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.