Monday, February 7, 2011

As the World Turns: Recent Diocesan News (Long!)

Over the past week a number of St. Andreans caught bits and pieces of some "new news" in the ongoing story of our lives here in the Episcopal and Anglican Dioceses of Pittsburgh and have asked if we might have a time to catch up and talk things over.

Don't know if there will be enough time to touch all the bases, but we'll try to get started next Sunday, February 13, at the regular 10 a.m. "Coffee and Conversation" Adult Forum in the hour between the 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. services. Hope to see you there!

In the meantime, I'd like to use this space to recount some of the history, as best I can, to collect and share some of the relevant resources as they are available online--and to conclude with a bit of reflection and comment.

Part I: Concerning the Assets of the Diocese

The first news story out last week had to do with a ruling from the Commonwealth Court. Many will remember that back in 2003 and 2004 there was an action brought before the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas by Calvary Church, East Liberty.

At a special convention of our diocese in the early fall of 2003, following the General Convention that summer in Minneapolis, several resolutions were passed that asserted diocesan independence in ways that seemed to some to contradict the Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church.

Concerned that Bishop Duncan and diocesan leadership might be planning to leave or declare independence from the Episcopal Church, Calvary Church as I understand it asked to be appointed as a kind of trustee over diocesan assets on behalf of the canonical interests of the Episcopal Church. In 2005, before the matter came to trial, Calvary Church and the Episcopal Diocese arrived at a negotiated settlement, called a "Stipulation," which was approved by Judge James, presiding judge of the court.

The Stipulation had two significant paragraphs. The first addressed all assets owned by the diocese, and in the Stipulation both parties agreed that the assets of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh would remain under the control of "the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh of the Episcopal Church in the United States of America," even if a majority of the parishes of the diocese decided to leave the Episcopal Church.

The second paragraph affirmed that in the matter of assets owned by parishes of the diocese, congregations desiring to leave the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh would need to follow procedures outlined in the diocesan canons to negotiate with the Bishop and Board of Trustees of the diocese to purchase or retain such assets.

Following the vote to "realign" at diocesan convention in October, 2008, Calvary Church applied to Judge James for an order to enforce the terms of the 2005 Stipulation--to require that the now "realigned" Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh of the Anglican Province of the Southern Cone relinquish the pre-October, 2008 assets of the diocese to the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh of the Episcopal Church.

The Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh of the Episcopal Church later joined in that request, and the Chancellor of the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church likewise, as I understand it, entered as a supporting party. Both sides made presentations to the court either supporting or opposing the requested action, in preparation for a decision the court ordered an inventory of diocesan assets, and in the fall of 2009 Judge James ruled in support of the request of Calvary Church.

The "Southern Cone" diocese, now the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh, complied promptly with the court's instructions to transfer control of the assets, but also exercised its right to appeal the decision to the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania. In 2010 both parties presented briefs and argued their positions before the Commonwealth Court, and last week the court announced its ruling, supporting Judge James's interpretation and enforcement of the 2005 Stipulation.

Most of us read about this for the first time in a couple of Pittsburgh Post Gazette articles last week. They can be read: By Clicking Here. And, more completely: By Clicking Here.

The official statement of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh, including a link to the full text of the court's ruling, is posted at the diocesan website. You can get there: By Clicking Here.

This all was followed, a few days later, by announcement that the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh, asserting that the decision of the Commonwealth Court was in its view based in part on errors of fact, would ask the Commonwealth Court to rehear arguments. You can read this: By Clicking Here.

Part II: Concerning Parishes

Just a day or so after the news of the ruling of the Commonwealth Court there came as well another story, describing what we will perhaps call the "first" negotiated agreement between a parish of the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh and the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh under the general provisions of the Second Paragraph of the 2005 Stipulation referenced above.

