Wednesday, June 27, 2007

On a Proper Respect for Moral Ambiguity

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.

Today the California court of appeals released a decision reversing the earlier victories that five parishes in (or formerly in, depending on one’s point of view) the Diocese of Los Angeles had won at the original trial level. It seems unthinkable that there will not be an appeal to the state Supreme Court, if not to the federal system, before anyone hands over any keys, and it will take years to play out. In the meantime, an awful lot of billable hours will be rung up. Dollars will change hands that will consequently not be available to help achieve the Millennium Development Goals, or whatever else one may consider the Church’s mission to be. Like I said, it’s a crying shame.

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.


Anonymous said...

Nice post. My perspective is from the other camp. I lose track of your arguement in two places. First, the position that "he who builds it gets it" doesn't work in places like Falls Church where the vestry predates the founding of the country. How do you determine which generation built the church and what they intended? Second, it's a typical conservative "hooray for me, screw you" philosophy. Do you build a church becuase you want a property investment? No, I think it's more like raising children, you give all you can, let them go, and hope for the best.

Daniel Martins said...

Mike, you more or less make my very point. Neither "those who built it get it" nor "those who have it stole it" are likely to represent either truth or justice. Every situation is unique and requires careful analysis. If I'm not mistaken, Falls Church, while as a parish predates even TEC (which is itself a complicating factor!) actually worships in a building that was erected in living memory. My plea is for all sides to acknowledge the ambiguity and complexity of each case and not indulge themselves in moral-analysis-by sloganeering.

bls said...

I totally agree with you in particular about the rhetoric - on both sides, BTW - and generally with the point you make that people ought to have the use of their own buildings.

The problem at this point, IMO, is that it's hard to trust the "reasserter" side on the property issue, because its (poor) leadership is seen to have been mainly invested in trying to eject the Episcopal Church from the Anglican Communion and replace it.

IOW, nobody sees this any longer as merely a few congregations who wish to leave; people believe this is part of a concerted effort at winning a long-term war. And not, IMO, without reason, given statements and actions by its (again, very poor) leadership. As I'm sure you know, people hope openly on the blogs and in the press for schism.

That's the real problem here, IMO.

Judge373 said...

All this makes me quite sad for the state and future of the Episcopal Church. Especially considering that for young men like me who might ponder the priesthood, the talk of impending schism, legal battles, and seeming chaos are very discouraging.

bls said...

Judge373, God never fails.

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow; He is and will be our light along the way. All manner of thing shall be well - never mind the rocks on the journey.

Be a servant of God, and the rest will take care of itself. Blessings to you.

Anonymous said...

There is one “smoking gun” chapter-and-verse citation which addresses this crisis: I Corinthians 5:1-8. Let me do something out-of-style, and simply quote the passage:

“When any of you has a grievance against another, do you dare to take it to court before the unrighteous, instead of taking it before the saints? Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels – to say nothing of ordinary matters? If you have ordinary cases, then, do you appoint as judges those who have no standing in the church? I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to decide between one believer and another, but a believer goes to court against a believer – and before unbelievers at that? In fact, to have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded? But you yourselves wrong and defraud – and believers at that.”

I think it’s obvious that Paul was speaking of intramural disputes – within the congregation. And one might seek escape from the applicability of this passage by asking if these cases are “trivial”. But ask what the Apostle would say of our behavior. Does not our witness to the world make trivial our grasping for real estate and endowments? Isn’t this about the salvation of our souls – and those who watch us? Are we not defeated already?

This reading is appointed for the Daily Office, Year One, Wednesday of Proper 20. Interesting the verses omitted between Wednesday and Thursday. I would suggest they hold another “smoking gun”, not of condemnation, however, but of hope. “…of such were some of you.” What’s wrong with a church that cannot read this apostolic witness of God’s power to change lives?

Anonymous said...

bls - Let me take you up on your comment. Has it ever occurred to you that it is precisely BECAUSE of TEC's intransigence on the property issues that there is such a push to have TEC officially expelled from the Communion?

Looking at it legally, TEC is pounding the "heirarchical church" theory in the courts. Fine. The best legal strategy for the conservatives then is twofold: 1) Argue against the "heirarchical church" theory in the courts; and 2) Find a way to turn the "heirarchical church" in their favor.

With regard to point 2, the Constitution of TEC provides a wide, open target - namely the Preamble. There is a lot of dispute about what the Preamble means, but I submit to you this: If TEC splits in two, with some dioceses remaining in communion with Canterbury and other dioceses not; and if both groups assert that their group is the legitimate TEC; then I think that the Preamble would likely tip the scales. With the legitimacy goes the property under the "heirarchical church" theory. And so there is a very real defensive strategy for the conservatives to officially have TEC expelled.

In the end, I think that both sides are becoming too pre-occupied with the property fights. The battle for North American Anglicanism will not be won in the courts. Even if Rowan Williams rescinds the Lambeth invitations to the liberal TEC bishops, and using that the conservatives take control of all TEC property, it won't matter unless they are also planting new churches. And if TEC succeeds in suing everybody and their neighbor out of their properties and sits on a bunch of empty church buildings, while the conservative plant new churches, then the conservatives still win.

Unfortunately, I think that in the end, each side will inflict heavy damage on the others and it will take years to recover.

Tom Sramek, Jr. said...

