Saturday, September 6, 2008

Thoughts on Our Way Forward, July, 2007

Thoughts on Our Way Forward Here in Pittsburgh

This summer we have been invited to
reflect together on the way and ways forward for those
of us in the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh, given
the realities of the present situation. In our
regional meetings we have seemed to want to spend most
of our time rehearsing "the issues" rather than
dealing with practicalities. So this is an effort at
being practical, being realistic.

I may be way wrong and off base on all kinds of things
here, and I'm glad to hear other perspectives, other
guesses, projections. Again, not to talk so much
about who's right and who's wrong, who's to blame--and
not even to talk about "what I or we will do
personally or congregationally. " Instead, simply to
try to think about what may happen next, over the next
couple of years.

It seems to me that the way forward will eventually
resolve to two general groups and directions.

There will be, clearly, individuals and parishes and a
canonical diocesan entity that will continue under the
authority of the Constitution and Canons of the
Episcopal Church and the governance of the General
Convention, in the constitutional identity of The
Episcopal Church in Southwestern Pennsylvania. This
will be the case even though a majority at a diocesan
convention might vote to "disassociate" from The
Episcopal Church.

This group will include, I would imagine, some of us,
both congregations and clergy, who have been largely
supportive of the positions of The Episcopal Church
--and some of us, congregations and clergy, who may be conflicted, opposed, or even
strongly opposed to those positions, but who believe,
perhaps with profound regret, that the best way
forward (in a choice between "two bad choices") for
our life and ministry is as a "theological minority"
within The Episcopal Church.

One issue for these among us may be that a once more-unified
Anglican Communion is fracturing into several pieces and so will be
unable to offer any adequate full, Canterbury-centered
alternative to ministry within The Episcopal Church.

In any case, my best guess, a rough counting of
noses, is that this group will probably include 20 or
so, and perhaps even as many as 30 congregations and
perhaps 30-40 or so of our clergy. This will be the
smaller piece of the broken vessel, though perhaps
somewhat larger than some would have guessed based on
things like voting patterns at earlier conventions.

(My sense is that what happens here will to a great
extent depend on the ability of The Episcopal Church
and of those of us of the more progressive parishes
and leadership locally to communicate with integrity a
sense of affection and respect to those of us with
strong evangelical and catholic identities.
Gentleness and hospitality and, again, respect, will
be what determines the whether the number is nearer 20
or nearer 30, I think. Again, I'm just guessing.)

In any case, there will also be clearly many
individuals and congregations of us that will
determine--and, honestly, have already determined-- in
conscience that we can no longer continue in The
Episcopal Church. This will be I think certainly more
than half of our clergy and congregations. I believe
that Bishop Duncan indicated to the folks attending
the Leadership Retreat in May that he sees himself in
this frame of reference, though I haven't heard him
say so personally.

Some of these individuals among us may decide to move
to non-Anglican churches, but others of us will choose
to affiliate with other Anglican bodies not connected
to The Episcopal Church (CANA, AMiA, etc., or some
yet-to-emerge "unifying" continuing entity strongly
affiliated with a piece of the fracturing Anglican
Communion's Global South group). Some of these among
us will take this step as individuals, leaving former
parishes. Some of us as congregations of individuals
may also attempt to make this move with our
congregational and parish identity intact, and even to
remain within parish properties. It's likely that
some larger structure with a sense of continuity from
the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh will also emerge
as, well, let's call it the "Anglican Diocese of

So, what will all this mean?

For those of us who "remain" in The Episcopal Church,
there will be the daunting task of maintaining
continuity of governance and ministry, caring gently,
pastorally for the pain of divided congregations and
broken relationships, respecting the continuing
diversity of this body, and working to assure
effective Christian life and ministry for Episcopalian
congregations and clergy in Southwestern
Pennsylvania- -a diocese now significantly smaller in
size and with fewer resources, etc.

It is also reasonably possible that a body claiming
continuity with the structure of the Episcopal
Diocese, the "Anglican Diocese" mentioned above, but
now outside of the judicial boundaries of The
Episcopal Church, will attempt to continue to enforce
diocesan canons and claim oversight of "remaining
Episcopal" parishes and assets--or, even more likely,
of diocesan assets. If, for example, our bishop and
leadership team, the majorities of the Board of
Trustees and Standing Committee, etc., determine to be
the "Diocese of Pittsburgh" and to show up for work at
the diocesan office in the Oliver Building, to keep
writing checks on the diocesan accounts, etc., then
there will be a conflict that will be not easily
resolved. Rome and Avignon, as it were, with probably
the courts of the Commonwealth called in to figure
things out. My guess is that both sides will have
excellent legal representation, and that much time
will pass before resolution.

