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