Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Sacred Vows, Sacred Trust

Tobias Haller posted this piece written by the Very Reverend George Werner, former president of the House of Deputies, on his blog. It's a fine statement about the vows of Holy Orders and the responsibilities they entail for the stewardship of our church's resources. I think it also complements and extends some of my own thoughts on norms and anomie in The Episcopal Church.



Fifty years ago, I was accepted as a postulant for Holy Orders. When I was ordained, our vows were referred to as “Sacred Vows” committing ourselves to a calling, a vocation and not just a job. The Vows were so significant that after we recited them, the service was stopped, while we went and signed a printed copy of the vows. I pasted my copy in my prayer book hymnal. I made those vows at ordination to the Diaconate and again at my ordination to the Priesthood. I was ordained by Bishops of a Diocese but for the Episcopal Church. In later years, when I was required to establish my identity by various secular authorities, I gave the page and edition number of the Episcopal Church Annual. My authority, my “license,” my legal standing as a priest, came from the Episcopal Church. When I moved to a Diocese, the first credential was to be in good standing as a Priest in the Episcopal Church.

The Episcopal Church welcomed me as a steward, not an owner, but a steward of ministry resources. When I was called to a parish, I was given the use of Church buildings and grounds; vestments, chalices and other altar appointments; organs, pianos, office equipment; funds for mission & ministry, endowments and designated funds for scholarships and outreach. I was responsible for working with the congregation to maintain all of the above and (see parable of the Talents) to enhance and grow those resources to the best of our ability. When it was time to leave, I turned all of the above over to my successor. I was told from day one, you are a steward not an owner and the Episcopal Church is trusting you with these resources because of your ordination to the priesthood and license within the Episcopal Church.

Bishops have a third set of vows. They are approved by the whole Episcopal Church before they may be ordained and consecrated to the Episcopate. The Diocese elects and the Episcopal Church, through a vote of Bishops holding jurisdiction over Dioceses and a majority of Diocesan Standing Committees, consents and affirms the election. When the consents are required within three months of General Convention, the House of Deputies of General Convention acts in the role of the Standing Committees. Once Consecrated, the Bishops receive the use of the resources of a Diocese as stewards not owners. When they leave, they are to turn it all over to the succeeding Bishop.

There have always been times when a Deacon, Priest or Bishop, as a matter of conscience, deems it impossible to continue in the Church which has empowered them. There are appropriate ways to declare such. Two Bishops I greatly respect, John Lipscomb formerly Bishop of Southwest Florida and Jeffrey Steenson of Rio Grande (New Mexico and part of West Texas) each have been received into the Roman Catholic Church. As Paul reminds us in Romans, we are to outdo one another in honor. These men took honor seriously.

Some are arguing that the property belongs to the current members of a Church or Institution. That requires forgetting the great contributions of the hundreds and thousands of Saints who have preceded them in those places. Trinity Cathedral is the mother Church of the Diocese of Pittsburgh and has served Western Pennsylvania for 25 decades. I had the privilege of being responsible for Trinity for two of those decades. Bp. Duncan was responsible for one. Does that mean I am twice as worthy to “own” the Cathedral? That is absolute nonsense.

Someone wrote that since the Episcopal Church has a polity of participatory democracy that the majority of current members has the right to property. ... I love our polity. While I am quick to point out its flaws, I have found it to be more helpful for me in ministry and mission for Jesus than other polities. But simply stated, we in Pittsburgh watched as the checks and balances of our polity were dismantled over the last eight years or so. At the end, we were not even permitted to have a roll call vote at Convention. I did not speak at our Convention to the issues of controversy during my six years as President of the House of Deputies, since I would have to preside over them. In November of 2006, in the two minutes I was allotted (and then only if you were near enough to the front of the line to be called on before debate was ended) I decried the fact that as someone who had served the mother parish of the Diocese for more than twenty years; as someone who had an unusual, if not unique, view of the entire Episcopal Church, that I was allowed only 120 seconds to speak to the most difficult and complex question the Diocese of Pittsburgh had faced since its founding following the war between the states.

I do not question the sincerity or commitment to Jesus of those with whom I may disagree. Like the late Bp. Herb Thomson said to the wardens and rector of a parish which chose to leave the Episcopal Church, “How may we help you board another ship in the fleet of Christ?” For fifty years, I have never once considered claiming ownership of property and resources entrusted to me and my colleagues. I was surprised, even shocked, when a Pittsburgh priest started talking about this twenty or more years ago. I think, like Bp. Thompson, we may work to find ways to make this painful period gracious and to give the Body of Christ in our areas the best opportunities to do ministry in Christ’s name. I still believe my vows are sacred. I still thank God for the sacred trust given me by the Episcopal Church. How blessed I have been.

