Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The Episcopal Church in the Balance

by the Rt. Rev. William E. Swing, Bishop of California
Monday, 10 April 2006

On my last visit to a congregation a member of the choir, with tears in her eyes, said to me: “My vicar retired, my bishop is going to retire, and the Episcopal Church has been kicked out of the Anglican Communion. That is more loss than I can handle.” Her genuine lament stays with me.

My short reply on the spot: “You’ll soon have a wonderful new priest, this time next year you all and the new bishop will be off on high adventure pursuing the mission of Jesus Christ, and the Episcopal Church is very much part of the Anglican Communion. You will be just fine.”

My longer reply with pen in hand: the large issues that are now hanging in the balance are (1) freedom in the Body of Christ, (2) accountability of Episcopal bishops to the Episcopal Church, and (3) the nature of church property. Let me explain.

I. Freedom in the Body of Christ

We would not be having the present turmoil around homosexuality if the Anglican Communion and the Episcopal Church did not have an elevated doctrine of freedom in the Body of Christ. Because we are caught up in the new creation that springs from Resurrection power, we are an expansive people. We have the freedom to disagree but stay together, freedom to discriminate and also welcome everyone, to live with contradictions. We even have the freedom to self-destruct and completely forfeit our freedom. If we had a magisterium or a final authority, we would not be this far into the turmoil. We are where we are because we allow the Holy Spirit to move us into the chaos as a precursor of a fresh order of a new creation.

I do believe that we are fighting over freedom, among other issues. One side says that we have moved from legitimate freedom to illegitimate license. The other side says that freedom has given us a new perspective on the worth of people, a perspective from which we cannot back down.

Therefore, there is a mad dash to create a worldwide final arbiter – a Windsor Report or an archbishop or instruments of unity – which would settle matters in a reasonable way, which would put an end to all of the mischief caused by freedom. The whole of the Anglican Communion is wrestling with this. I am a freedom man, but you know that.

II. Accountability of Episcopal Bishops to the Episcopal Church

When I was a young priest, I used to watch the old bishops wrestle over the current challenges of the day. Often they violently disagreed, but at the end of the day they were the House of Bishops. Not so now. There is a minority of bishops who will not receive Holy Communion with other bishops. They have litmus tests. “Were you in New Hampshire? Have you ordained a woman? “Whatever is the ultimate turn off, it is clear that this minority had created its own Mini-House of Bishops. It usually meets at the same time and a few miles away as the House of Bishops. And far, far beyond that they claim their legitimacy is based on keeping faith with the majority of the Anglican Communion and its Primates, not in its collegiality in the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church.

This has enormous consequences. If there are legitimate bishops who have no accountability to all of the bishops of the Episcopal Church, then we will have to come to a new accountability. Presently each bishop at his/her consecration promises that “I do solemnly engage to conform to the doctrine, disciple, and worship of the Episcopal Church.” Further when the question is asked of the new bishop, “Will you share with your fellow bishops in the government of the Whole Church,” the answer is, “I will by the grace given me.” Up to now, the Episcopal Church could depend on the word of its bishops to uphold its unity. But no longer.

Now the opposite is so clear. All of the dioceses that have threatened to leave are guided by bishops who have threatened to leave the Episcopal Church. No diocese with a loyal bishop has threatened to leave. It is the bishop who is the key. If the Episcopal Church cannot depend on bishops to keep vows and the unity of the Church, then there has to be a new accountability, and we suffer in the birth pangs of this reality. Do the shepherds lead the sheep into the fold or out of the fold?

III. The Nature of Church Property

As you probably know, a group known as the American Anglican Council has morphed into the Anglican Communion Network. They have a plan to carry out a realignment of Anglicanism on North American soil whereby they would replace the Episcopal Church as the sole Anglican presence in North America. They have an elaborate scheme for proselytizing, transferring oversight of congregations, and redirecting funds of the local congregation. And negotiating “property settlements affirming the retention of ownership in the local congregation!” Ah, here is the final rub! “Who gets the house in the divorce?”

Well, the Anglican Communion Network held a conference in Pittsburgh in November, and the great man of the movement, Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria, had these surprising words to say to the faithful. “They (the Episcopal Church) may get the building, but you will get the blessing. What God is looking for is your faith, not your facility.”

Here is an African who is a supreme missionary. He calls people into pilgrimage. Leave everything behind and follow. God will provide. This is not good news to the Network strategists. They want to stay home and live in our buildings. Think hostile takeover, and you get the picture of these folks, who pledged to “carry out guerrilla warfare against the Episcopal Church.” They talk pilgrimage; they intend mutiny.

