Friday, November 03, 2006

Waging Reconciliation

This afternoon, Dr. Christopher Wilkins (Facilitator of Via Media USA) led the workshop, "Waging Reconciliation," at the national gathering of The Episcopal Majority. Here are his opening remarks from that session.

Waging Reconciliation
A Workshop on Improving the Health of The Episcopal Church
at the Parochial, Diocesan, and Provincial (National) Levels
Christopher Wilkins, Ph.D.

“Waging Reconciliation.” This very title, for whose selection I was not responsible but for whose delivery it appears I shall be held accountable, captures the problem at the heart of how the Episcopal Church (TEC) – that is, you, me, all of us, and those Episcopalians who are not in this room – acts in response to what has become an endemic conflict at the heart of its mission and ministry in the many countries in which it works.

Working on all six inhabited continents, and occasionally ministering (I am told) even to the scientists in Antarctica, the Episcopal Church truly is an international institution, most of whose members live and work in the United States. Their – that is, our – concerns are global, and acted-out locally. Many Episcopalians have the ability to be in a wide range of localities, ministering from Newark to South Africa, from San Diego to Uganda, from Europe to Venezuela, Hawai’i, and beyond. And, yes, we work in Columbus and Minneapolis, on Long Island and Puget Sound – and even in South Carolina, Springfield, Pittsburgh, and the valley of the Rio Grande. Even there.

But we are not alone in doing the work of Christ in any of these places, even if at times the company we must keep is unpleasant or has become displeased. In a country renowned for religious tolerance – indeed, for tolerating almost any religion but the considered absence of a religion – we do our work amidst a wide range of religious traditions and amidst an almost equally varied set of Christian denominations and post-denominational expressions.

For myself, I don’t know which is the more challenging to Christians – the presence of other religions, or the presence of other ways of being a part of their – that is, our – religion. At some point, when I think on these lines, I remember that this is the wrong question. The right question, for me and perhaps for you, is “what does my God [capital “G”] want me, and those in my community, to do?” That is, “to what ministries are we called at the present time?”

In the midst of religious plurality lie the seeds of conflict, much as the seeds of each desert plant lie beneath the hard-baked and sand-blown soil, and much as the seeds of each desert flood lie not only in the clouds that bring rain, but in the soil that cannot absorb such rain as quickly as it can fall. The ability we have to enter into conflict about religion and within our own religion is never far away, and not easily wished away, despite our faithful – and, I would say, necessary – desire as Christians that such conflicts disappear from among us. No, that’s not quite right. Our commitment as Christians is to eschew conflicts other than those to which God has called us, and not we ourselves, either by design or inaction, or – as we must say as post-lapsarians, i.e., as the kinds of beings that we, once guiltless creatures of the womb and before that even more innocent apes, have evolved into) – through our natural tendencies.

But we are here to talk about “Waging Reconciliation,” even though in English “to wage” means “to fight” or “to struggle” or “to conduct conflictingly” – that is, if it does not mean “to earn by labor.” Are we meant – or do we mean – to wage reconciliation as though we were marching, soldiers all, to war? A war not of our choosing? Or do we speak with some irony, meaning to wade (yes, I said “wade”) into situations of conflict but not to engage them conflictingly? It may be that our task is to act to reconcile, but to do so mindful that many sources of conflict that affect us are outside of our control, and will see any attempts we make to bring peace as further acts of depraved rebellion and, though we shudder to realize that they think this way, as a kind of warfare itself.

Where we seek a peace that strikes those most opposed to us as craven capitulation to the forces of doubt, ambiguity, and compromise, it appears difficult to seek it (peace, that is) without in some sense provoking or exacerbating conflict. That American Christianity – and our little high-toned corner of it, to boot – should find itself once again riven over who is a true believer and what should be done with those who are not is itself tragic, if not crazy-making. Our role as Episcopalians appears to be to have to bear, once again, prophetic witness against it. If this is so, and I cannot see how it could be not so, our task becomes to manage, not avoid, conflict, and at the very least never to make our beds in a dry riverbed or floodplain, lest we manage the conflict so badly that it comes upon us as a desert flood, which – again, I am told – is the easiest way to die in such terrain.

So, with your indulgence, I should like to modify the workshop’s title slightly, to: “Waging Reconciliation?” [question mark]. As this title comes to us as a question, we can discern how better to ask it, and what kinds of answers we need.

