Sunday, February 17, 2008

Remaining Episcopalians?

Last November, the Diocese of Fort Worth voted to amend the diocesan constitution, removing reference to the Episcopal Church, to allow itself to realign with another province of the Anglican Communion. The Anglican Province of the Southern Cone (in South America) has extended an invitation to dioceses in the United States and Canada to seek safe harbor under its jurisdiction. These constitutional changes will need to be ratified at the next annual convention to take effect.

Now that we are in the midst of this year of discernment, our Rector has invited guests to speak at St Alban's to help us better understand some of the issues involved. Fr Fred Barber of Trinity Episcopal Church in Fort Worth spoke at our first forum on 17 February in favor of remaining with the Episcopal Church. You may click here to listen. Canon Charles Hough and Fr Thomas Hightower will speak at our forum next week in favor of realignment.

Fr Barber made a number of handouts available at his presentation. Two of them not available online are printed below: "Remain and Witness" and a "Presentation on Vestry." Copies of his parish newsletter article "The Way to the Father: The Word" were also available. You can read that article here. I have a commentary on it here. Fr Barber also made reference to Bishop Iker's speech to the Forward in Faith assembly last year in London. You can listen here or read the text here. Fr Barber also has a response to questions from St Stephen's available online here.

Remain and Witness
I was invited by the president of the standing committee to write a response to the slide show presented at the May 16, 2002 meeting of the Executive Council. This paper attempts to present some of the reasons for our diocese to remain within the Episcopal Church. I believe one option that was not mentioned in the slide show presentation was "remain and witness".

1. A Conservative Pole
The model for most protestant churches in their proclamation of the gospel is to search for the most perfect expression of the gospel, and to reject all others. This leads to a model of the church that has historically been expressed as the "rule or way of the saints." You search for truth, and you reject those who disagree with your understanding of that truth. From its beginnings the Anglican Church adapted another model. In the Elizabethan compromise, Queen Elizabeth I aimed for a broad church that would include as many of her subjects as possible. On the one side were the Presbyterian puritans, and on the other side were the high church Anglicans. Gospel truth was not something to be pinpointed, but something that was found in the church as a whole. Agreement on all subjects was not required.

It was not a perfect system, but it worked in the Anglican family of Churches. While other church families split and divided, the Anglican Church remained united. Even with the breakup of the British Empire, the flexible model of the broad church that did not agree on everything, but was united in their commitment to the gospel, helped the Anglican Church to remain united.

Over the past several hundred years the church has disagreed about church government, the power of Primatial oversight, slavery, segregation, and women's ordination (to name only a few). In the tradition of the Anglican Church we have not forced a solution, but we have lived with ambiguity until we reached some agreement or accommodation. The broad church model worked.

Today we are faced with some new and vexing problems. Should practicing gay persons who intend to remain in that lifestyle be ordained as bishops? Should the church change its understanding of marriage and allow same sex marriages? And the issue of the validity of women as priests is still questioned in some parts of the church (including our diocese).

The diocese of Fort Worth takes a conservative and traditional stand on each of the questions mentioned in the preceding paragraph. It affirms that gay people who continue a gay lifestyle are not fit candidates for the Episcopacy (or the priesthood). It affirms that marriage is a sacrament where God blesses the partnership of a man and a woman. It affirms that the priesthood and episcopacy is reserved for males.

In the current debate in our diocese, other bishops and authorities in the larger Episcopal Church are quoted making extremely liberal statements on these subjects. These quotes were part of the May 16th slide show. No doubt those quotes are accurate. There is a left wing in our church that sees these subjects not so much as theological issues, but as human rights issues. These voices echo the current political arguments that no one should be denied any office because of their gender or sexual orientation. They seem to forget that we are an institution that derives its laws and teachings from God, and not from a political state.

But the fact is, that these extreme examples do not represent the mind or the thought of the broader Episcopal Church. The vast majority of the people of the Episcopal Church have their thoughts and beliefs somewhere between the Diocese of Fort Worth and the Diocese of New Hampshire. Looking to the past, Elizabeth I knew that most of her people were neither Puritans not Anglo-Catholic high churchmen. She also knew that it was important to try and maintain both extreme poles, so that the vast middle could learn, choose, and flourish.

