Friday, September 14, 2007

San Diego Bishop Sues Three Parishes!

Pastoral Letter: August 2007, The Transfiguration of Jesus

As we are all aware, there have been some congregations that have split away from their diocese and the Episcopal Church because of real disagreements over theology and questions of sexuality….They have also suggested that property in the Episcopal Church is parish owned, “we paid for it, it is ours, and we can do with it whatever we want.” In our own Diocese, we have had nine congregations that had departures of various numbers of people. The leadership of three departing groups has made a claim of right to possess the parish property. This has necessitated our Diocese initiating legal action to recover that property so we can begin the process of rebuilding those congregations.

A few days ago I got this pastoral letter hardcopy, folded into our diocesan newspaper, The Church Times—not to be confused with The Church Times (UK), an excellent publication for which I write. As the diocesan financial and legal difficulties deepen, The Church Times (San Diego) has evolved from a pedestrian newsprint item into a professional production on heavy, glossy paper filled with full-color pictures of smiling Episcopalians.

I have considerable sympathy with the views on sexual ethics of liberals in the Episcopal Church, including presumably, the Bishop of San Diego: I agree with them that there is nothing morally wrong with homosexual activity. But before you assume that I “don’t have any morals” I should note that I regard the arrogance and hypocrisy of liberal clergy, and their strong-arm tactics as shockingly immoral. They put on the armor of righteousness convinced that they were divinely commissioned not only to enlighten members of the Episcopal Church but to exert prophetic moral leadership in the World, and were cock-sure that they would get their way by “using psychology”—by manipulating laypeople—and by bullying conservative clergy.

Even now as the Church is undergoing meltdown, the Princes of the Church and their courtiers, like their counterparts in the secular regime, are determined to stay the course. The bishop seems convinced that with enough legal firepower he will be able to capture territory from dissident congregations and achieve “mission accomplished” within a year. He also claims to believe that once dissident clergy and laypeople have been forced out of their churches, rebuilding will be relatively unproblematic—or at least feasible:

In each and every case, it is my intention to rebuild vibrant, Christ-centered ministries in congregations that have been seriously affected…

Following current events in the secular world, I’m not so sure about that. Mission accomplished is quick and easy—you can beat up bad guys and level an entire country in three weeks of shock and awe. Rebuilding is quite another thing and I’m not sure how the bishop plans to accomplish this task in those seriously affected congregations.

This bishop’s letter is very light on specifics and on figures. Once conservative dissidents have been forced out of their churches, how big will the righteous remnant in each church be? 100? 50? 10? I rather doubt that there will be a sufficient number to maintain the property. The bishop however seems to believe that once ethnic cleansing is complete local residents who, presumably, had been scared off by the bigots and homophobes occupying the facility would flood into the church to establish vibrant, Christ-centered ministries.

This also seems highly unlikely and I doubt that the bishop or anyone else really believes it. We can make an educated guess about what will happen. The diocese will install part-time, retired or non-stipendiary clergy in these parishes and operate them as missions for a few years, making a show of working to establish vibrant, Christ-centered ministries and then, when they’re sure no one is looking, sell them off. San Diego county real estate still fetches a good price and the Diocese should be able to extract a pretty penny from creative entrepreneurs looking to turn the buildings into church-themed restaurants or nightclubs or to developers who will tear them down to build condos.

I do not know whether the bishop agrees with my predictions or not, that is, whether he is a hypocrite or a self-deceiver, however he clearly disagrees with my description of the proceedings. He is under the impression that, leaving aside issues of civil and canon law, even from the moral point of view the church buildings and property these congregations financed and maintained never really belonged to them in the first place.

While clearly we hope every parish will be financially self-sustaining through the stewardship of parishioners, it is far from precise to assume that all assets of a parish are the result of parishioner giving. In many cases, the Diocese invested significantly at the front end when the parishes were missions.

Again, the figures are missing. How much did the diocese kick in upfront when these churches were fledgling missions? And how much did they return to the diocese in the mission share they kicked back over the years or decades when they were self-supporting parishes? Of course, money isn’t everything. They also paid the diocese in kind, feeding the sheep and providing services that would otherwise have to be financed from the diocesan coffers. Whatever the law says, this is a moral issue—and ethics trumps civil and even canon law.

