Fall special conventions, meetings ponder church's direction

September 25, 2003

In July and August, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church spoke in Minneapolis. In September and October, it seems, part of the Episcopal Church is talking back.

While most Episcopal dioceses hold regular pre- and post-General Convention briefings for their clergy and laity, the bishops of five dioceses have called for special diocesan conventions this fall to consider resolutions disassociating from some actions of General Convention. The actions at issue are the ratification of the election of the Rev. Gene Robinson, a gay man in a committed relationship, as bishop of New Hampshire, and the recognition that the practice of blessing same-gender relationships exists in some dioceses of the church "operating within the bounds of our common life."

Albany and Central Florida held their special conventions September 20; Fort Worth and Pittsburgh will hold theirs September 27; and South Carolina will hold its meeting October 2. The dioceses of Springfield and Quincy will consider disassociation resolutions at their regular diocesan conventions in October.

Distancing, but not leaving

In the Diocese of Central Florida, delegates to the special convention in Winter Park overwhelmingly endorsed four out of five resolutions distancing the diocese from the 74th General Convention of the Episcopal Church. (See http://www.cfdiocese.org/ for complete texts.)

Gathered in the auditorium of the Trinity Preparatory School were 152 clergy and 242 lay delegates, along with over 100 spectators. Bishop John W. Howe said that he had assured the clergy of the diocese that he would not act unilaterally on these matters but would bring the issue before the diocese.

Howe asked the Convention to "decide whether we agree with the majority who voted at General Convention, or whether we uphold the belief and teaching of the majority of the Anglican Communion, and the majority of the Church catholic." By a margin of 4 to 1, the diocese voted throughout the day in support of the stance taken by Howe.

After the meeting, Howe acknowledged that there are strong feelings on both sides of the debate, but added, "This Convention did not say we are in disunity with the Episcopal Church. We are not leaving the Episcopal Church."

An amended resolution declared that the diocese desires "to remain at unity and in continued participation with the See of Canterbury and the Anglican Communion." The original resolution, presented by a coalition of 55 clergy, included the Episcopal Church along with Canterbury and the Anglican Communion.

"I want to reiterate my firm conviction that a decision not to say something is not the same as saying its opposite," Howe said. "We have not voted in any way to sever our relationship with the Episcopal Church, USA. Nor, I hope, will we ever do so."

Endorsement of schism?

Those assurances apparently were not enough for Howe's canon to the ordinary, the Rev. Ernest Bennett, who announced his resignation on the Tuesday after the special convention. "Please know that my resignation is not a protest action," Bennett wrote in an email to diocesan clergy. "I have, however, come to the realization in the aftermath of our Special Meeting of the Convention that I can no longer serve in the best interest of the majority of our clergy. Even more to the point, I do not feel I can serve our Bishop as I would want and as he deserves. I have the utmost respect for Bishop Howe, even in my deepest pain over where we are and where it seems to me we are heading as a diocese."

Other clergy in the diocese objected to the process and the outcome, saying conservative clergy set the agenda and tone of the meeting. The Rev. Paul McQueen of the Canterbury Retreat and Conference Center in Oviedo expressed disappointment with the convention, noting that there was "not one vote in support of unity within the Episcopal Church." Along with the Rev. Margaret Ingalls of Holy Trinity, Fruitland Park, McQueen saw the convention's actions as an endorsement of schism.

Depending on the results of an American Anglican Council gathering in Dallas and the meeting of the primates at Lambeth, both to be held in October, Ingalls' parish vestry will consider a resolution at its October 21 meeting authorizing her to request alternative episcopal oversight from the Presiding Bishop "as expediently as is possible" and putting the bulk of the parish's $5500 pledge to the diocese in escrow, while sending 21% to the national Episcopal Church.

Asking primates' opinion

Some 650 people gathered at the Camp of the Woods in Speculator, New York, for the Diocese of Albany's special convention.

The resolutions presented in Albany were slightly different from those of Central Florida. In addition to disassociating from the General Convention's actions, the resolutions affirmed sexual intimacy only within the framework of marriage as "the life-long union of one man and one woman," and rather than requesting "episcopal oversight," asked for the 38 Anglican primates' opinions as to whether the Episcopal Church "exceeded the limits of Anglican diversity" in the disputed decisions.