George Werner
31st President of the House of Deputies

12 comments:

plsdeacon said...

In most cases where a congregation has attempted to leave TECUSA, the vast majority (75+%) want to leave because of some change in TECUSA's theology or practice (more correctly in the theology or practice of the leaders of TEC). I agree that the money for the buildings was given for ministry on TEC. But (and this is a big but) I wonder if the people who gave that money would recognize what TEC's leaders are doing as Christian? Second, there is the issue of what to do with an empty church building. Does the diocese have the resources to maintain it and does it have a decent chance of building up a new congregation that can maintain it?

I believe that congregations who want to leave TEC with their parish property should be allowed to negotiate for that property - with the terms of the negotiated settlement being based on
1. How long has the property and structures been there? If it is < 10 (or so) years, the payment to the diocese should be minimal (not nothing) because the current generation built that property. The older the property, the larger portion of sale price should be paid by the congregation
2. Allowances should be made for the care of those who wish to stay in TEC and still worship at the parish site. Many congregations have two or more services on Sunday. Let the minority party have the less desirable one and pay a portion of the upkeep. If 20% want to stay, then that 20% get to fund their own priest and pay 20% of the upkeep for the property - the electic bills, insurance, administrative staff, etc.
3. If the diocese believes it can replant a congregation, but that falls through and the diocese needs to sell the property, the departing congregation should be give rights of first refusal and should, by no means, be barred from purchasing the property.
4. Diocesan Bishops and the Diocesan Standing Committees should have full authority to negotiate with congregations in this matter.

This is not about ecclesiology per se, but it is about understanding the practicalities of the situation. If we insist on litigating every property dispute, we will accomplish nothing but transferring the wealth of TEC to trial lawyers on both sides.

YBIC,
Phil Snyder

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for your comments, Phil. These are important issues and you do a good job of pinpointing some things that need to be thought through.

I think that your very first point is not relevant to the canonical issues - or the sacred trust issues - raised by Werner. I don't think it's particularly helpful to base taking these kinds of actions on speculations about what people who lived in the past and who gave the money for our buildings might or might not think about what we're doing and saying today. It's probably reasonable to assume that some of them would disapprove of many things that we say and do - perhaps even things that many conservative Episcopalians are saying and doing. But speculation and possible scenarios are not a sufficient basis for doing something as serious as setting aside the norms of canon law and violating the sacred trust of our ordination vows.

I think there's greater merit in the stewardship questions you raise (can the diocese maintain a deserted building, can it build up a new congregation, etc.). And your point and suggestions about negotiating for property might very well be preferable to the meltdown scenario of endless litigation. If we are serious about reconciliation and charity, then we should at least consider such options when and if appropriate.

Part of what I find dismaying about the kinds of actions Werner decries is that they serve as negative mirror images for precisely the kinds of anomic actions that conservatives decry among progressives. Invoking principles that purportedly transcend vows, canons, and rubrics (things like "justice" or "orthodoxy," etc.), both sides have offered numerous examples of what it looks like to set aside sacred vows and sacred trust for the sake of more narrowly defined and (in some cases) ideologically driven agendas.

Perhaps the lack of moral high ground for either side constitutes more evidence of the equality we all share by virtue of original sin.

plsdeacon said...

Bryan,

I think it was chesterton who said that Tradition was democratic franchise extended to the dead.

I, too, have a problem with those Anglicans who have tried to create their own solutions to the problems extant in the Episcopal Church. I beleive that individualism is the American Heresy. I write about that here: http://deaconslant.blogspot.com/2008/06/american-heresy.html and here for part 2:http://deaconslant.blogspot.com/2008/06/american-heresy-continued.html.

The Sacred Trust does not extend just to property, but to the Faith as well. We are to be loyal to the "...doctrine, discipline, and worship of Christ as this Church has received them." (emphaisis mine). We are not to be loyal to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of Christ as this Church may construe them or may make them up to be. the question, then, is who gets to determine what we have received? I would submit that the innovations in moral living that are being pushed on the Church are not part of the received teaching of the Church and should be resisted.

YBIC,
Phil Snyder

Bryan Owen said...

I agree with you, Phil, that the sacred trust invested in clergy extends to the faith of the Church as well as to the resources of the Church. This is one of the reasons why I've written previously against clergy who seek to jettison the creeds from their place in our doctrine and liturgy.

And I take to heart the seriousness of your question, "who gets to determine what we have received?" That's a fine way of putting what, in my view, lies at the heart of many of our conflicts and divisions, and that is the question of authority.

plsdeacon said...

