Tuesday, December 9, 2008

George Clifford's New Piece

“This is simply a reminder that what we are called to is not our stuff. This is a cleansing by fire.”
- Brother Joseph Brown, one of seven Benedictine Anglican monks who lived at Mount Calvary Monastery in Montecito, which was destroyed by fires that swept through southern California (New York Times, November 19)

I wonder how many Christians really understand Brother Joseph’s remark?

My recent essay at the Episcopal Café, “An Alternative Province? Why Not?” sparked a surprisingly large and disappointing response , leaving me pessimistic about the number who understood Brother Joseph’s comment. The response to my essay was surprising in that a couple of conservative websites republished the post suggesting their approval. I had not expected conservatives to find my perspective agreeable. Let me be clear. Those leaving the Episcopal Church (like those remaining) are equally wrong to pursue property issues in the courts. Indeed, departing dissidents should honor the branch of Christendom that heretofore has nurtured them in the faith and depart by respecting a polity that assigns moral (and arguably legal) ownership of property and other assets to the national church through its dioceses. Individuals are free to depart; Church canons provide no mechanism for a parish or diocese to depart, as these are integral elements of the national body. Attempting to secede violates the trust that binds us together as God's family.

Those departing need to remember that even as their views about gender determining eligibility for ordination or the morality of same sex relationships do not put them outside the pale of the body of Christ, the converse is also true: those with whom they disagree remain part of the body of Christ. None of those issues, no matter how passionate or strong one’s views are, is a litmus test or definition of Christian identity.

Funds given to the Church are just that, given. That is, monies once donated become the Church’s property. Who contributed the money or other assets is irrelevant in Anglican polity. Once received, the resources belong to the Church for use in God's work, a truth symbolized in terming donations received in worship “offerings” and the priest blessing them.

Frittering away precious resources in a physically and spiritually starving world is equally scandalous, whether the Church or dissidents pay the legal bills. My local newspaper’s front page this morning featured two stories that nearly brought me to tears: a teenaged Eagle Scout allegedly murdered by four friends and the Zimbabwean cholera outbreak. Court battles over who owns what Church property provides no hope in either situation. Nor will court battles, regardless of who prevails, change anyone’s views about the issues that divide us. Courts and lawyers are important instruments of social justice; however, the scriptures exhort Christians to resolve their disputes without litigation.

The Presiding Bishop has helpfully observed that departures number only about one hundred thousand in a Church of twenty-three hundred thousand. Those leaving are a small percentage of the whole Church and their exit in no way threatens the Episcopal Church’s existence or vitality. Furthermore, the Archbishop of Canterbury has emphatically clarified that those who have left, should they wish to become an Anglican province, must comply with all established procedures for achieving that status, a process requiring years. In sum, the remarks of the Most Reverends Jefferts Schori and Williams suggest that the Episcopal Church should focus on its ministry and mission rather than devoting substantial and unwarranted time and energy to the sad but inevitable departure of the unhappy and bigoted few.

Normally, an author feels gratified when his or her writing attracts considerable attention. Yet the obvious depth of attachment, both among those departing and those remaining in the Episcopal Church, to property and other assets disappointed me. Material resources are important. However, my experience and observation is that human commitment and vision, not lack of material resources, are the real limits on Church ministry and mission. People, within and without the Church, respond enthusiastically and generously when afforded meaningful opportunities to engage in life-giving ministry and mission.

The relative handful of those leaving with their mutually incompatible theologies, to their dismay, has not caused the Episcopal Church’s numerical decline over the last fifty years. Part of the real explanation for that decline is that a Church caricatured as the party of the wealthy and powerful at prayer should expect inner conflict and pain when it strives to incarnate more fully God's inclusive love that transcends wealth, race, gender orientation, ethnicity, etc. Part of the explanation is also that we Episcopalians have focused on internal issues and institutional maintenance (conventions trying to legislate theology and ethics; attempting to preserve an aging, poorly located physical plant; perpetuating once useful activities that no longer serve today’s needs; etc.) rather than ministry and mission.

Perhaps, God has a badly needed message for us in the sad departure of our more narrow-minded brothers and sisters, a poignant reminder to prioritize ministry and mission ahead of institutional maintenance. Like the monks of Mount St. Calvary whose hospitality and ministry I have enjoyed and cherished, all parties in the current controversies can benefit from a painful and costly lesson in keeping one’s priorities correctly ordered. The monks will continue to serve, moving in the direction they sense God leading. The Episcopal Church should do the same, declaring the truth about property ownership but prepared to exercise costly grace in our actions rather than to compromise our priorities. Now is the time, the season, for us in the Episcopal Church to respond to God's vision for us, God's calling, to incarnate Christ's inclusive, life-giving love for all, at home and abroad. To do otherwise has intangible costs that far exceed the dollar value of any disputed assets.

The Rev. George Clifford, Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years He taught philosophy at the U. S. Naval Academy and ethics at the Postgraduate School. He blogs at Ethical Musings.


Kevin M said...