Over the past year the leadership of our Episcopal Diocese--our Bishop, Chancellor, Standing Committee, Board of Trustees, and Diocesan Council authorized a committee to prepare for the possibility that parishes of the Anglican Diocese might seek, as (to use this somewhat awkward vocabulary) congregations formerly constituting parishes of the Episcopal Diocese, to negotiate about release, continuing use, and/or purchase of properties and assets of those parishes of the Episcopal Diocese, recognizing that according to the canons of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh, and in accordance with the canons of the Episcopal Church, no properties held by Episcopalian parishes may be encumbered, sold, or otherwise "released" without the approval of the Bishop and Board of Trustees of the Episcopal Diocese, acting in their fiduciary roles on behalf of the diocese and of the Episcopal Church.

While the Standing Committee and Board of Trustees were kept up to date in a general way about the work of the Negotiating/Property Committee, and while there were appropriate informational and advisory conversations about the general issues and concerns, it has been understood that any and all actual negotiations would need to be conducted confidentially. Thus the first official news we heard about the story was in the following Post-Gazette news story, also last week, concerning negotiations between the Episcopal Diocese and St. Philip's Church, Moon Township. You can read it: By Clicking Here.

The brief story reporting that the Parish Meeting of St. Philip's had approved the settlement may be read: By Clicking Here.

The official statement of the Episcopal Diocese, with more detail about the actual agreement, may be read: By Clicking Here.

Finally, at the end of last week our former bishop, the Most Rev'd Robert Wm. Duncan, now Ordinary of the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh and Archbishop of the Anglican Church of North America, wrote a brief pastoral letter to the clergy and congregations of the Anglican Diocese. You can read it: By Clicking Here.

Part III My Reflection

Since the news of the last week had two points of focus, I guess I would organize my responses to respond to them both. But to begin with a more general comment.

Back in the period of 2007-2008, as the clergy and people of our diocese prayed about and discussed together the question of "realignment," I was led to speak and write in several contexts in opposition to the proposal. My opposition was not because I didn't share some of the concerns that Bishop Duncan and so many colleagues and friends were expressing about the directions of the Episcopal Church, but because I believed then--and continue to believe--that the best way to address those concerns was to remain within the Episcopal Church.

I was also deeply concerned that the vision presented by advocates of "what would come next," after "realignment," was unrealistic, given legal precedents and history as I understood (and understand them). I valued and appreciated, and continue to value and appreciate, the rich and important gospel witness and ministries that the Episcopal Church (and now also our Anglican brothers and sisters) have in our area, in our city and in the towns and villages up and down our river valleys and east into the mountains. We were a relatively small but also very strong Christian family in so many ways, touching so many lives here and having a great impact as well in the life of the church and community even beyond our borders.

No question that there was and is a lot of distress in the context of the wider Church and Communion. But it didn't and doesn't now seem to me that the resolution of these wider issues and trends is likely to be accomplished in the near term, or even in our lifetimes. And it didn't and doesn't now seem to me that the kind of division and fragmentation resulting from the "realignment" was likely to be all that productive in terms of reaching that resolution. Simply: I wish we had stayed together--and I think even now that despite the inevitable tensions and distress we would be better together than separated.

Nonetheless, we are where we are, and what I thought would happen has more or less happened. During the "campaign" for realignment, leaders of the diocese assured the members of our congregations that if they supported realignment, their life and ministry would continue without significant dislocation, and that the legal and canonical position of the realigning diocese would be strong to assure that continuity. In fact that was not the case, and certainly here in Pittsburgh, especially with the stipulation settling the Calvary lawsuit in 2005, it seemed at least to me, and I know to many others, that the decision to realign would be a decision with very costly consequences.

And now, only a bit more than two years after realignment, the courts of the Commonwealth have spoken really with some definition, and it is abundantly clear, I think, despite the "Hail Mary" of the request for a rehearing, that the assets of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh prior to October, 2008, will remain in the care of the Episcopal Diocese that continues to be a part of the Episcopal Church.

