such a statement, yet the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette could only report that Bishop McConnell “plans to consult with clergy and lay leaders on the implications of the court ruling.” That had led to fears that the path from same-sex blessings to same-sex marriage in churches might be a long one. The bishop, in response to a question later in the evening, apologized for the delay in clarifying the status of same-sex marriage in the diocese, explaining that he is not a “let’s-make-a-statement kind of guy.” (Unfortunately, given the recent history of our diocese, we tend to be no-news-must-be-bad-news kind of Episcopalians.)
In any case, the delay in announcing a policy about same-sex marriages is the result of legal ambiguity, as Chancellor Andy Roman explained. It is important that any such marriage conforms both to Pennsylvania law and to Episcopal Church canons. The chancellor is consulting with his counterparts in other dioceses in an effort to avoid unintended consequences, such as couples learning years after the ceremony that they aren’t really married at all.
I had planned to discuss the perceived problems with conducting same-sex marriages in the diocese, but, in the cold light of day, I don’t think I understand them, particularly as regards the civil law. It seems clear that 2012 General Convention Resolution A049 allows bishops to authorize clergy to perform same-sex marriages in states where marriage equality exists, but it is equally clear that what would be done thereby is not, for the church at least, “marriage” as we find it in the prayer book and in Canon I.18. (Both speak of a man and a woman.) Stay tuned; the bishop and the chancellor are trying to resolve the perceived problems as quickly as possible.
After some further discussion on the mechanics of implementing same-sex marriages in the diocese, we moved on to other issues. PEP had advertised the meeting as being about the state of the diocese, but Bishop McConnell did not give a state-of-the-diocese address but merely responded to questions. The main questions had been developed by the PEP board and were asked by Dr. Gundersen. The bishop’s responses led to other questions from the floor, however.
The first question concerned divisions in the diocese. What are the greatest dangers and the greatest signs of hope?
The bishop suggested that the most serious divisions are between large and small parishes, between urban and rural parishes, between rich and poor parishes, and so forth. We do not, he asserted, want to go through what we went through earlier. He said that, under the “previous regime,” parishes got “siloed.” To improve communications, he has established The Listening Committee (TLC, cute), which has been going to parishes and simply listening to what people have to say. About a third of the parishes have been “listened to.” Bishop McConnell indicated that one of the findings of TLC is that some of the numbers that have been appearing on parochial reports are “not accurate.” (One might imagine other, less charitable descriptions.) Anyway, he said that the diocese is getting a handle on this problem.
Dr. Gundersen’s next question was about how we can accommodate theological diversity in the diocese.
Bishop McConnell answered that we are called to unity, even when we disagree. Relationships between people are more important than agreement on issues. We need to know what makes people tick, even if they come to awful conclusions. A number of questions were asked from the floor, one of which elicited a story of the bishop’s discussions with labor leaders leading him to raise the issue of income inequality at a meeting of Christian Associates of Southwest Pennsylvania. The response of the assembled religious leaders was dead silence. Roman Catholic Bishop David Zubik, however, is planning to meet with our bishop to explore the matter. (Earlier, I had suggested to the PEP board that income inequality is an issue that the organization and the diocese should take on. Could this become a major diocesan project?)
PEP’s next question concerned lay leadership, one of the foci articulated in the bishop’s address to last year’s convention. What are we doing about lay leadership?
The bishop said that our church is too clergy-centric, but he admitted that, although he thinks of himself as lay-leader-oriented, that is not always a good description of how he acts. He mentioned two specific lay leadership programs, one from The Episcopal Church and one from The Leadership Development Initiative. I noted that Dwight J. Zscheile recommends greater communication between parishioners of different parishes in People of the Way: Renewing Episcopal Identity. How can such communication be encouraged? The bishop responded that laypeople had to make that happen. Another question—really more of a comment—suggested that parishes often have individuals who refuse to relinquish control. In response, the bishop explained that he was seeking a canon to allow him to intervene in parishes on the brink of disaster. (The idea of such a canon was raised when I was on the Committee on Constitution and Canons. We seem to be no closer to formulating such a canon.)
PEP’s next question was how can he, in good conscience, do mission in Uganda, where both the government and the local Anglican church have appalling attitudes toward gays.
The bishop replied that Jesus said to love your enemies, and he insisted that he engages with clergy in Uganda, trying to get them to see that their attitudes are less than Christian. (Bishop McConnell has long been associated with Pilgrim Africa and makes regular trips to Uganda.)
For PEP’s final question, Dr. Gundersen asked where we stand on recovering property 5½ years after the diocese split.
No one expected a very detailed answer to this question, and we were not disappointed. Unsurprisingly, it was Chancellor Andy Roman who answered the question. He pointed out that we recovered all diocesan property—I later pointed out that we didn’t get back our telephones and desk chairs (or computers, for that matter)—and that we own a number of properties that we are allowing Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh congregations to use. An additional 15 properties or so are titled in the name of their congregations, and ownership of these churches has yet to be resolved. I asked if it was our intention to reclaim all off our property. (I particularly want us to recover the property of Ascension in Oakland and of St. Stephen’s, Sewickley.) The inquiry received no real answer. The decision, the chancellor declared, will be made by diocesan leaders.
Bishop McConnell closed the meeting with prayer, and people resumed their individual conversations before heading home.