If folks are so horrified with the election in New Hampshire that they leave the Episcopal Church, I understand. It is a matter of principle. If folks want to use the events in such a way as to catapult themselves into elevated authority, then I think it is a matter of power. The property issue tells the tale. This fight is about power, not principle.

The Diocese of Pittsburgh adopted a policy of releasing diocesan control of property to any congregation which sought to disaffiliate with the diocese. In the Diocese of Florida a representative of five parishes leaving the diocese proposed that these parishes keep their properties. In the Diocese of Los Angeles, an Orange County Superior judge ruled that two breakaway parishes were the rightful owners of their church buildings and other property. You see, if the parish holds title to property as an implied and express trust on behalf of the diocese, then we all stay together. (All parishes except one in the Diocese of California have signed articles of incorporation stating exactly that.) But if the Network is successful in farming out the properties to local congregations, then if a split happens, they can harvest the properties in their new alignment.

In Conclusion

I have been ordained for forty-five years, and during that time the Episcopal Church has navigated through the storms of black civil rights, prayer book revision, women’s ordination, and same-sex issues. Presently we are in deep and troubled waters over the national takeover plan of the Network, with the international cooperation to shun, discredit, and by-pass the Episcopal Church. Trusting in the Holy Spirit, I am totally convinced that we will endure and thrive as we always do. And we will take on harder challenges in the next forty-five years.

I do believe that the Episcopal Church is a brave, supple, obedient part of the Body of Christ and is alive to the Incarnation in the 21st century, as well as centuries past and centuries to come.

We are not everything or necessarily the best thing. But we are uniquely created by the Spirit to do the will of God as we see that will beckoning to us. We will not always be pleasing to the world or to ourselves or to other Anglicans. But we do try through song and conscience, praise and action to please the One God of all and to embrace all the children of God and all of God’s creation.


Chip Webb said...

"The property issue tells the tale. This fight is about power, not principle."

It isn't that simple, Bishop Swing. Let's say that your parishioners have poured thousands, no, millions of dollars into a new church building over the last decade. Or let's say that you're a leader of a small parish whose members have paid the finances necessary just to keep an old building from falling apart.

I myself agree with Peter Akinola's comment in general, but put yourself in the position of a rector who has seen parishioners give their hard-earned income for building and/or ministry expansion ... or even just upkeep. You're really going to try to tell me that this is just about power??? Faithful Christians have invested their time and money, not to mention (sometimes) sweat into these parishes.

So let's please stop hearing this "it's all about power" line. Rectors and people of the ACN are not necessarily being greedy or selfish, much less lusting after power. They may indeed have to give up their property, as Akinola says. But trying to do what they can to keep property is not, in and of itself, "mutinous" or "a hostile takeover."

(For what it's worth, I do have problems with anyone -- whether at the national level, diocesan level, or parish level -- who moves to sue those at another level over property. I do not believe that 1 Corinthians 6 allows us to go that far. But that's different from simply making every legitimate effort to keep your property.)

Peace of Christ,

Anonymous said...

I hope that those dissident bishops have presentment charges brought against them as soon as possible.

Anonymous said...

I will say this much. If we do get kicked out of the Anglican Communion due to the selfishness of Integrity, Oasis, and other left wing fundamental groups, the property will no longer belong to the Episcopal Church. You guys will not have a leg to stand on. So I would suggest to abide by the Windsor Report and get your butt in line.

Anonymous said...

Chip has said it exactly right. Many faithful followers of Christ have made impressive sacrifices, from multi-million dollar bequests to widow's mites, to sustain and build up the Episcopal Church's embodiment and institution of Christ's "ekklesia" in their communities as well as in the rest of ECUSA. Such people are standing up for faith, not power.


chip -- on "property" just for the sake of argument, what about the generations of donors and "endowers" who went before and left their bequests in trust for the Episcopal Church -- not the Anglican Diocese of Uganda? And when it really comes down to it, isn't money the outward and visible sign of who HAS the power?

rmf -- methinks they wouldn't be given anywhere near such latitude by the "orthodox" cohort

anonymous -- thank you for your thoughtful and well reasoned comment. While clearly one could offer the same high level of argumentation indicting the neo-con literalists for selfishly hijacking the mission and ministry of the Episcopal Church in the service of their narrow ideological and political agenda as it's Holy Week I'm going to suggest we pass.

Anonymous said...

In all reality, if there is a division, there is no way ECUSA could afford to keep all of the properties of those parishes that would leave. Rather than fighting the "power" issue as the bishop states, it would be the Christian thing to do for ECUSA to find a way to allow them to keep their property. The National Church would end up having to sell the majority of the buildings anyway. If this wasn't a power struggle, I would think ECUSA would want someone in there worshiping the Lord, regardless of the fact that they had decided that they couldn't do it in the confines of ECUSA.
I agree that there may be a struggle for power- I just think he's identified the wrong group looking for it.