And it is also beginning to be clear, following the negotiation with St. Philip's Church, that formerly Episcopalian congregations now in the Anglican Diocese will be able to continue life and ministry in their historic places only at some cost--not because there is any desire in the Episcopal Diocese to be punitive, but simply because to meet fiduciary responsibilities the Episcopal Diocese must act in ways that support the best interests of the Episcopal Diocese and the Episcopal Church. That doesn't mean that agreements, like the one at St. Philip's, can't be reached in most or even all situations, but only that in all these cases resources that were once available for ministry are now needing to be diverted instead to the necessary legal resolution of ownership interest. There may, of course, be situations where negotiations won't be concluded successfully, and where congregations may experience great losses as a result.

And all this doesn't even begin to count the emotional and spiritual cost that this prolongued wrangling over legal matters has inflicted on all of us on both sides of the divide. In my judgment this has been considerable, and is in fact the most tragic aspect of our situation. I think of all the friendships, all the years of shared life and ministry, and of the sad irony of what this must look like to those outside of the church and outside of the faith: "These Christians, how they love one another."

I would say that from where we are now it is most profoundly my hope that the way forward on both sides would be marked by a spirit of humility and generosity. And this most especially for "our side," those of us in the Episcopal Diocese, as by way of the courts it does appear that we are being left in the stronger position. As our Lord said, "From those to whom more has been given, more will be expected."

It is my hope in general that as we move along in the area of diocesan assets, we continue to remember that for many generations those congregations now in the Anglican Diocese were part of the church family that contributed to the accumulation of these assets. Without compromising the legal issues of ownership and stewardship, it is my hope that we can look for creative ways to make use of some of these diocesan assets in a cooperative and collaborative way with our Anglican Diocese brothers and sisters.

A small but I think meaningful creative gesture was made shortly after the management of the diocesan property at Donegal was restored to our Episcopal Diocese, when it was announced that the use of the wonderful "Clergy House" guest house on that property would be available for clergy and families of the Episcopal Diocese, and also, on a space-available basis of course, for clergy and families of other churches, including those in the Anglican Diocese. I can picture other ways as well in which ministry concerns that we have long shared together--for instance, in the sheltering of homeless veterans at Shepherd's Heart, in the Uptown neighborhood, or in the outreach to at-risk youth in Garfield at Earthen Vessels Outreach and in Wilkinsburg through Tony Jackson's Youth Outreach program--could continue to be places where resources of the Episcopal Diocese could be contributed, along with the resources of both Anglican and Episcopalian congregations. That kind of sharing would be meaningful, I think, and would say a great deal to the people of our wider community about the character of our two diocesan families.

It is also my hope--and I believe this is possible--that negotiations with congregations of the Anglican Diocese about parish properties will continue to take place with a spirit of affection and mutual respect, and with a desire to find common ground that will look something like "win/win" resolutions. This would mean being as generous and creative as possible in conversations about the structuring of compensation to accomplish the sale or release of property--recognizing that the legitimate interests of the Episcopal Diocese, of continuing Episcopalian ministry in these communities, and of fiduciary and canonical duties need to be respected as well.

A good deal has been written about the so-called "non-compete" provision in the settlement with St. Philip's: the requirement of a five-year period of disaffiliation from the Anglican Diocese of the ACNA or any other similar judicatory. I certainly understand why this is a particularly painful element in the St. Philip's agreement for many in the Anglican Diocese.

I also understand the rationale, though. The leaders of the Episcopal Church believe with good reason that the ACNA and other continuing Anglican bodies are actively working at the national and international Anglican Communion level to undermine the standing of the Episcopal Church in the Communion. It seems counter-intuitive, I guess, to enter into favorable agreements about the sale or release of assets that will then, in some way, be used to support this "anti-Episcopal Church" campaign. Certainly the Presiding Bishop has made it very clear that she prefers that dioceses of the Episcopal Church do nothing in terms of the settlement of property issues to encourage the ACNA or the other similar "continuing Anglican" groups in the U.S. while this negative campaign is continued on the wider scene.