Unlike the Florida proposals, the Albany resolutions did not include a call to withhold funds from the national church's mission and programs, but directed the Albany General Convention deputation to attend the American Anglican Council's special meeting in Dallas October 7-9 "for the purpose of fact-finding."

Nevertheless, a group of more than 50 clergy and laity calling itself "Albany Via Media" released a commentary on the resolutions before the meeting that questioned the motives for the special convention. "This special convention appears to be no accident or impulse, but part of a well-planned, nationally orchestrated effort to create a power-block of ultra-conservative fundamentalist dioceses who give away their decision-making power to their leadership who then could make them part of a new AAC realignment," the commentary stated.

Alternative structure?

This weekend in the dioceses of Fort Worth and Pittsburgh, delegates to special conventions will entertain resolutions even more strongly worded than those passed in Albany and Central Florida.

The Fort Worth meeting, to be held at the Church of St. Peter & St. Paul in Arlington, considers five resolutions. The first two nullify actions of General Convention, while the fourth asks the primates for episcopal oversight. The final resolution commits the diocese to funding mission work in areas "adversely affected by reduced national church resources."

But the third resolution-virtually identical to Pittsburgh's-apparently asks the primates to supplant the Episcopal Church and put another structure in its place.

"We seek recognition by the international Primates Meeting as the legitimate expression of the Episcopal Church in the United States of America, and, together with those other dioceses, bishops, clergy and congregations who continue to uphold and propagate the historic Faith and Order, seek acknowledgment as the bona fide expression both of the Episcopal Church and of the Anglican Communion in the United States of America," the resolution reads.

Resolutions for the Pittsburgh gathering, set for St. Martin's Church in Monroeville, Pennsylvania, closely follow the Fort Worth resolutions, but the one related to mission funding "directs that no assessment funds received from parishes for work beyond the diocese any longer be sent" to the Episcopal Church. The Pittsburgh resolutions allow for "interim disassociation" by dissenting congregations in the diocese, but only "until the Primates have rendered judgment" on the status of the Episcopal Church.

The final resolution declares that all property in the diocese-which under current national canons is held in trust by the diocese for the entire Episcopal Church-instead belongs to individual congregations or the diocese itself. "No adverse claim to such beneficial interest by The Episcopal Church in the United States of America or any other body is acknowledged, but rather is expressly denied," the resolution states.

Delegates to an October 2 meeting in South Carolina will consider three resolutions which call for much the same actions, but include one resolution which expresses "profound disappointment" with the leadership of the presiding bishop.

Springfield and Quincy will consider resolutions at their regular diocesan convention meetings, but at least one Quincy parish, Christ Church in Limestone Township, has already told a local newspaper that it plans to stay in the Episcopal Church regardless of what is voted upon at the diocesan meeting.

A family matter

Bishops and deputies from other dioceses around the country have already heard from clergy and laity at regular post-convention public meetings during September.

  • In Atlanta, Bishop Neil Alexander faced some angry parishioners, but reporters from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that in 53 of the diocese's 93 congregations, there was no evidence of "mass defection or financial crisis." A single parish in Columbus announced it was withholding funds from the diocese in protest, but the next week the parish's associate priest resigned in protest against the action, citing "the conservative and schismatic direction" in which she said the parish was going.
  • In East Tennessee, Bishop Charles vonRosenberg assured concerned parishioners at one gathering that clergy in his diocese "do not have my permission" to conduct same-gender blessings.
  • Kentucky Bishop Edwin F. Gulick praised Robinson as a "tremendously competent person" and told parishioners, "In the short term, things are strained, but we have an ever-widening, inclusive embrace."
  • Northern Virginia Episcopalians meeting at Virginia Theological Seminary expressed anger at the diocesan deputation for voting in favor of Robinson's election. One parish reportedly disinvited Bishop Peter Lee from an upcoming confirmation service in response to the votes. But another praised the deputation's decision as one that "goes a long way toward moving our church out of the darkness of its own heart." Lee told the audience that unhappy congregations should stay in the Episcopal Church because "this is your family."

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