Bryan,

I agree that the issue is one of authority. The problem is that too many bishops, priests, deacons, and layity do not recognize any authority outside of themselves or their committees. They obviously believe that they are the final authority. This means that, for them, the Christian Faith is what they say it is. I find this very troublesome and it opens the way to heresy and apostacy (if it is not, itself, apostacy and heresy). From what I gather, there are those who thing GC has the authority to redefine the Trinity or the Human and Divine natures of Jesus or the meaning of "resurrection" such that is was not a physical act at a point in history, but an emotional / psychological / spiritual reality for the apostles.

If there is no authority external to human beings, then Voldemort was right and there is no good or evil, but only power.

YBIC,
Phil Snyder

Bryan Owen said...

Phil, I agree with you that there is, indeed, a problem on the authority front insofar as there is a tendency for the locus of authority to center in the subjective preferences of like-minded individuals. Indeed, this centering of authority subjective, like-minded preferences is typically what I mean when I use the terms "Left" and "Right," "conservative" and "progressive." In my view, both sides have accommodated themselves far more to the shopping mall mentality of consumer culture than they have to either "justice" or "orthodoxy." And that's why I am neither a "conservative" nor a "progressive" in the strict meaning of either of those labels.

Having said that, I'm not clear as to how pervasive a problem reducing everything to such narrowly defined, subjective and partisan preferences is when it comes to issues in dogmatic and moral theology. Sure, I read what bloggers on these issues say, and I read what leaders in our Church say. But how representative is all of that really? I honestly don't know.

My sense is that both the Left and the Right all too often embrace the fallacy of converse accident, and all too often when it suits their ideologically-driven purposes. By no means does this make deviations from the historic faith of the Church less troublesome. But it should, IMO, make us less eager to cast stones at the entire Episcopal Church (or at everything that either progressive or conservatives are up to) in the absence of overwhelming empirical evidence to substantiate the charges of wholesale apostasy. Perhaps the picture is more maddeningly complex than any of us can imagine.

I quite agree that General Convention lacks authority to revise core dogmatic theology (in particular, the core tenets of the historic creeds). If GC starts doing that (and the acid test, in my mind, will be Prayer Book revision), then, as an Anglican Centrist and a Creedal Christian, I may face some interesting challenges.

In the meantime, I note that numerous changes in the Church's moral theology have taken place over the last 100 or so years. Some of those changes would make some of the persons who gave the money that built the church I now serve turn over in their graves. (And then there's the even more complex issues of sacramental theology that come with accepting the ordination of women to the priesthood, a point on which I have no doubt that some of the persons who gave the money that built the church I currently serve are continually turning over in their graves.)

This raises an important question: is the Church's moral theology on the same par as the Church's dogmatic theology articulated by the historic creeds?

plsdeacon said...

I think that as Anglicans, we need to follow the Anglican formularies concerning moral teaching. These are generally found in the Book of Common Prayer and in the 39 Articles (which have something to say about scripture containing moral laws). Also, if we do determine that some moral teaching is essential and some is adiaphora then who gets to decide? I submit that an question such as this should not be decided by one province let alone the politically active members of a province (and who gets elected as delegates and bishops but those who are politically active?) I submit that when the Anglican Communion, as a whole, says "please don't do this" that we should not do it.

Now if you want to talk about changing the moral teaching of the Church (and I acknowledge that the moral teaching has changed) then we can talk about. But acting on the new teaching before its reception is not prophetic action. That action is schismatic action.

YBIC,
Phil Snyder

Tobias Haller said...

Phil presents many interesting theories here, as well as allegations, but I think his case fails on a number of points.

1) There is a substantive difference between matters of faith (dogmatic theology) and questions of morals (pastoral or moral theology). Even dogmatic theology changes, of course, though at a much slower pace. But there can be no doubt, as Bryan notes, that moral theology is in a constant state of flux.

2) As to who is to govern the flow of that flux, Phil suggests it is not sufficient for a province to take such actions. I would agree with him on a matter of dogmatic faith (such as the effort in 2006 to force upon the General Convention a resolution that would have limited the doctrine of the Atonement only to the Substitutionary Theory) but in fact, when it comes to "morals" such matters have always been decided on a provincial basis. For example, divorce and polygamy are dealt with on a provincial level, and what is acceptable in one province will not be permitted in another.

3) When it comes to dogmatic questions, Phil admits that the alleged "changes" in TEC mostly consist in comments or opinions expressed by certain leaders. So, officially, the teaching has not changed. It is not up to the PB, or Jack Iker, or Robert Duncan, or Jack Spong, to determine the doctrine of the church on their own, and their individual comments stand or fall on their own merit. You will find off the wall comments from Roman, Methodist, and even Baptist clergy if you look around -- yet the doctrinal formularies state the content of the Faith.