Of course, friends know that I am also sometimes quite critical, as a loyal member of the Episcopal Church, of the Episcopal Church. Perhaps in this sense my sympathies for the adversarial stance of the Episcopal Church against its external critics are less intense than the sympathies others may feel. But it is nonetheless my belief that in the long run an approach of generosity and respect, even when positions differ dramatically, and even when the immediate results might appear to be detrimental, is what would be required of us as Christian people. It's hard to sort through the anxieties and demands of this process without remembering the one who told us that when our coat is demanded of us, we are to offer our cloak also. I personally would have preferred that this "disaffiliation" had not been a part of the agreement--not because I don't understand its rationale, but because I believe it will further damage the relationship between the members of our two diocesan families and make more difficult the ability of our own diocese to have an effective Christian ministry and witness.

In any event, I am glad that in the negotiation with St. Philip's the two parties were able to agree on only a limited "disaffiliation." The five year break will likely be enough to gain the support for the agreement of those in the Episcopal Church and in our own Episcopal Diocese who might be most anxious to prevent the wider "ACNA" movement from immediately benefiting from a settlement. At the same time, the requirement for disaffiliation is not absolute or permanent. I imagine that among the clergy and people of St. Philip's there will continue to be a spiritual, social, and pastoral sense of informal connection to the people of the Anglican Diocese--and of course there is nothing in the agreement that can prevent individual members of St. Philip's from also continuing to participate, on their own as individuals, in support of the life of the Anglican Diocese.

Moreover, in the Post Gazette article linked above Rich Creehan, spokesman for our Episcopal Diocese, emphasized that none of the elements of the agreement with St. Philip's were to be understood as "non-negotiable" requirements in any further negotiations with congregations. The Episcopal Diocese has interests, concerns, and goals, as have the individual congregations. But each situation will be unique, and each negotiation will begin with a blank page and be conducted in good faith.

And so, a conclusion of a very long post, to say that in the narrative of the last decade here in our corner of the Church, this past week has marked I think the end of one chapter and the beginning of another. There is still a long way to go, I suspect, before there is a final resolution to the contest over diocesan assets, and an even longer way to go before all the questions of parish property and assets are resolved. But in the decision of the appeals court and in the settlement with St. Philip's we are, I think, beginning to see the general contours of what we will be dealing with in the months and years ahead.

Blessings--and, again, looking forward to our conversation on Sunday morning.

Bruce R.


David Wilson+ said...

Thanks for your comments especially the last bit.

FWIW the dis-affiliation clause is a non- starter for almost all of us. Most opine it is punitive and vindictive. Unless something changes in that regard you all will inherit a bunch of empty buildings and lots of financial liability. Not my hope but simply the reality.

Can we do lunch sometime soon -- perhaps the Southside?

Bruce Robison said...

Thanks, David. I have no knowledge of the process or substance of the negotiations with St. Philip's. Like everybody else, I just read the settlement itself and try to place it in context of what we all know about our situation here and about how other similar situations have been presented elsewhere. My own peronsal hope would be that you and our friends at St. David's--and with all the realigned congregations--would at least attempt a negotiation. But whatever you all decide as these things develop, I'm sure there will be good ministry ahead. Certainly the fields are white for the harvest in all our neighborhoods . . . .

Lionel Deimel said...

It has not been widely recognized that the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh held title, through the Board of Trustees, to the St. Philip’s property. Had this not been the case, the resolution might have looked rather different (or not have been concluded at all).

Also, everyone is assuming that St. Philip’s accepted its separation from the Anglican diocese under duress. That is not at all obvious, and the church may well feel relieved to be independent. As I have said elsewhere, I would not be surprised to learn that the five-year separation was suggested by St. Philip’s. Because of confidentially, however, this can only be speculation.

Finally, I am happy that you have had strong friendships with the clergy now in the Anglican diocese. My experience was quite different, and the scheming and personal attacks on me by lay and clergy folks now in the Anglican diocese I have found less than endearing.

Bruce Robison said...


I don't have any knowledge about who suggested the disaffiliation. It has been an issue in other dioceses, though inconsistently: required of the parish in El Paso, not required of the parish in New Jersey. I would agree that the ministry at St. Philip's over many years has tended to be what I guess might be called "post-denominational," and it is probably the case that disaffiliation might be somewhat easier in a situation where affiliation was less emphasized in the first place. Eric is a compelling preacher and a creative and visionary leader, and St. Philip's has had a great ministry especially with children, youth, and families in that sprawling suburban area. I'm sure in any event that they've counted the bricks before beginning to build the tower, and that they will now be able to move forward with good energy into the future.


Peter said...

One conclusion to be easily drawn is that either St Philip's is totally focused on their mission and is practical and prompt, or that they just don't consider membership in ACNA that essential. I would guess both, since they appear to be a lot more Willow Creek than All Souls' London.

Regarding the larger issues of property with ACNA parishes in the diocese, it appears to me that the there is an element within the realigned group that seems to fall into something like a cult, and while they perhaps weren't fed kool-aid by their leader, they nonetheless engaged in risky behavior, if you would think that having a building and facilities is essential to ministry. But the Pittsburgh Episcopalians don't seem to be taking orders from 815, which is actually kind of ironic, because that is how it has basically always been, and could have been in the future. If the split had not happened, perhaps we would look like a South Carolina diocese right now. I am thankful that we're not, but cannot celebrate it, which (again, ironically) seems to be the mood everywhere in the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh.

Bruce Robison said...

Thanks, Peter. My own view is that there are obviously among those who "realigned out" of the Episcopal Church here in Pittsburgh a great many who feel a very strong sense of personal loyalty to and deep affection for Archbishop Duncan and one another. Understandable, I guess, given the longer narrative of the past decade or so.

I think, though, that the "cult" language is inaccurate, unfair, and counterproductive. Ultimately on both sides of this divide we need to pray that our good Lord will heal us of the uncharitable thoughts that have taken up residence in our hearts.

I agree that, as much as I so deeply regret the division of the diocese, it is hard to imagine what life would have been like had we not divided, and had the continuing tensions simply---well, "continued." I'm not sure that South Carolina is a perfect analogy, and in fact I'm not sure there is a perfect analogy. The fact that I have some deep concerns about where we are now doesn't mean that I have any idea that there is or even could have been a different way forward . . . .

Free Range Anglican said...

Thanks Bruce, for your fairness to both sides, as always. I agree with what David said, but I also greatly appreciate the window of understanding for the TEC "side" that you have given us by articulating your own thoughts so generously.
Those of us who left are grateful for Bishop Duncan's leadership; it is much better that we could leave together (would that we could have taken you all with us) than to drift off one by one. I, for one, wouldn't have stayed in TEC; for some time I was only waiting around in order not to betray a faithful bishop. For almost everyone who left, the issue was a matter of deep conscience, not cult behavior or concerns about property. I think you, Bruce, understand that, but perhaps some of your readers would benefit from hearing someone on this side of the chasm say it.

Philip Wainwright said...

It seems unlikely that disaffiliation would be suggested by St Philip's; they are quite capable of disaffiliating without having to pretend they were made to, and I think they are free to, under ACNA canons, in any case. And it's an obvious thing for PECUSA to suggest since it's been a part of similar settlements elsewhere for some years.

But wherever the suggestion came from, it shouldn't have been made in this case, in my opinion. If we were dealing with a parish currently in the Episcopal Church, it might make sense to ask them not to enter any new fellowship for a certain period, but to ask a parish to break Christian fellowship that it already has seems to me as big a slap in the face to the spirit of Christ's prayer in John 17 as the realignment itself. I wish we hadn't done it and I hope we don't do it again.

Lionel Deimel said...

All we know—and all we are going to find out from the Episcopal Diocese, apparently—is that both sides agreed to the terms. It is unfair to accuse our diocese of imposing harsh terms when you don’t know (1) that we imposed them and (2) that they are considered harsh. St. Philip’s gains a rather substantial financial benefit by not being part of the ACNA diocese. The church may have jumped at the chance to improve its bottom line while escaping criticism for doing so. If anyone knows of contrary facts, by all means disclose them. The diocese has declared that disaffiliation will not be a requirement in all agreements, and I have no reason to doubt that.