Our diocese seems to be heading for a separation from the Episcopal Church. We want to remove ourselves as part of the conservative pole of the Episcopal Church. It seems to me that this is an unwise move. If we pull out seeking to be a church that wants "pure truth" in these issues, then we will cause an imbalance in the Episcopal Church that we leave. The liberal wing will become more powerful, and it will be increasingly difficult for moderates and conservatives to remain in the Episcopal Church. The reader may say "so what", or "it serves them right". I would remind you that these people are your brothers and sisters in Christ. You have a responsibility toward them and toward their spiritual health. Sometimes we are called to an uncomfortable witness. Sometimes we are called to be a "burr in the saddle" making the larger church uncomfortable by our presence and our witness. I believe we have a responsibility to ask ourselves, why has God put us in this uncomfortable position with the national church. Is it his will for us to break off and run away to people who it seems we would be more comfortable? Or, is it his will for us to bear the "slings and arrows" and witness to what we see as the gospel truth. It has been my experience that God rarely calls us to be more comfortable, but often calls us to be uncomfortable witnesses.

2. Where are we going?
It seems inviting to leave the Episcopal Church and join a group of churches that seem to share our beliefs. It is true that they do share our beliefs about the ordination of homosexual persons who continue to follow the gay lifestyle, and the necessity of marriage being between a man and a woman. But there are other things that are necessary if people are to live together over the longer term.

We are part of the Episcopal Church in the United States of America, and our form of Anglican government is rather unique. We began in rebellion, and many of the ideas of individualism remain strong. For example, as the Bishop of the Diocese of Dallas pointed out when he withdrew his request for alternate Episcopal oversight, there is really no such thing in the American Church. We do not have an Archbishop whose power arches over those of diocesan bishops. Rather we have a presiding bishop whose limited power comes from being the presiding officer of the house of bishops. Our PB has no power to order. The National Church has power to request, but rarely to insist. I think we are assuming that any new alliance would be like our old one. Would that be the case? If we submit to an Archbishop, would we not have to understand that we have put ourselves under another form of the Anglican Church? In the past years we have ignored the financial asking of the National Church. We have given the Network less than what they requested. We have simply turned a cold shoulder to the presiding bishop. We have withdrawn from the province. Our American polity gives us the power to do these things. Will the polity of some other Anglican body with which we ally give us such freedom? Personally, I doubt it.

We should realize that our form of Anglican government is greatly influenced by our social history. We are a nation where states have individual power, and we created a church where individual dioceses have great power. If, for example, we ally ourselves with the Archbishop of Nigeria, then we should understand that we will be allying ourselves with a church that has been greatly influenced by a tribal understanding of society. The chief and his clan have great power over other clans and other people. I think it especially unlikely that we would enjoy the same freedom as a diocese under a church centered in Africa. Let me say that this is not to say that our form of Anglican Church government is good, and theirs is bad. It is simply to say that they are different, and we ought to be aware of those differences before we make new alliances.

3. Precedence
If we withdraw from the Episcopal Church, we will not only be taking an action, we will be setting precedent. In the American church experience one of the most common ways to solve a problem is for a church body to split. If a church conies to a difference of opinion about a matter of doctrine, a matter of church government, or a matter of worship, it is a common practice in the American Church experience for a congregation or a whole denomination to split and go their separate ways. This has not been the Anglican way in America. We have remained united though we had great disagreements about worship, theology, and social causes.

I would argue, that when a church solves a problem by dividing, then it sets a precedent that comes back to haunt them. If one past problem was effectively solved by schism, then why not use this to solve the problem that seems so important for us today? We divide today from the Episcopal Church to solve our disagreements over sexuality, in ten years other problems that we have put on the back burner will come back to the fore. None of the proposed future alliances involve agreement on the ordination of women. There is much disagreement about the use of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. All the questions about sexuality have not been addressed. How will we face these problems in our new Anglican setting? Will these problems, when they are faced, block a union? Will such disagreements lead to the eventual demise of our new union when groups exercise the set precedent of division and withdrawal to solve a disagreement.