The resolution of these competing claims by two
alternative "diocesan" bodies would also require
significant resources to accomplish. Neither The
Episcopal Church nor the new "Anglican" judicatories
would be able to fund these kinds of suits alone--as
they would doubtless be happening in various other
places as well--and the costs along the way would need
to be borne somehow by our congregations.

For those of us, on the other hand, who choose to move
from The Episcopal Church, there will be first of all
a difficult decision about how to continue, with what
kind of identity, etc.

Those of us who depart entirely ("leaving the keys,
the mortgage, and the checkbook on the altar," as some
have suggested) will be faced with the challenge of
"rebuilding from scratch" in a pretty stressful
environment, both in terms of congregational and
personal concerns, and probably without as much
support from the wider Anglican Communion as had at
one time been projected--and those of us who seek to
remain in parish buildings and to continue to make use
of parish assets for ministry will almost certainly
find long and expensive litigation with the Episcopal
Diocese and the national Episcopal Church. All that
with the reality that case law in Pennsylvania to date
would strongly indicate resolution in favor of the
continuing Episcopal Church entity--diocese and
national church.

In that context, a sidebar scenario has suggested that
the present majority in the diocese maintain
constitutional authority within The Episcopal Church
and use that authority to permit "friendly" departures
of congregations with property and assets. This
direction seems only temporarily a help, however,
since any actions would certainly be challenged
immediately or later in court if they did not meet
clear standards of legal trust. (Which is to say, all
real estate and other transactions would need to occur
at market rates, for example, so as not to damage the
beneficial interests of the continuing Episcopal

An initial overview, then, suggests that essentially
all ways forward will be costly for all. Litigation
is a virtual inevitability, with a potential
involvement for every parish, and within the present
reality it's hard to imagine an alternative scenario.

Moreover, in virtually every congregation there will
be divisions of opinion about the way forward, and
it's likely that only a few parishes on either side
would escape without losses in areas of membership,
financial support, and certainly morale.

A number of parishes may find either way forward fatal.

Those of us who are pastors will be challenged as never before to
continue to sustain spiritually healthy ministries in
our congregations. Clergy who choose to depart from
the Episcopal Church will likewise step into an
ecclesial environment missing the long and familiar
support structures of The Episcopal Church (for
example, continuing participation in the Church
Pension Fund), and congregations and ministries that
have depended on the support of resources from the
larger diocese will find that support jeopardized by
the accompanying tumult.

Personal relationships will be strained, and perhaps
lost. This really kills me, but I know it's true and
in fact is already happening. Collegial friendships
among clergy may be broken, friends and family members
in divided congregations may find themselves dealing
with the consequences of deep disagreement and
possibly divergent decisions. Many individuals,
clergy and laity, may be deeply torn personally,
perhaps feeling strongly attached to some aspects of
"remaining Episcopal," yet also feeling strongly
attached to some of the arguments of those who are
departing. In any case, it is already and will
continue to be, I sense, a season of brokenness, of
deep regret.

I've heard folks on both sides suggest hypothetical
scenarios about the "way forward" that would make
things easier. (There should be a "divorce
settlement," with distribution of property. Those
wanting to depart should change their minds and decide
to stay. Etc.) They all make sense in the
hypothetical, wish-list universe, but in reality, none
seem to me to be able to work. Many of our brothers
and sisters, colleagues and friends in ministry, have
already determined they must leave the Episcopal
Church. They have money and lawyers and determination.
The national Episcopal Church has indicated that it
is unwilling to cede even a whisker of jurisdiction to
the bodies of the Anglican Communion or to settle for
anything less than the constitutional/ canonical
principle that "people may leave the Episcopal Church,
but parishes and dioceses may not." They also have
money, lawyers, and determination.

In the end, two trains are running on the same track
and in opposite directions, and it is going to be a
mess for all of us.

I'm continuing to pray for some new light to dawn and
to illuminate a different and better way that we could
all try together. But it still seems pretty dark out
there, and the blessing that Jesus has for us in all
this may still be pretty far on the other side of the

Bruce Robison

No comments: