Conservative group issues 'call to action' against General Convention

October 13, 2003

After two days of hearing speakers denounce actions of the 74th General Convention, call for intervention by other Anglican primates in the American church, and advise redirection of funds by individuals and parishes, the majority in a gathering of some 2600 Episcopalians and others signed on to "A Place to Stand: A Call to Action" at a special meeting in Dallas, sponsored by the American Anglican Council (AAC) and Christ Episcopal Church of Plano and held October 7-9. Signed copies will be presented to a special meeting of the primates next week in London.

The document repudiates both General Convention's acceptance of the election of a gay priest in a longstanding partnership to be bishop coadjutor of New Hampshire, and passage of a resolution recognizing same-sex blessings as part of the church's common life.

It demands that the leadership of the Episcopal Church "repent of and reverse the unbiblical and schismatic actions of the General Convention" and promises to redirect financial resources "away from those structures that support the unrighteous actions" of General Convention.

It also appeals to the primates to discipline bishops who supported the two resolutions, and to "realign" or effectively replace the current structures and governance of the Episcopal Church with a new body reflecting conservatives' values.

At the meeting's final session, the declaration was read aloud in the manner of the Prayer Book's baptismal covenant, as participants were asked, "Do you so affirm?" and responded, "I do."

Tight security

The AAC's "A Place to Stand" meeting, in the works months before General Convention, grew from a modest gathering of like-minded leaders at a prominent parish in the Dallas suburb of Plano to a conference hosting several thousand at the luxury Wyndham Anatole hotel and conference center in downtown Dallas, fueled by conservative outrage over the church's refusal to repudiate all homosexual conduct. Most see that refusal as a rejection of clear Biblical teaching, though their opponents say it's a matter of differing interpretations of the Bible's few passages dealing with the subject.

Security was tight for the conference. No one was allowed inside the meeting without a conference badge. In order to get one, non-media participants paid a fee of $125 and were required to sign the AAC statement of faith, also entitled "A Place to Stand," drafted by John Rodgers, former dean of Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry and now a bishop of the dissident Anglican Mission in America. That meant that many interested observers were turned away, including a delegation of two bishops and two priests asked to attend by Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold and House of Deputies president George Werner.

Executive Council member Dr. Louie Crew, denied media credentials by conference organizers, came anyway as part of an alternative "hospitality suite" run by dioceses and groups that favored the actions of General Convention. Crew said he was confronted in the hotel by an AAC "security officer," a reserve policeman in a Dallas suburb, and ordered not to engage conference attendees in conversation. The officer said his orders came from "officials of the AAC." The incident is reportedly under administrative review by the officer's supervisors.

"This is not an official meeting," declared the Rev. David Roseberry, rector of Christ Church, who resigned as a deputy and walked out of General Convention after the Robinson vote in August. "We've had those who have tried to make it an official meeting by sending representatives or observers and we have said, no thanks. You are not delegates, you are not deputies--you are bearers, bearers because you bear the burden of this hour."

"We've been clear with those who cannot sign the statement for whatever reason that they are welcome to join us for dinner, for tonight's service, but our proceedings are ours," Roseberry added. "We must be free to have a family meeting without having to defend or explain our beliefs to the person sitting next to us."

The AAC's president and executive director, the Rev. David Anderson, later said that while non-signing observers were welcome from other Anglican and ecumenical groups, those who identified as Episcopalians were required to assent to the statement.

Reaching for diversity, but not there yet

In his opening address, Anderson strove to portray the gathering as a diverse one. "We are not without our tensions and we want to acknowledge and own those tensions that we live with," he said. "With this difference of opinion about the ordination of women noted, I think it is important that what is new in this day is that our future must respect these differences, provide a safe and ongoing role for each point of view, where those who hold to those points of view are free from harassment and are offered a safe place to dwell."

To a crowd that seemed largely white and middle-aged, he said, "We have not been as effective as we wish we could have been in getting our message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the truth of the Anglican tradition to several different communities and we need your help in doing that." A total of 14 Spanish-speaking attendees stood when asked to identify themselves.

"We welcome people of many orientations," he added. "Our members in the AAC and those of us here do include gay and straight and ex-gay people who are committed to a biblically moral life."

What happened in Minneapolis

Anderson's introduction was followed by a series of speakers presenting their take on the events of the 74th General Convention. Diane Knippers, president of the Institute for Religion and Democracy, began by laying responsibility for the church's direction at the feet of its leadership, composed of the "upper middle class American elites" of the Baby Boom generation whom she said owed their moral worldview to a "depressingly dated" 1960s "free-love mentality." General Convention, she opined, was "a stunning display of the prevalent social values of American campuses forty years ago."

The Rev. Kevin Martin, director of Vital Church Ministries at the Plano parish, said that "the language of mission was replaced by political correctness" at General Convention. An early proponent of the church's "20/20" evangelism and church growth initiative, Martin lamented that top leaders were "unable to make 20/20 the focus of the church" because the sexuality issue dominated the agenda. "Momentum never happened. The funding will not happen. Working together towards mission as one church now cannot happen. ...The future for the Episcopal Church--a vibrant, healthy, and confident-in-the-Gospel Anglicanism has yet to appear in the United States in our generation. What didn't happen at the Episcopal Church could happen, beginning here. And if it is going to happen, it will have to begin here."

