Saturday, July 16, 2016

Making Space for Grace to Abound in San Joaquin

This past week, the California Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal in the dispute over who is the rightful Corporation Sole known as the Diocese of San Joaquin, thereby letting stand a lower court decision that found in favor of the entity organized by those loyal to the Episcopal Church. In addition to whatever cash and other financial instruments that are in play, the real estate involved would seem to include the diocesan office building in Fresno, the conference center in Oakhurst, and all the churches that are not separately incorporated in their own right. Some of the separately incorporated cases have previously been resolved (again, in favor of TEC), and some are still pending. 

These developments of are more than mere casual interest to me. Between 1994 and 2007, I served as a rector in the Diocese of San Joaquin. I represented the diocese at two General Conventions, was elected twice to the Standing Committee, did a stint on the Commission on Ministry and Examining Chaplains, and spent several years as a Rural Dean. I had skin in the game. It was just a few months after my departure in 2007 to accept a call in Northern Indiana that the diocesan convention voted on second reading to amend the diocesan constitution to remove any reference to the General Convention and the Episcopal Church. This is what got the ball rolling on the litigation that is now apparently coming to a conclusion.

Let me lay down two important markers before I get to my main point, as it were, "by title," because I'm pretty much going to assert rather than argue; the arguing was done long ago:

First, I believe the decision on the part of the Diocese of San Joaquin (and, for the record, Fort Worth, Quincy, Pittsburgh, and South Carolina as well) to have been mistaken--ill-founded, unnecessary, fractious, destructive to the Body of Christ and the cause of the gospel in the world. It was a bad, bad thing they did. I'm well on record about this. Here's just one piece of evidence.

Second, wrong as it was, I believe they absolutely had the right to do what they did. Until it became a legal strategy to assert otherwise, any good-faith interrogation of the history and polity of the Episcopal Church would find that it is a voluntary confederation of sovereign dioceses, not a unitary monolith. (An actual argument for this assertion may be found here.) There is, in fact, no such thing as the Episcopal Church. The phrase is just a useful abstraction, a convenient piece of verbal shorthand, and, with a capitalized definite article ("The"), part of our branding. But it is not concretely real. The General Convention is concretely real. The Domestic & Foreign Missionary Society is concretely real. "The Episcopal Church" merely signifies those realities; it has no inherent substance apart from those concrete referents.

Many have characterized what the departed dioceses have done as a matter of simple theft. They have taken financial and real assets that belong rightfully to the Episcopal Church and appropriated them for their own use. In the name of justice, they must not be allowed to get away with that; hence, the lawsuits. Well, in Illinois, they have gotten away with it, and while the last 'i' has not yet been dotted in Texas, the odds seem to favor the "thieves." In California they have not, it appears. We may know shortly how it will shake out in South Carolina. (My omission of Virginia, where TEC has also prevailed, is not an oversight. The issue there was parishes leaving the diocese, not a diocese leaving the General Convention. Very different principles are involved--theologically, at least, and, arguably, legally.) But the "simple theft" view is not simple at all. Rather, it is just simplistic.

The circumstances of each local congregation vary significantly from virtually all others. One might be a 200-year old parish with a 150-year old building, and a significant percentage--though perhaps not a majority--of parishioners who wish to remain with TEC. Since everyone in that parish "inherited" their wealth from previous generations, and since there's no way of knowing what those previous builders/benefactors might think about the current state of the church, the demands of justice plausibly tilt in favor of the loyal Episcopalians, regardless of what the diocesan convention decides. By contrast, another congregation may have been founded only 20 years ago, with a ten-year old building paid for completely by current parishioners, all of whom wish to remain with the diocesan majority in leaving TEC. By what definition of justice can they be forced to surrender that property? Of course, there are scores of variations on these two themes, each of which demands, if justice is to be served, individual and careful attention.

Now, I speak here of deep justice, not mere legal justice. Sometimes legal justice is also deep. But, more often, it is not, because there is a level of justice that transcends the ability of any legal code to comprehend. In the later years of the last decade, when the number and intensity of property disputes reached its zenith, Presiding Bishop Jefferts Schori firmly articulated a policy: When a TEC diocese has reacquired real property from "thieves," but there is no congregation of Episcopalians ready to use that property, and it is therefore expedient to sell it, it may not be sold to any entity professing to be Anglican--that is, it may not be sold back, under any terms, to those who originally "stole" it. This has led to some rather ludicrous situations, where a congregation of "continuing Anglicans," cash in hand, are denied the opportunity to purchase the building where they celebrated their marriages and had their children baptized and where the ashes of their parents are interred in the columbarium. 

My proposal is a modest one. The current administration at 815 now has an opportunity to be gracious in victory. When Abraham Lincoln gave his second inaugural address, the Civil War was all but over, and he looked ahead to the difficult work of dealing with its aftermath. He counseled conciliation rather than retribution: "With malice toward none, with charity toward all, let us bind up the nation's wounds." Cannot a family of Christians, even a family divided by schism, aspire to at least as much as a secular leader called for? Having achieved what many in his church consider legal justice, Presiding Bishop Curry now has the freedom to lay aside the scorched earth legal strategy of his predecessor. Would it not be a vibrant sign of hope for the entire Anglican Communion if the "winners" were now to strive for deep justice? The case of every individual congregation and property could be examined closely. If there is a viable community of Episcopalians who have been eagerly awaiting an opportunity to return "home"--fine, let them do so. But if the keys are turned in by those who have lost the legal battle and there is no one waiting to move in, surely, with some prayerful and Spirit-led resolve, some charitably just and justly charitable accord could be reached to allow those who have been worshiping in that space all along to continue to do so--whether as potential buyers, long-term renters, or even tolerated squatters. In the midst of the massive wounds caused by the whole tragic sequence of events that has slowly unfolded over the last 13 years, such simple charity--charity that does not abrogate anyone's perception of justice--would be a glimmer of hope that grace might yet abound in our midst. I earnestly move the question.