The bishop however believes that he has an independent moral argument. It’s a matter of honoring the donors’ intentions:

More importantly, these congregations were begun as Episcopal communities. Every gift given would rightly be assumed to have been given to an Episcopal congregation. As far as our canons are concerned, they do indeed assume a trust relationship—that is, that the property is held in trust for the ministry of the Episcopal Church. That is why the diocese deeds the property to a newly established parish, because it can rightly assume a perpetual relationship of trust…

But what did donors intend? Did they intend to provide support to a congregation that was Episcopal regardless of what remarkable theological novelties the Episcopal Church would, in the future, adopt? One suspects that they intended to buy a coach—not a coach that would turn into a pumpkin.

Most importantly, these disputes over property are the presenting issue where we defend our ordered church with Episcopal authority, preventing an unintended slide towards congregationalism…

Well, that sent chills up my spine. I certainly wouldn’t want to belong to the Congregationalist Church—a non-liturgical church with dull talky services and communion is shot glasses, at the theologically dilute end of Calvinism. But what I don’t like in Congregationalism is the non-liturgical, non-sacramental character of the worship and the theology, not the polity—not congregationalism as such. A little more lower-case congregationalism might be a good thing in the Episcopal Church so that money doesn’t keep getting sucked up the food chain.

And, speaking of money and the food chain, it seems the bishop has a substantial war chest.

I have been raising funds to rebuild congregations hard hit by departures. To date we have raised $500,000 from generous donors. While a recent Court of Appeals decision gives some reason for us to be optimistic that our litigation will end favorably within a year, some of these funds will regrettably have to be used to pay our legal fees. As I imagine us in five years, I see all our congregations stronger—including those we are rebuilding.

Some of these funds? Of course from the logical point of view that’s consistent with “all of these funds.” It’s also consistent with “all of these funds and then some.” But don’t worry: if the legal fees go over the top, the profit from sales of the buildings down the road will make up the shortfall—and much, much more besides.



Jeremy Bonner said...

As someone from the other side of the theological divide, I'm impressed that you address the very real incongruity of trying to "rebuild" congregations under such conditions. The converse holds true here in Pittsburgh for liberal parishes like Calvary and Redeemer. It is far better to let each congregation chart its own course than be heavy handed about conformity.

Thank you also for addressing the issue of original intent. If we were to go by what the original founders intended, many strong liberal parishes today (one thinks of several Anglo Catholic parishes in San Francisco) would be dispossessed. The only thing we have to work with is the present worshipping community. They're the ones who actually keep the plant going. If they owe money to the diocese, then they need to work out a repayment schedule, but otherwise it's far better to find a formula for separation that seeks to do justice to all.

Jeremy Bonner

Anonymous said...

The recent appellate court decisions shouldn't give him that much optimism. TEC has influence but not likely enough to overturn, in the end, generations of California legal precedent. I wouldn't be too hard on him, though, he is feeling the pressure of 815's scorched earth policy. Too bad none of them realize how this looks to the unchurched - like, I can't wait to join a church that sues its vestries!!

Anonymous said...

I am from the "conservative" side and will either leave as an individual or part of a congregation because our property is deemed as being owned by the diocese - forgetting all the money parishioners have donated.

This is an extremely well written article that compassionaltely understands the "big picture". I pray that others are listening as well - on both sides.


Unknown said...

Thank you for this post. You show true liberal compassion. I've written about your post, especially on the issue of clerics - which as a biblically conservative Anglican I do share your concerns.

You can read my post at

God bless you.


Anonymous said...

On either side of a political divide there is a further division: Ther are folks who are interested in fair-minded and civil debate, and those interested in the exercise of power.

You are clearly the first kind. Nice to know there's a real honest-to-goodness liberal out there. Thank you and God bless you.

Bill @ Bill's Notes

Anonymous said...

I have been thinking these same toughts and your are the first to articulate them in print. Thank God, I thought that I was nuts for having such eqinamity.