As facilitator of Via Media USA, I represent an alliance founded in 2004 to help keep the Episcopal Church as the American expression – and we mean the way of being “American” that obtains from Nome to Lima – of Anglican tradition. Gathering with The Episcopal Majority, we share many of the same goals. What we need to do now is to develop strategies for action that can be turned into priorities for The Episcopal Majority, and, if you like, for VMUSA and anyone else who wishes to join in. Notes are being taken, and there will be a quiz later.

First, we should discern what works. What works? We have found that reconciliation, like spiritual and congregational growth, begins at home. The stronger a spiritual community we form as the identified continuing Episcopalians in our dioceses dominated by the Anglican Communion Network (ACN), the sooner we break emotionally with those who have chosen to reject us and all too often to act abusively towards us and TEC, and the sooner we move into a place of action and not re-action, the easier it is not only to seek help from the Episcopal Church and do God’s work through it, but also to realize that we are, in our own small ways, already the continuing Episcopal Church in our dioceses. Eventually, attorneys are going to have to do what attorneys do – those now listening to David Booth Beers can fill us all in later on those points – and need good information in order to act appropriately. We should provide it, or at least see that it is provided. While that part of the task goes on, the other one – that of being and building up the church – is still ours, and if we don’t do it, who will?

So, first, find a place to heal, and heal, both ourselves and others. This requires some of the things we in VMUSA and others have been doing, including parochial and diocesan forums on this whole matter, touching specifically on human sexuality, biblical and ecclesial authority, church structure, theologies of human experience (which includes just about every kind of theology), and Christian mission. It includes parish-to-parish contacts on shared ministries, replacement diocesan newsletters and websites for continuing Episcopalians, action at diocesan conventions regarding resolutions and budget priorities, and the like. Identified needs not yet met include the care and feeding of continuing Episcopal clergy – this is key, and in no place is it as it needs to be – church-wide efforts at increasing theological and biblical competence as well as the number of well-informed parishioners, increasing the mission-based ties among parishes, particularly those in ACN-dominated dioceses, and financial support for the staff and programming needed to make these things effective. A network – small “n” – of support for those things parishes and clergy cannot do for themselves is what we need – we need functional dioceses, integrated with their provincial and national bodies as and where appropriate.

Second, recognize what the situation actually is. As I see it, 8-9% of the Episcopal Church wishes to be in some other church. This group is concentrated in certain dioceses and key parishes around the church – and, even in their majority dioceses, they are not everywhere and all-dominant. Not everything they do is destructive, but most of it is inseparable from the ACN’s ideology and praxes as it struggles for dominance over the lives of Episcopalians and other Anglicans. Key to ACN work is isolating those under their purview from anyone not considered “orthodox” (small “o”) and denigrating paths of faith and Christian life distinct from their own. Many of the ACN clergy have been promised that if they follow their leaders, goodies like bishops’ mitres and pews and coffers overflowing will follow. So they follow, and we watch, disappointed and in frustration.

A somewhat larger percentage of this church is uncertain about the church’s presentation of the Gospel and faith relating to gay/lesbian persons and human sexuality, but has no intention of leaving TEC or supporting those who do. Those in this group are at varying stages of comprehension and engagement with the ACN-driven dynamics at each level of the church. Most Episcopalians would like to see an end to conflict – this one and the many others plaguing our world. This is one reason why those who can name their price have an advantage over those of us who seem to have endless energy to spend not naming one of our own, in a fervent, but not successful, desire to will conflict out of existence simply through the sincerity of faith and the faithfulness to ministry.

The Episcopal Church has done a good, but not perfect, job over the past few years of clarifying its mission and moving further into the ministries to which it is called. As it has done so, that segment of the church most in disagreement has continued to move further and further away from the rest of us. The church must find some way to solve the problems that this raises. This solution, I believe, should be one around which continuing Episcopalians can unite amidst the things that distinguish them from each other, and through which they can make clear to the world their Christian vision.

How may we best serve God in the midst of a struggle over whether we will continue as a united, or a divided, Episcopal Church? If we cannot prevent further division of this church, we must find ways for those of us who continue as Episcopalians to do our work in this world and this church as God would have us do. As it is, we appear to be stumbling forward without a plan. This does not bode well for us.

Which brings us to our third task: decide what to do. This is not as easy as it looks.

Why? TEC cannot force those who wish the church were radically different from what it now is to remain a part of it. This group has coalesced into the Anglican Communion Network (ACN), and its most radical dioceses are planning to withdraw formally from the Episcopal Church, whether or not the church’s law actually allows this. Because of the choices the ACN has made, and the international morass into which it has thrown Anglicanism by the pitch and fervor of its dissent, it has become a stumbling block to the entire Episcopal Church as well as to the Anglican Communion. In my opinion, TEC also cannot continue to allow this group continued free rein to do as it wishes, or to continue to set the conditions under which it will remain with the church.