4. How comfortable will we be in our new Anglican setting?
We are uncomfortable in the Episcopal Church; it is too liberal. But as I proposed, perhaps God is calling us to be uncomfortable and witness where we are.

How comfortable will we be in our new setting? Bishop Duncan advocates a church centered in Africa, probably Nigeria, and probably under the leadership of the Archbishop Akinola. He is an evangelical; we are largely Anglo-Catholics. He works with what most people would consider a dictator; we enjoy the blessings of a republic. We believe in the separation of religion and State; that is not a concept that is generally understood in Nigeria. He is a man used to exercising power over his bishops, we are a church that is not used to having our bishops ordered around. His ideas concerning sexuality and the right of gay people go far beyond the stand we want to take regarding gay marriage and ordination.

Are we really going to be comfortable in this relationship that is advocated by Bishop Duncan? Is this an Anglican marriage that is going to work? Will we find ourselves in the midst of another separation in ten years? Would we be able to separate, or would we be trapped in a bad marriage?

This past year, after hearing Bishop Duncan at Camp Crucis, I decided that I would remain a priest in the Episcopal Church. I am not happy with the liberal bent that the church has taken over the last years, but I believe I can be a small piece of leaven; I believe I can be a witness for the more traditional side. I believe that other traditional dioceses like Texas (and probably Dallas) will make the choice that I have made. There will be a conservative wing in the Episcopal Church. Many Episcopalians will regard us as a "burr in the saddle"; we will see ourselves more positively as "leaven in the dough". I believe the diocese of Fort Worth should consider remaining a part of the Episcopal Church and adding her voice to the Traditional dioceses who will also remain.

Presentation on Vestry
First, I feel that you should know that I am by no means an expert on Canon Law, and my observations about vestries and their prerogatives come more from my experience than my the study of Canons. On the other hand, I have been a rector for the past 30 years in small, medium, and medium-large parishes.

First a bit of background in our Church: The Anglican Church first came to these shores in Virginia. The colonial period of our church marked a time when Vestries were very much in the dominance. Clergy were often hired without tenure, and there was no Bishop in the American Colonial Church.

After the Revolution, the American Church began to organize in Philadelphia. The constitution of the American Church was written at about the same time as the federal constitution, and with some of the same men and ideas behind it. Perhaps foremost among these ideas was the concept of "checks and balances". The early Episcopal Churchmen were leery about a bishop (even an American one) having too much power. Likewise, the powers of the incumbent Rector in a parish were to be weighed off by a lay authority. In the diocese this check to the bishop was the Standing Committee, in the local parish the check to the Rector was the vestry. Each of these committees was given specific powers, and the clergy were also given specific powers. It was the hope of the founders of the church that these powers would hold each other in check. The object was not paralysis, but a growth and prosperity that came through cooperation.

There have been times in our church when clergy were in the ascendancy, and there have been times of lay dominance. However, in each of these times there was always a way back to balance by remembering the constitutional nature of our church towards checks and balances.

Now let me be more specific and try to share with you some of my own experiences. There have been situations in my ministry, when things were calm both on the diocesan and parish level. At such times, the vestry election attracts little attention. As a matter of fact, it is often difficult to find five people who will stand for election. I can remember years in my ministry when the vestry nominating committee would report out a slate, and they would be elected in the first few minutes of the annual meeting.

We do not live in such times today. There is an election to the vestry for a reason: It is the way that the congregation chooses their leaders. In times of great controversy, such as we live in today, it is a bad practice for there not to be an election. I know that elections make the annual meeting much more difficult, but each congregation ought to have the opportunity to make an honest choice among the membership to lead the congregation. Trinity has had contested elections for the past four years. We have had persons that are known to be liberal, and persons known to be conservative. The congregation has chosen. Who can argue with that? Some may say that this will cause strife and difficulty in the congregation. I do not think so. On the contrary, I think you will have more strife and loose more people if you are seen as a church that will not tolerate discussion and opposition. Our church has taken a pro-national church stand over the past several years, but we have not lost several members who are staunchly in the Network corner. Why? Because they value the fact that they are not only welcomed, but asked to take part in the ongoing life of the church in all its parts . . . spiritual, social, and political.