Anonymous said...

Well, I don't see any use of trying to change Christianity to fit YOUR particular needs. Isn't what this is all about?

Anonymous said...

Rev. Susan,
Nearly ALL of those "endowers" left their bequests to a church that did not (1) bless gay marriages or (2) consecrate non-celibate gay bishops.

Why is it that you cannot see that you all are the ones creating something new? The generations that came before created trusts for something very, very different than what you espouse.


And some of them left bequests to a church that supported segregation and didn't ordain women. The idea that the Holy Spirit of God quit revealing her will in the prior generation is, I believe, more heretical than continuing to follow the Spirit into a future where all of the baptized are truly fully included in the Body of Christ.

Anonymous said...

Rev. Susan,

First, you were the one who made a reference to what the "endowers" wanted, and suggested that they didn't want their bequests going to the Ugandan Church. Which is it? That it matters what the "endowers" wanted, or that it doesn't?

Second, how do you know this is what the Holy Spirit has revealed? How do you know that it isn't just what you want to hear?

Do you understand how those who haven't heard the same thing from the Holy Spirit want a little more info about how/why some got this revelation and some have not?

Anonymous said...

Rev. Susan- I am going to go with the thought that it was a mistype when you said "the Holy Spirit of God quit revealing HER will.." rather than a purposeful use of a pronoun. Since when did the Scriptures ever refer to the Holy Spirit in the feminine tense?

Anonymous said...

Good Heavens, has this bishop forgotten about the laity? It is the laity who hold the purse for this church - and for the local parish and it is the laity that make up the Anglican Communion Network. He seems to be totally ignorant - this is a movement of the laity. You pick on the Network, you pick on us. It is the laity who is speaking in regards to the property, not some feudalistic lords sitting in their ivory towers in San Francisco and Washington DC (Nobb Hill and St. Alban's). On one hand he hails our freedom, on the other hand he uses the "royal we" in regards to what he call "our" property. It's God's property and we are the stewards of that property. We hold the purse, not the clergy, not the bishops, not even the Episcopal Church. It is the People, the parish, the people who pay the bills and mow the grass - not some clerics who think they are kings.

Such hypocrisy. It's not about homosexuality - it's about hypocricy. Go ahead and throw your stones at Archbishop Akinola. But the laity is the one speaking and not some purple or black shirts or white collars. The real revolution in the Episcopal Church is the empowerment of the priesthood of all believers. I don't think Bishop Swing gets it.

See you in Columbus.


Anonymous said...

WOW! Thank you Babyblue!

Anonymous said...

Point of clarification these words were spoken by Rick Warren, another great man, but not Archbishop Akinola.“They (the Episcopal Church) may get the building, but you will get the blessing. What God is looking for is your faith, not your facility.”

Outside of the fact that this article is self contradictory, I thought the least it could do is get the facts right.


Laura ... presuming that the Holy Spirit is indeed genderless and given the limitations of our English language when one must default to pronouns for describing the Third Person of the Trinity alternating between the male and female acheives a good balance. (As for "scriptural warrant" there's the Hebrew word for Spirit to fall back on -- Ruach.

Anonymous said...

Amazing, Anon - Swing completely screws up by pointing fingers at Archbishop Akinola for the comment "They (the Episcopal Church) may get the building, but you will get the blessing. What God is looking for is your faith, not your facility." And it turns out it's Californian and author of the Purpose Driven Life, Rick Warren (who was also at the Pittsburgh meeting attended by thousands of Episcopal laity). Wonder when Swing will issue his clarification?

Amazing all this stone-throwing at Akinola. Wonder what he'll be blamed for tomorrow?

Well done, Anon!

Anonymous said...

Oh a lunatic fringe mutual admiration society developing between bb and anon. Isn't it cute!

Anonymous said...

Well, Laine, when the wingnuts start coming in out of far right field, that happens.

Chip Webb said...

Rev. Susan,

You bring up a good point, and it further illustrates what I'm saying: This whole thing is terribly messy and not as simple as Bishop Swing makes it out to be. My point is not to go around charging orthodox priests and bishops of "mutiny" and other slanderous accusations. They have larger concerns, as do you.

The church truly needs God to grant Solomonic wisdom to deal with the competing interests of all who have contributed time, money, and a myriad of resources to the church.

In an ideal situation, we would not be facing any of this. But given the times, rectors and bishops have to be concerned with the property to which their parishioners have devoted much prayer, financial resources, work, etc. They may still need to follow Rick Warren's advice and give up the property. But such concern is not wrong; it's part of being a shepherd.

Peace of Christ,