Ecgbert said...

Well done!

What babyblue said.

A voice of sanity in the Episcopal row.

A word about every issue in the row: if you believe as I was taught that you are only part of the church then don't act like you're the whole church.

My interest is as a classical liberal/libertarian rooted in traditional Anglo-Catholicism and thus whose church home effectively has been gone for some time.

I tend to believe Dr Jefferts-Schori that only a small number, about one per cent, want to leave the Episcopal Church. Bullying of conservatives indeed.

Asking the bishop to negotiate is not stealing the property. But if the diocesan says no, it's over. It shouldn't go to court - that would be un-Christian.

The only thing inevitable in this row is a very few parishes will be split and a very few others squashed. On both sides. (As happened recently at the Falls Church for example.)

Other than that NO-ONE will be 'unchurched'.

It won't affect at least 90 per cent of Episcopalians in any way even if the liberals' worst-case scenario happens and the national Episcopal Church gets what it deserves and is uninvited from the mostly non-liberal (and Protestant) Anglican Communion.

Those who want gay church weddings would have them without hindrance.

When I read the world news - Christians including poor conservative sub-Saharan Anglicans, Palestinian Orthodox harassed by Israelis every day, Iraqis including members of the oldest rite still used in Christendom now fleeing the Muslim onslaught and civil war in their country; people with real, literal life-or-death problems - the self-styled victimhood (self-absorption) of the online Episcopal left is at best risible and at most disgusting.

An African bishop, even one who says hateful things or simply what you don't want to hear (like what Christians historically have always taught) serving a splinter from one's denomination is no threat to oneself (one's person, one's home, one's parish).

Possibly being asked to leave the Anglican Communion is not 'being unchurched'.

Conservative dioceses, parishes and people leaving this denomination are not 'leaving the church'.

Makes me wonder what the Arabic or Syriac is for 'grow up'.

Unknown said...

Thank you all! I'm amazed but much heartened at these positive responses--which I wasn't expecting!

Unfortunately I'm serious about the analogy to Iraq. I don't see any easy way out of the mess in the church even though I suspect that by now most of us are disgusted with the whole thing and wish it had never started. And that includes a number of gay Episcopalians I know, one of whom would easily have gotten ordained--and should have been ordained--but was blocked because sexual orientation had become politicized. I agree it isn't the fault of the S.D. bish or most who've been sucked into this Culture War--it's the corporate culture of the Episcopal Church, which he was channeling in that letter, that's at fault.

It's embarrassing that however much pious language is used to package the church's program, it is so transparently about power and money. I'd be interested in knowing more about the legal ramifications. My uneducated guess is that one motive, if not the chief motive, for this litigation is to send the message to parishes that if they try to leave and take their property they'll be beat up and financially ruined by legal fees, so that it just won't be cost-effective even if they "win."

I wish reasonable people in TEC could rise up and force a troop withdrawal. Is this litigation really cost-effective? Is it worth hanging onto those church properties if the people who maintain them bail? Will the money you get from selling them after the legal costs are paid be worth it? Does it really matter if the Episcopal Church is relegated to some associate status in the Anglican Communion, or kicked out altogether? What is gained from all these political machinations and power plays, packaged in pious language, that are an embarrassment to the Church? What is the goal anyway: to hang onto that money in order to finance a top-heavy bureaucracy and see to it that priests are paid "professional-level" salaries as the gentlemen of their parishes, while membership in TEC continues to shrink?

What are they playing at? The idea that this is a moral crusade to promote the rights of gay people is pure crap--like the claim that we are in Iraq to promote "freedom" and "democracy." I'm equally skeptical about conservative claims that they are out to defend Biblical Authority. The Episcopal Church has kicked into survival mode and what we see now are power plays and scrambles for money.

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to add my kudos to the others for your well-reasoned article. I think if we could have had a few more discussions from both sides like the one you gave, some of the ugliness could have been avoided. In the end, it is not making sure your opponent agrees with what you say (because chances are that will never happen), but that we represent Christ as we say it. I may be on the other side of the debate, but you earned my respect in how you chose to handle this topic. God's blessings and grace to you.