So it seems to me that the case for schism is a very weak case indeed. If people want to leave TEC, as individuals, there is nothing stopping them. But to attempt to split the church over developments in moral theology, or the dodgy comments of a few leaders on dogmatic theology, is a violation of sacred vows. Two wrongs simply do not make a right.

plsdeacon said...

Tobias,

I was not making the case for schism. I was trying to point a better way of dealing with the schism that is occurring today - and occurring because of the change in theology (both dogmatic and moral) in the leaders of TEC. Instead of bringing lawsuits, we should be negotiating and trying to find a Christian way forward.

The problem here is not just that our moral theology changes. The problem is that the change proposed (that God now blesses homosexual sex) is not supported by Holy Scripture and is actually condemned in Holy Scripture. That is what the conservatives are upset about. That and the whole communion (through its "instruments of communion:" Lambeth, the ACC, the ABC, and the Primates) begged us to to continue with our "innovation" and warned us that to do so would "tear the fabric" (=schism) of the communion.

Combine this with the fact that too many bishops make too many heretical/apostate statements and are not disciplined by the HOB, and you can begin to understand the despair that many conservatives feel about TEC.

Now despair is a sin that denys the power of God to change things. I believe that the Church has been in much worse places than it is now and God always has brought reformation and renewal. Ask Anthony, Athanasius, Gregory, Basil, Hilary, Dominic, Francis, Luther, Calvin, Cramner, Latimer, Ridley, Wesley, Pusey, and a host of other reformers in the Church.

Having said that, we are where we are. We are facing schism and anger and hatred on all sides. What is the best way forward? I submit that winning empty buildings and transferring the wealth of TEC to trial lawyers is not it.

YBIC,
Phil Snyder

Tobias Haller said...

Dear Phil,
I understand where you stand on the underlying issue concerning sexuality; and of course I think you understand that I disagree with your assessment of the Holy Scriptures on this point -- that is, that the Scriptures only condemn same-sexual activity within a very narrow range (idolatry, prostitution, rape) and nowhere address life-long, mutually committed monogamous relationships between persons of the same sex. I believe that is what the Scripture actually says; you obviously disagree.

But this is not the forum for that debate.

Rather I understand your point about the lawsuits, and am sympathetic to some extent. However, the issue that George Werner was addressing is that the law of church and state is not silent on this subject. If dissident parishes want to work out an arrangement with their dioceses, they must approach this not as a matter of "rights" but in the position of suppliants. In a number of cases such requests have in fact been granted. But a priest has no right to violate his vows -- though he may choose to do so if he feels that the church has departed from the deposit of the faith; some might say he has a higher cause to do so. But in doing so the moral thing to do is to walk away -- as Archbishop Akinola urged. The lawsuits would stop if the dissidents followed this urging by someone who is in some cases the actual bishop with authority over these congregations. (Why hasn't CANA walked away from the buildings, in spite of Akinola's urging? A question that begs and answer, I think.)

It takes two to tango. Given that the law of church and state (in most cases) is on the side of the diocese and national church, it would be much wiser and save everyone a great deal of wasted time and energy if the clergy and lay leaders would walk away from the property, to which, under those laws, they have no right. As they will likely lose the property if they fight, they are the ones who are padding the pockets of lawyers.

If the dissidents showed this kind of attitude, I think reasonable settlements would be far more likely.

plsdeacon said...

Tobias,

I think that, as Americans, we depend too much on our "rights" - conservative and liberal and in between. In the Kingdom of Heaven, we have no "rights."

Many congregations were in the process of negotiating for their properties when the diocese suddenly shut them down - insisting on its "rights." For example, the Virginia congregations (where +KJS did state that she didn't want any "Episcopal" churches to be sold to "Anglican" congregations) were negotiating with +Lee and following a proscribed protocol when things changed without them being told why. Matt Kennedy's congregation in New York was negotiating with +Skip Adams to purchase the property and was surprised by the sudden involvement of lawyers and being told "NO!"

I believe that lawsuits in these cases are tragic and fatal (or nearly so) to any form of reconciliation. Agreeing to some form of binding arbitration would be better and less expensive to all sides.

As I said, I do not think that leaving TEC is the best course of action. Neither do I think that leaving bishops and priests and deacons in place when they unilaterally (or even in small groups) change the faith and practice of the Church is the right course of action. But we are where we are and congregations and dioceses are leaving. We need to recover (on all sides) a more Christlike way forward.

YBIC,
Phil Snyder

Bryan Owen said...

Thank you, Phil and Tobias, for a lively discussion of some critical issues facing TEC. While I do not always agree with either of you, I deeply value and learn much from your perspectives.