Conservatives advised to redirect resources from the Episcopal Church

October 13, 2003

The topic of "redirection" began with a redefinition. "Brothers and sisters, we are not leaving Anglicanism. We are Anglicanism," said the Rev. James B. Simons, rector of St. Michael's of the Valley in Ligonier, Pennsylvania. Simons and a series of speakers then proceeded to advise participants at the American Anglican Council's "A Place to Stand" gathering how they might do mission, ministry, and stewardship in the "realigned" Anglican Communion they hope will emerge from next week's primates' meeting. "We are currently part of a denomination that values justice over mercy, social action over grace, and rights over responsibilities," Simons lectured the group gathered in the opulent Wyndham Anatole hotel in downtown Dallas. "We are a church that claims to be for social justice, but often we seem more interested in being a part of the Social Register. ... We need to rethink and move in a new direction and find a new way, a way which values repentance as well as liberation, conversion as well as tolerance, and which understands that a therapeutic model of ministry is worthless without the life-changing power of Jesus Christ." Not just saying 'no' Simons introduced the Revs. Ron McCrary and Alison Barfoot, co-rectors of Christ Church in Overland Park, Kansas, who stressed the importance of making Jesus' "Great Commission" to make disciples a first priority in parish life. "We are not here just to say no to General Convention," said Barfoot. "God may be calling you to be a missionary to your own parish." The Rev. Mario Bergner, an "ex-gay" priest who heads Redeemed Life Ministries in the Diocese of Quincy, related the story of his conversion and opined that "the problem isn't really homosexuality. The problem is faith and order" and a default in teaching moral theology. "No one is ontologically homosexual," Bergner asserted. "It is something that develops inside an individual." The only moral options for such a person, he said, are abstinence, "holy celibacy," or heterosexual marriage. Can't have it both ways Then the conference got down to the issue of money. The Rev. John Guernsey, rector of All Saints in Dale City, Virginia, presented what he called a theological justification for redirecting funds and mission energies away from the national Episcopal church. "It is ironic that no less a critic of the Christian church than Karl Marx could so perceptively unmask our church's distorted theology," Guernsey began. "Marx wrote in the preface to the German edition of Das Kapital: 'The English established church will more readily pardon an attack on 38 of its 39 articles than on 1/39th of its income.'" Guernsey warned the audience against merely holding on to funds "which God calls us to give. I believe we may redirect our giving to orthodox mission and ministry, but I offer no justification for withholding money in order to spend it on ourselves." But the call to tithe "should not be construed to justify coerced financial support of church structures," Guernsey stated. "Those in the majority at General Convention simply cannot have it both ways: they cannot reject biblical authority in the debate on sexuality and then appeal to it to compel financial underwriting of unbiblical doctrines." Principles of redirection However, Guernsey went on, what of a counter-charge that conservatives want it both ways as well--to affirm their conception of biblical authority on sexuality but reject the Bible's teaching on financial responsibility to the congregation of which they are a part? "There is a biblical call not to participate in the ministry of those who reject foundational Christian doctrine," he answered. "To give to such teachers is to participate in their error and to make oneself liable to the same divine judgment. ...There are always faithful expressions of the church to which and through which we may make our offerings to the Lord." In the same vein, the next speaker offered some possibilities for redirecting funds. The Rev. Ruth Urban of St. Peter's by the Lake in Brandon, Mississippi, advised givers to follow five "principles ofredirection": give it all away; be willing to give beyond your own relationships; put funds where ECUSA">ECUSA has cut them off; invest in growth; and make a 50/50 commitment--half for your parish's needs, half for needs outside the parish. She identified five of those needs, including the AAC itself, a list of AAC-affiliated ministries, various overseas needs, church planting in "revisionist" dioceses, and evangelism. Get a lawyer A panel presenting attorneys' answers to "frequently asked questions" on the church's constitution and canons, clergy pensions, and ownership of church property brought together four members of the AAC's legal team: Hugo Blankingship, of Fairfax, Virginia, who chairs the AAC legal task force as well as the board of Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry (TESM) in Ambridge, Pennsylvania. Michael Woodruff, president of the Charles Malik Foundation of Fairfax, Virginia, and also associated with the firm of Gammon & Grange in McLean, Virginia. Tad Brenner, vice chancellor of the Diocese of Quincy. R. Wicks Stephens II, the AAC's secretary and treasurer and the dean of administration at TESM. Their basic message: The situation is complex. Don't jump the gun, or jump ship, without legal advice. And get a lawyer. Diane">Diane Knippers of the Institute for Religion and Democracy began by reminding the audience that "legal and financial matters, temporal matters in the church...are the distinct province of the laity" and that it is the "role of the laity to determine if a particular teaching will be received." Then she asked each of the four panelists to explain a basic aspect of the relationship between parishioners, parish property, and the wider church. Woodruff advised the lay leadership of dissident congregations to add a lawyer to their "resource team" in disputes about church property. "It is not always true that the Episcopal Church or the diocese owns local church property," Woodruff asserted. "Each of the fifty states has different statutes as well as court decisions." Do's and don'ts The 1979 "Dennis Canon"--Canon I.7.4--established a trust relationship between the local congregation, the diocese, and the national Episcopal Church, said Blankingship. That means congregations hold title to their property, but the national church is the ultimate beneficiary--in the same way a bank holds money for its depositors. But Brenner said that the courts interpret that trust relationship differently in each state, and predicted that interpretation could change yet again following the upcoming primates meeting. Stephens pointed out that knowing diocesan as well as national canons is essential because of the secular courts' tendency to resort to "neutral principles of law" in property disputes to avoid ruling on doctrinal matters. Many dioceses mandate that parishes which don't keep up their assessments or follow other procedures can be demoted to "mission" status--which would give a diocesan bishop total control over the congregation. "Do's and don'ts" projected on an overhead screen advised that lay leaders: Hire a lawyer and connect them to the AAC legal network Conduct research about the history of the church's property and establish the role of the diocese in that history Promote membership in the AAC Establish alternative entities through which to send money Become familiar with the canons regarding property and clergy status Don't leave or take precipitous action Don't declare your parish out of communion Don't refuse visitations from the bishop--yet Get ready for a fight Blankingship warned that the national church's canon IV.10, which covers "abandonment of the communion" and subsequent inhibition and deposition of a priest, "can be a very dangerous canon for our clergy" because it permits a bishop to depose a priest without trial. Ironically, as Brenner later pointed out, a bishop's ability to discipline a lay person is limited to withholding the sacrament. As long as a priest is vested in the church's pension plan, Stephens assured the group, access to accumulated contributions according to the plan's rules can't be denied. But though the Church Pension Fund has "a long history of ethical operation," the canons governing the fund are governed by the General Convention and subject to alteration, he warned. In short, he advised, if clergy are planning to "take precipitous action--don't do it until you retire." But the most important advice for conservative congregations, said Blankingship, was to pray, be patient--and avoid court proceedings whenever possible. "Lawyers and lawsuits are not going to be the answer to our problem," he said. "We do not need to go on the legal warpath ... We pray for peace, but if there's going to be a fight, let's get ready."

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