As presently constituted, the ACN constitutes a church-within-a-church, unwilling to participate fully in TEC, and ready to break with TEC when conditions are most opportune for it. Its presence and actions drain the spiritual, emotional and financial resources of the church, which appears to be part of the ACN's strategy going forward.

So we ask: should TEC now do what it can to enable a timely, clear and lasting decision on this matter, and find in doing so a further source of its own unity and definition?

How to imagine the goal is important, and leads to many difficult questions. Should the goal be to make things easy for dissidents, or be as supportive as possible of continuing Episcopalians? Should it aim at minimizing the numbers of those who leave, or minimizing the time it takes them to do so? Is there a comprehensive “middle way” in all of this that would allow the church to protect its unity and integrity while placing due burdens on those who diminish it in God’s name?

The various ways forward can be reduced to five. Each of the five choices has its pros and cons. Any of them could help shape the church for the future. However, some of them are not compatible with the others, which means that choices – difficult choices – must be made.

The five options presented below range from maximal care for dissidents who reject much of what TEC is doing to maximal protection of the unity and integrity of TEC against the threat these dissidents pose. Some of the choices have, in one or more places, been chosen or been set forth as ideals. One – the fifth – has not, at least not yet. The choices are:

  1. Just Give In (The “Province X” Solution): Allow ACN dioceses and parishes to continue to form a separate province in TEC, or a competing new province of the Anglican Communion in North America. This is what the ACN-member dioceses' statements seeking ALPO, an Anglican Commissar (no, really), nullification rights over General Convention, and/or inclusion in a new “Province X” based on their definition of various matters of church theology and discipline desire. It involves re-organizing the church along lines of theological, and not geographical, distinction.

  2. “Just Let Us Go": Do what the Diocese of Dallas did with respect to Christ Church, Plano (Texas), and what was proposed by the Task Force in the Diocese of the Rio Grande: allow parishes that do not want to remain Episcopal to leave with their assets with limited liability or debt to TEC under whatever arrangements seem best to them. This model would allow ACN clergy and parishes to remain involved with TEC if they believed that doing so was part of their mission.

  3. “Pay for Your Ticket When You Leave": Arrange for dissenting parishes to purchase their property from TEC as fair-market value. The Diocese of Kansas permitted this solution with respect to a parish in Overland Park (Kansas), and it is being done elsewhere. This model would allow parishes that do not want to remain Episcopal to leave with their assets only if they pay for them at full market value or the equivalent. If it were clearly stated that any such decision had to be made by a date certain, it would be unreasonable for affiliation with schismatic organizations past that date to be tolerated.

  4. "Give Them Just Enough Rope ...": Do what many dioceses and parishes, including Missouri, Los Angeles, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Florida, and Calvary Episcopal Church (Pittsburgh), have done: act through courts and canons to protect the church when it becomes necessary. This strategy includes tolerating ACN clergy until they clearly reject the authority of the church, accepting that they have abandoned their cures and the communion of the church, and reclaiming their parishes for TEC as the canons allow. It also includes suing breakaway parishes to retain them for TEC and that portion of the parish faithful to TEC. The church’s canons often require, at least from bishops with jurisdiction, such actions as have been taken that are consonant with this model.

  5. Pro-actively Prevent Schism: Protect and defend the church by neutralizing the dangers posed to TEC by the ACN and its sources of support. Hold accountable the leaders who have rejected the authority of General Convention and/or have created a parallel church. This would involve going a step beyond #4, and deciding that the ACN represents under law what it is in fact: a separate church designed to strip TEC of legitimacy as well as resources for ministry. This would also require actions to restore governance in dioceses where a majority of the leaders reject the governance structures of TEC. This model would extend the strategy under model #4 to cover actions of diocesan leaders, not just parish leaders, to protect the church before its detractors do it more harm, and to re-integrate ACN parishes and clergy, as far as possible, into the mainstream of TEC.
Knowing which of these to choose as a strategy requires deciding where the church’s work should concentrate. Should it focus on those who are most disaffected by certain of its current trends and decisions? Or should it focus on those who are fully committed to the church’s unity and integrity, whether or not they are in favor of particular trends and decisions? To ask these questions is to seek to discover what forms of greater unity we should work towards, and which ones are possible.

I believe that the church’s responsibility is the greater toward continuing Episcopalians and those who will seek to join the church in the future than to those who have put themselves into dissent. Our responsibility is greatest, however, for those who most heartily wish for this controversy to end in a way that remembers that this is Christ’s church, not ours.


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