So the first thing that I would hold out as important is the parish vestry election. If you feel that your congregation should be going in another direction, then stand for vestry. Write a letter to your Rector, Wardens and vestry and ask to be nominated. If that doesn't happen, have your name put forward from the floor. If you win, be ready to not only state your beliefs, but also be willing to listen to the beliefs of others with an open mind. Remember, you could be wrong. If you are not elected, give thanks that you are part of a church that allows dissent, and work to support that congregation. Churches: be courageous enough to make the election open. In the long run, it will be a binding force for your church, not a divisive one.

We are not a church where the clergy can ignore the wishes and directives of the vestry. The vestry holds the purse, and "the vestry shall be agents and legal representatives of the Parish in all matters concerning its corporate property and the relations of the Parish to its clergy." Canon law is designed to encourage the rector and the vestry to work together. The only way they can get things done is to combine their powers. Sometimes however, a vestry will completely dominate a clergyman and put pressure on him to do the will of the vestry. At other times the clergy will have their own people on the vestry and run the church as a dictator. Neither of these is the way our church is designed to work. When one side becomes too powerful, the church becomes twisted. In vestry domination the spiritual side may neglect for business sake, on the other hand the dominant clergy often turns the church into his private fiefdom.

Clergy need to stimulate and bring forth gifted, thinking laypeople who will assume roles of leadership. They should not work to simply produce lay version of themselves. Vestries need to encourage their clergy to work in new ministries and give honest and vital leadership. When either of these sides fail to nourish the other, then the neglected side must begin to nourish itself. There have been many times in the past when gifted laypersons rose up out of the congregation much as the judges of old rose up out of the people of Israel. It should be regarded as no less a gift from God. Remember that God can raise up and call lay leaders, just as he calls clergy.

At the Annual meeting of my parish this past January, I told the congregation that it was my intention to remain a priest in the Episcopal Church. I also made it clear that this was a personal decision, and that I had no right . . . and no intention . . . of making that same decision for the parish. That must be their choice, as reflected through the vestry.

The vestry, of its own accord, has stood up as a voice for unity with both the Episcopal Church and the diocese of Fort Worth. They have expressed on several occasions their hope to remain under the care of both the presiding Bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, and the bishop of our diocese, Jack Leo Iker. When I have written to the bishop about the vestry's action, I have been careful to point out that this is the decision and action of the vestry. There have been times when I have been in disagreement with some actions of the vestry. These are not personal defeats on my part. These are simply times when the vestry part of the church, and the clergy part of the church were not in full agreement. It happens between the branches of our federal government, it happens in marriages. It is human. The clergy and the Vestry do not always have to be in agreement for there to be a beneficial and spirited mutual ministry.

It is not wrong for the vestry to disagree with me, or for me to disagree with the vestry. It is wrong when we stop listening to one another.

When there is strong clergy leadership, and strong leadership from the Vestry, when the vestry is ready to listen to the clergy, and the clergy to the vestry, when neither side is working to completely dominate the other . . . then there is the possibility of real harmony and a good working relationship.

Dominated people loose their drive and don't share their ideas. Dominated clergy don't offer the best of pastoral care or spiritual insight. Dominating people (vestry or clergy) can easily become egotistical, and listen to no one. This is not the way to harmony and a good working relationship.
One of the great gifts that we have in the American Church is this idea of working together . . . checks and balances . . . each side encouraging the growth and development of the other side. It is not so in many other parts of the Anglican Communion. Here lay people and their opinions are valued. Laypersons are often given jobs of responsibility that would be given only to clergy in other cultures. We should remember that is not the Episcopal Way to either dominate, or be dominated. It is the Episcopal way to cooperate . . . lay and clergy; priest and deacon, bishop with both his clergy and laypeople.


Sue Seibert said...

How well was Fr. Barber received? Humm...our parish has discerned. We're outta there as soon as we vote, we hope!

Fr Timothy Matkin said...

Well, I think most everyone was appreciative to have him there and to hear what he had to say. I'm sure most people have their minds made up about the related issues, and that was apparent. But I think the goal here was understanding, more than anything.