Speaking of his experience in the House of Bishops, Bishop Robert Duncan of Pittsburgh, AAC first vice president and chairman of the AAC bishops network, characterized it as "absurdity. "Our leadership were deaf to one another, deaf to the Word, deaf to the tradition, deaf to the Communion. And we were deaf to each other," he said. "In our debates we talked past each other all the time. There was no deep engagement, there was no deep sense of listening; there was the recognition, though it was never spoken, that there was only one vote that mattered."

Prayer Book at fault

In an impassioned address, the Rev. Kendall Harmon, canon theologian of the Diocese of South Carolina, assailed the General Convention's decisions as violations of the "catholic, charismatic, and canonical" center of Anglicanism. Harmon blamed the theology of the 1979 prayer book, in part. "The full theological measure of its ethos has yet to be completely felt, but we are now at a place of enough distance to begin to reflect with each other about its real impact on our common life," he said.

The results are "deeply disconcerting," Harmon concluded. "We have a theology in practice which moves straight from creation to redemption, a nearly universalistic worldview in which the fall and sin have in essence disappeared!" he cried. "It is a gospel of affirmation rather than the gospel of salvation. We have moved from sinners in the hands of an angry God to clients in the palms of a satisfied therapist."

Intervention and redirection

On the second day of the meeting, speakers addressed the two issues most pressing for the gathering: the proposed intervention by the primates, and what to do about redirecting energies for mission and funds for programs [see sidebars]. Bishop Robert Duncan told the gathering he expects the primates to come down hard on ECUSA, demanding repentance and reversal of General Convention decisions on sexuality--but if they don't, he predicted, the Anglican Communion will split in two, with the "Western" provinces of North America, Britain and Australia in one, and the "global South" African, Latin American and Asian Anglicans in the other. The latter would eventually recognize the AAC's network of "confessing" American churches as their own.

A panel of four attorneys advised the group on legal and property issues for clergy and parishes, but the essence of their message seemed to be: it's complex--don't jump the gun--get a lawyer.

A series of "talking points" projected on huge video screens advised parishioners to research the history of parish property, establish separate entities for receipt of contributions, and become familiar with canonical regulations affecting clergy before acting. Last in the series was theadmonition: "pray."

Alternatives presented

After lunch, another panel advised participants on alternative ways to do mission, ministry and stewardship.

"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, to applause. "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."

The Rev. John Guernsey, rector of All Saints in Dale City, Virginia, presented what he called a theologicaljustification for redirecting funds and mission energies away from the national Episcopal church.

"Is there an unconditional demand in Scripture that Episcopalians give to those who have overturned biblical authority and faith and order?" Guernsey asked. "I suggest that there is no such mandate. On the contrary there is a biblical call not to participate in the ministry of those who reject foundational Christian doctrine."

The Rev. Ruth Urban of St. Peter's by the Lake in Brandon, Mississippi, directed the group to five areas of need to which their offerings might be redirected, including the AAC, a list of AAC-affiliated ministries, various overseas needs, church planting in "revisionist" dioceses, and evangelism.

Supporters abroad

In the final session, conference participants heard letters of greeting from various groups and churches, including the Vatican's Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, writing on behalf of Pope John Paul II and assuring them of "heartfelt prayers" for the meeting. Another letter from the Rev. John Stott, sometimes called "the evangelical Pope," called the decisions of General Convention "so provocative, and so obviously in defiance both of Scripture and of the longstanding tradition of the church, that some action by orthodox Episcopalians has been forced upon you." The National Association of Evangelicals and the Fourth National Evangelical Anglican Congress also weighed in with supportive letters.

Then retiring Florida bishop Stephen Jecko took the podium to announce that he would reschedule his successor's consecration--chosen by Jecko himself for the day before the consecration of Robinson in New Hampshire--to avoid a "media circus." Reading from a text still on his laptop computer, Jecko excoriated Griswold for insisting on presiding at the Florida consecration, despite the withdrawal of an invitation to hold it in the local Roman Catholic cathedral because of remarks Griswold made to the Associated Press. Jecko also accused Griswold of abusing his office.

After the conference's "Call to Action" was affirmed, the assembly was addressed by Nigerian bishop Benjamin Kwashi of Jos, who put on an oversized white cowboy hat, to the amusement of the audience. Then Kwashi turned serious, challenging the crowd to be willing to come and study in Africa and send ordinands to spend a year with an African bishop if they were sincere about strengthening ties with global South Anglicans.

According to organizers, the conference drew a total of 2,672 participants, including 46 bishops--24 from the Episcopal Church--799 priests, 46 deacons, and 103 seminarians. People from 600 parishes in every state and diocese attended. Some 200 congregations out of the 7,347 in the Episcopal Church actually belong to the AAC, with another 300 "supporters."