In some ways, I'm not totally unsympathetic with your views about a new "province;" however, I do have some questions about property.

I agree that those departing should recognize that the property belongs ultimately to the Episcopal Church. If I were a bishop, I might be inclined to allow the departing congregation use of the facility for a reasonable rent, with primary use being held by the remaining members. Then after a time, if an Episcopal congregation cannot be sustained, I'd be willing to let the former members buy the property. However, what if the departing members aren't willing to agree to such terms and insist on claiming ownership? Should TEC simply concede?

Also, I don't think this has to do with merely an attachment to property so much as other issues. Frankly, from what I've seen and from what I've heard from certain leaders of those departing, I really question their intentions. They don't seem to want to just be left alone to do their own thing, nor do they seem to want just a parallel province. Frankly, certain statements seem to indicate that ultimately they want to be THE Anglican presence in North America and to have ALL the property.

How do you continue negotiate with someone when all previous attempts at negotiation and compromise have led to further demands and clearly indicate a lack of good faith?

Please tell me I'm wrong in all of this, but I'm not extending my hand to them again until I'm convinced they're not going to chop it off.


George Clifford said...

Renting or selling property to dissidents are great options - if those departing recognize that the Episcopal Church is the rightful owner. If not, then what? My point is that we must be faithful to God first and foremost. This includes being good stewards (the cost of lawsuits is always substantial, consuming funds that otherwise could be used for mission), gracious (emulating Christ's costly love not always insisting on our way), truthful (giving not begrudgingly ceding), and loving (honoring family ties even when prodigal sons/daughters refuse to do so). This way of life is not always easy or pleasant, but it is the path that Christ beckons us to follow.

Kevin M said...

Oooookay, in a nutshell, the Episcopal Church should let them steal the property?

fatherjones.com said...

George, in this piece I think you have said it very well - and especially your final paragraph, about the need for the truth of ownership, AND, the cost of grace.

God GAVE HIS ONLY SON - a statement of ownership and gracious self-giving, if ever there was one.

Kevin M said...

Yes, very nice words, but they dance around the question at hand.

If the departing members of a parish (or even a diocese) continue to insist on their ownership of the property and refuse any generous offers for renting or buying, what then is the appropriate response?

Are you advocating that they be allowed to walk away with the property? Would that not encourage them and others to attempt further actions? One doesn't have to punch the bully in the nose, but standing up in some way does send a clear message to him and others that such behavior in unacceptable.

fatherjones.com said...


I think the model would be one of noncoerciveness. There have been cases whereby bishops have come to settlements with breakaways, that included a sale for property. The sale of course establishes the truth - the ownership by TEC of the property - but also allows for it to be dealt with appropriately.

The simple fact is that the decision has been made to pursue a vigorous non-settlement approach involving massive legal expenditures and the courts.

In the Virginia case, spokespersons for TEC have said it would be preferable to sell these properties to anybody but the breakaway entities.

In cases where settlements were under way, the decision to change course via the courts has been made.

Sadly, the Virginia case will likely go to the Supreme Court, because as it stands in Virginia, the statutes there, however ill designed and applied, favor the breakaways. I believe Virginia should have made a deal, sold the properties, saved the legal fees, and used the moneys for mission.

Kevin M said...

Again, my question hasn't been answered. Yes, some bishops have reached reasonable settlements. (Wonderful for them) Yes, the national church has now started taking a hard line (appropriately so, imo) in the Virginia case.

My question has to do with neither of those. In cases where the breakaway parishes (or rather breakaway members) have refused to leave or to settle, what then do you propose to be the appropriate response?

As for the Virginia case, has the bishop or other diocesan leadership said why they went along with 815's desire not to settle? It seems to me that they didn't exactly have a gun to their heads in this, nor have I heard of any statements that the diocese is going along with it against their will. I keep hearing the line about them going to court under pressure from 815, but something's missing. It doesn't make sense that they'd simply go along with 815 without some other reason. (Personally, I question just how much "good faith" there was on the part of those departing.)

We tried accommodating them for years, and all it got us were more and more unreasonable demands. They'd call for something they knew couldn't be given and then cried about how they were being oppressed. I, for one, am tired of it.

If I were a bishop, God forbid, and had to deal with them, I might have been willing to work with them, perhaps allow for a nominal rent and sub-market selling price. Now, I'd simply make them the flat offer of the market rate, and if they refused, I'd have a locksmith standing by at the church ready to change the locks. When you're dealing with unreasonable people (or those being backed by unreasonable people), you have to take a hard line. They don't want negotiation. They don't want accommodation, and they don't want space to do their own thing as long as the rest of us have space. That's what we're dealing with. I wish it hadn't come to this, but they've been trying for a long time to undermine this church in every way possible, and the time for it to end is now.

Tobias Haller said...

Dear Fr Greg, off topic, but I do want you to know I appreciate your reflections (and others posted here) and that I've dubbed you a Serious Scribbler, passing along the award. Do with it as you will! Blessed Christmas...