The Preamble would tip the scales, except for two things: 1) The preamble is not properly part of the Constitution (it is descriptive, not proscriptive); 2) The Episcopal Church is one of 39 AUTONOMOUS Provinces within the Anglican Communion. That which binds us together are the "bonds of affection" rather than legalities. In contrast, the Episcopal Church is bound together in a legal (i.e. canonical) way that means that neither dioceses nor parishes are autonomous, in spite of the congregationalist character of many congregations.

I think that Dan has a point, things should be looked at on a case-by-case basis, but what if 300 people from a congregation decide to leave the Episcopal Church, and 50 decide to stay? What if some, even many, of those 50 have contributed to the construction and/or upkeep of the building. Who leaves, the 300 or the 50? It is indeed a mess, but such are the times in which we are living.

Tom Sramek, Jr. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Tom: The oft repeated comment that the Preamble is descriptive and not prescriptive is an opinion, and is not actually relevant to my point.

bls was displeased that there is a movement to unseat "liberal TEC" from the Anglican Communion. I think that if, for example, CANA tried to argue that it was the real TEC, the Preamble would not help.

My point is that if TEC is attempting to claim all property on the "heirarchical church" theory, it makes sense for the conservatives to have the liberal TEC bishops and lay authorities declared "out of Communion". Then the Network/Camp Allen bishops (who would be the only TEC bishops still "in Communion") could then make a very legitimate claim to be the real TEC, declare that the uninvited bishops had "abandoned communion" (precedent set that no trial is necessary).

The obvious liberal response will be to claim that THEY are the real TEC. So the courts would be looking at two groups - both of them having formerly been part of TEC, and both claiming to be the legitimate continuation of such.

How will the courts decide who is the real TEC? The Preamble DESCRIBES (or prescribes - it doesn't really matter) who the real TEC is, and I think that the Courts would have to follow that under the "heirarchical church" theory. TEC's own constitution declares that TEC is part of the Anglican Communion - therefore if both claims are otherwise equal, it only stands to reason that the group that is part of the Anglican Communion wins. And it won't be the liberals.

This is why my advice to conservatives in TEC is to stay for now, to find whatever ways are necessary to prevent your money going to 815, and to work as hard as you can to have the liberal TEC bishops excluded from the Anglican Communion by Rowan Williams. My advice is predicated very much on what Stacey Sauls, David Booth Beers, Katharine Jefferts-Schori, Jon Bruno, etc. are doing.

I think that it is Mike Kinman from St. Louis, who commented that liberals in TEC should not be surprised at the conservative attempts to unseat liberal TEC in the Anglican Communion because liberal TEC had left them no other choice.

Anonymous said...

To address Dan's point more directly, it is my belief that part of the problem is that neither side has any love for or desire to save The Episcopal Church.

Many conservatives would obviously like to see TEC booted from the Communion (I would distinguish myself from them, as I would like just those liberals who are unable to meet the mind of the Communion booted). For many conservatives, however, the battle is lost, they see TEC as having entered into irreversible decline and irrelevancy and there is no concern as to whether their actions move that along or not.

The liberals on the other hand, I suggest, also have no love for TEC. This is perhaps a more difficult case to see. But I would argue that they have a love for what they would like TEC to become. A major difference! I don't think liberals really care one whit if 99% of the conservative parishioners of St. James, Newport Beach leave. They just want to keep the property so they can claim that the "parish" didn't leave. What the liberals want is to claim "TEC" as supporting their political and ideological agenda. They have no real interest in the parishioners or general health of TEC.

And so, we are witnessing a battle, in which great damage is being inflicted, but for which neither side is particularly concerned about. My prediction is that liberal TEC will soon become based almost exclusively in the larger urban areas of the country as great numbers of parishes and many dioceses close for lack of money and parishioners. On the flip side I predict that the conservative Anglican jurisdiction will grow in the urban areas also, but it will be a long time before they will be able to reach into the more rural parts of the country. The end result will be that North American Anglicanism will be a largely urban phenomenon.

Marshall Scott said...


I agree with you that this is all sad and painful, and that all will be injured as a result.

I am perhaps more optimistic about the possibility of settlement if only it is tried. I pass virtually daily Christ Church (Anglican) of Overland Park, Kansas, which was one of the first and one of the largest congregations to decide to leave the Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Kansas.

This was accomplished through negotiation, and at the end of the negotiation comments from both sides were respectful. By and large, with an occasional hiccup, that has continued to be the tone of any public statements. Events since have demonstrated that both congregation and diocese have suffered. At the same time, the negotiated settlement has held.

I don't think the Episcopal Church would see need to interfere where such settlements could be reached. I'm not aware that they have so far,with the settlements we've seen in Kansas, or Washington state, or those that happened in Virginia before the CANA controversies.

Unknown said...

I have been a member of a number of congregations and been on the management board of a Roman Catholic parish and an Episcopal vestry. At no time have I ever considered my role to be that of the owner of parish property. Yes, my contributions helped repair and even enhance the building and the furnishings. They provided for ministry to the members and for outreach to the community. But, at all times, the parishes preceded my membership and persisted in their ministry after my departure. I did not feel that it was my right to remove the property from its rightful owners -- the hierarchical churches to which they belonged -- even when I disagreed over theological issues. The property was put under my management as a trust and I believe I returned it to the trust in at least as good a condition as I found it.

At no time did I ever consider diverting it to my own purposes.