Michael Russell said...

Dear Dan,

Your essay overlooks an important point, in my view. Before there was a "scorched earth" policy, there was a was a " scorched ears" policy among the schismatics. They engaged in a relentless verbal assault on TEC from the PB level down to the local parishioner level. Many created majorities in parishes by driving off those who disagreed with them. Their attacks on those who disagreed with them led to egregious behavior. This was true in the Diocese of San Diego, and documented by the various via media groups.

In the 2006 period I was in favor of an amicable parting that included an agreement on the schismatics part to stand down from their rhetoric and verbal assaults. But of course, when you are speaking God's point of view, that is impossible to agree to.

So, for me, they squandered the possibility of amicability, because they had no interest in being amicable. Their entire point was to destroy TEC and remove it from the Anglican Communion. That remains the schismatics' goal. I see no reason to reward them with property and assets for which they were stewards, not owners. Now they get the "measure they gave" which may lead them to be more inventive on behalf of the gospel and less truculent.
You do not get peace while perpetuating conflict.

Bishop Daniel Martins said...

Pretty broad brush you're painting with there, Mike. There has been as much variety of rhetorical style among the "schismatics" as among any other faction. To say that they all deserve what the worst among them deserve is unfair. Plus, since when is tit for tat a gospel value?

Anonymous said...

Gentlemen, as someone who has sat in the bleachers and worked the streets in this cause, I would like to relate to you some of my experiences during this period of what was once described to me as "happy chaos".
For many of us sitting in the pews, the last 30+ years have been a time of internal conflict that made it very difficult for us to assist in attracting new members to our churches. TEC 'made the news' in many negative ways that repelled potential new members while creating an entirely new group of those who felt they had been disenfranchised by our leadership.
As I told one of the attorneys involved in one of these cases, when I try to use the buzz phrase "The Episcopal Church is all about LOVE", I risked being elbowed in the ribs rather hardily with the reply comment of "So, how are all those lawsuits working out for you?" Because we all know that a loving, caring family would work their problems out behind closed doors rather than in open court, our denomination became a very hard sell to those who ae unfamiliar with our church history.
I strongly believe it is time for us to rejoin our faith with our actions.
I am known as a rather blunt person. During the period 2007-2010, I was accused of attending "secret meetings" because of spreading my wings by becoming more involved in my church at the Diocesan level, by persons who didn't recall the times I not only attended several General Conventions as a delegate (usually out of town and at my own expense), but also stood for the opinions of my local congregation (as I had agreed to do) even when it was in direct contradiction with my Dean (who had been one of my childhood priest, btw and was also one of the PIC's who chose to lead a 'leave' decision.
I personally have always valued the diversity of opinion in the Episcopal Church, except when it came to the point where I felt verbally bullied by those who dismissed my opinion as uninformed. When put on the spot in a debate, I have a difficult time coming up with the facts and figures to support my point of view. Part of the reason for that is that I feel no argument needs to be made. Christ himself preached LOVE to his followers. My HEART tells me that we have the very best religious philosophy merely BECAUSE it allows for the respectful difference of opinion.
All that being said, we had a family dinner at my brother's house yesterday where two younger women in my family (both vey intelligent and informed) told me that as one grows older, one starts to "care less about other's opinions". I disagreed with this statement, replying "That is simply not true unless you choose to live in a bubble, as a hermit. I have gone for caring what everyone thinks to caring what no one thinks to being selective about those whose opinions I value."
Mike, to the best of my knowledge, we have never met in person. I am currently a member of the Diocese of Springfield, coming there from the Diocese of Quincy. (This should allow you to fill in some of the names in my narrative, if you are well-informed of all the cast of characters in this ongoing drama).
Bp. Martins will tell you I am not a well-trained parrot.
I remain a faithful follower of Jesus Christ. One who can read well-structured English sentences. I am currently re-reading a text book from a recent college class on the New Testament. In going that far back in the history of Christianity, I am once again reminded what our forebears were willing to die to achieve. I have no plans to become a martyr, but sometimes being publicly ostracized by one's church family can be a worse punishment than prison or death.
I think the name of the movie was "The PASSION of Christ", not "The OPINION of Christ".
Thanks for you ears.

Whit Johnstone said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Whit Johnstone said...

While I am in principle favor of a generous approach to property issues in San Joaquin, I think that that needs to be reciprocated by a similarly generous approach to property issues in Fort Worth and Quincy. In particular +Iker needs to realize that All Saints Episcopal Church is and will remain a TEC parish and stop trying to take their property on the grounds that they did not hold a formal vote to disaffiliate from the ACNA diocese.

Also, you forgot that TEC won the first lawsuits against a departing diocese, in Pittsburgh. So right now the score is tied, two points for TEC and two for ACNA.