The current unpleasantness among Episcopalians and other American Anglicans who were Episcopalians until fairly recently is beginning to reach the stage in which the primary bone of contention is property—bricks and mortar, books and chairs, cash and stocks—and the primary venue of the struggle is the civil courtroom. It’s a crying shame, and I am engaging in neither metaphor nor hyperbole when I say that.
Of course, a handful of congregations formerly of the Diocese of San Diego are also being sued, as well as some eleven parishes that broke away from the Diocese of Virginia. The leadership of the Episcopal Church is apparently willing to open the coffers, raid the reserves, and even, according to one report that I have not substantiated, dip into the Church Pension Fund (lowering my eventual pension, perhaps?), in order to finance its legal assault on the steady stream of departing parishes. And one suspects that they will take a dim view of any negotiated settlements that Bishops and Standing Committees may reach with such congregations. After all, important principles are at stake here—principles that clearly trump anything as trivial as common sense, let alone Christian charity.
Though, at a purely visceral level, the sympathies of my heart lie with those who will feel today’s decision as a loss—albeit, perhaps, a temporary one—I don’t actually have a dog directly in this hunt, and it is not my intent here to pontificate on the legal wisdom of the ruling, having surrendered my undoubtedly promising law career in order to major in music nearly 38 years ago as a college freshmen. The whole mess does vex me sorely, however, not simply on its own merits, but for what it says about the way we behave toward one another in the Body of which Christ is the head and all baptized persons are members.
It never ceases to both amaze and frustrate me that the atmosphere is so thoroughly adversarial that we are all starting to believe our own propaganda. Both major “sides” in this struggle have become so polarized that they hear their own hype and mistake it for the unvarnished truth. We have become so guarded in our dealings with our opponents, for fear of being exploited, that we have made ourselves the victims of our own machinations. Rhetoric has completely eclipsed honesty—even honesty with ourselves.
In any political process on a larger scale than a conference room table, it becomes increasingly necessary to reduce the complex to the simple, to make what may be inherently ambiguous seem to be clear.
Everybody does it.
In the war over sexual morality, conservatives/reasserters usually fail to acknowledge that the question is not really as simple and clear as they would like it to be. Now, I will say again for the sake of clarity, I hold a position that can only be described as within this camp. I believe that any genital sexual expression between any two persons who are not a man and a woman married to one another falls short of God’s plan and desire—which is a plausible definition of sin. But—for me, at least—this is a moral inference drawn from the broad witness of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason. It is arrived at with some struggle. There is no single “smoking gun” chapter-and-verse citation to which I can point.
I am confident that the position I hold is the correct one. I believe I am honoring God by advocating for it, and resisting the efforts of those who believe otherwise. Resist—yes; unchurch—no. If a fellow Christian with an informed conscience comes to a different conclusion, and advocates for that conclusion, I do not consider that person my enemy, and I try to take his or her arguments seriously. Moreover, I am acutely aware of that these questions are not theoretical; they concern the real lives of real people. I am not insensitive to the heartache that surrounds these debates. Some have found my expression of sensitivity patronizing at times, but I can only say that it is authentic. It comes from my heart.
Conservatives, on the whole, could stand to show some more compassion and humility in the way we represent ourselves in the struggle.
But liberals/reappraisers have what seems to me an equivalent moral blind spot, an equivalent occasion for hubris, and it’s in the area of property disputes. I understand the reasoning: Individuals may leave the Episcopal Church, but parishes (and, presumably, dioceses, though we haven’t reached that point quite yet) cannot. Again, it isn’t my desire here to argue the merits of the case. I will, in fact, for present purposes, stipulate to the soundness of such reasoning.
What I would like to see more of from my friends across the divide is an acknowledgment that, while the matter may (I stress may) be simple from a legal standpoint, it is morally much more complex, much more ambiguous. When the people who raised the money for a church facility and established a long pattern of using that facility are essentially the same ones who wish to dissolve their association with the Episcopal Church, both common sense and charity say that they ought to be able to do so and retain the property. Sometimes, as we know, the law is an ass. Sometimes it is wiser not to enforce a right that one has.
How much sense does it make to alienate property from those who are using it just to make a point? What gospel value is served by kicking a thriving congregation out of a facility just because it’s possible to do so? Especially when there is no congregation available to go in and repopulate that physical plant with a ministry anywhere near as vibrant as the one that was forcibly removed.
When epithets like "squatters" and "thieves" are hurled at faithful Anglicans in Newport Beach or Oceanside or Falls Church, this is rhetoric gotten way out of hand. I respect my worthy opponents too much to believe that they are so susceptible to their own propaganda. Too many of them are too smart to apply to property disputes the same sort of simplistic moral reasoning that they accuse conservatives of relying on in the sexuality debate.
A little bit of honesty and consistency can go a long way toward helping us all regain our Christocentric balance.